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Teen Tales in Baltimore Jewish Times

By Meredith Jacobs, Special to the Jewish Times

Call it "scared straight," parents' version, but it worked. The police officer scared the hell out of us. This was a few years back. Parents of seventh-graders have a special "family life" program at my synagogue's religious school. Makes sense, considering it is the height of the b'nai mitzvah frenzy. Once a month, parents are students gather together for a program about how life connects to Judaism; we split into separate groups and discuss the issues among our peers. Topics ranged from the Torah to video gaming. This particular Sunday, it was drugs.

The police officer brought in to lecture the parents told us how he spends Saturday nights patrolling the most upscale neighborhoods for parties where heroin is the drug of choice and photos of half-naked, passed out kids are taken and posted on Facebook. "What can we do?" we worried, thinking about our still innocent middle schoolers; we wanted to just return to debating how much television to allow them to watch.

"Get them into a youth group," he advised. "Give them something to do on Saturday nights, so they won't have to go to these parties."

Sage advice. But the parents knew "youth group" would be a tough sell. I had it easy. I had a feeling I could get to at least try it. I could only hope she would love it.

I remember how much USY meant to me as a teen. It was where I connected and felt accepted. It was where I, kind of, felt popular. I was the goody two-shoes, science fair nerd. I was just another Jewish kid. I even go to be president.

My daughter joined BBYO. It is everything and more that I had hoped for. Each week is filled with meetings and programs that the kids create and execute. There are conventions, retreats, leadership training and learning opportunities. There is lifelong friendship and community.

These kids serve on chapter, regional, national and even international boards. They evaluate each other's work and develop new leaders to replace them when they graduate.

In other words, they are ensuring that we'll have affiliated, engaged Jews in the future. These are our future presidents of Jewish sororities and fraternities, of sisterhoods and brotherhoods, of federations and synagogues. For those who do not go the traditional route, these are the young people who will found their own minyamin and chavurot and dynamic new organizations that will keep Judaism not only alive but vibrant.

If i sound like a commercial for BBYO, I am, but please replace BBYO with USY or NFTY or NCSY or any other Jewish teen group that works for your children because, as Estee Portnoy, chair of BBYO said recently, "This is saving the future of Judaism."

It is, because more than giving our children a safer social outlet than the parties of our nightmares, these youth groups are showing our children how Judaism is not just Hebrew School and synagogue service.

Judaism is how we live our lives. Successful youth group programming counters the horrifying post b'nai mitzvah dropout rate. It teaches that Jewish life doesn't end when the last guest leaves your bat mitzvah party.

Meredith Jacobs, the author of "the Modern Jewish Mom's Guide to Shabbat" and co-author with daughter Sofie of "Just Between Us," writes monthly for the Baltimore Jewish Times.

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