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Not your Bubbie's youth group

Read this story in Canadian Jewish News

Jewish youth groups have to offer more than playing table tennis in a shul basement on Shabbat afternoon, says Rabbi Glenn Black, who remembers doing exactly that in his Montreal synagogue as a kid.

Today, Rabbi Black heads NCSY Canada, a Jewish youth group that has so thoroughly re-invented itself, that even its name, which once stood for National Conference of Synagogue Youth, has been changed. Now, the organization, one of the largest Jewish youth groups in the country, goes by just its initials.

“Across Canada, a lot of programs are shul-based. In Toronto, that model’s shifted away from being shul-based. You do not see that many teenagers in shuls today,” says Rabbi Black. “In the old days, kids hung out at the shul playing Ping-Pong. Today, you have to be much more creative.”

For NCSY, and many of the other youth groups in Canada, that has meant making partnerships across denominations and reaching beyond the traditional high school age to younger students and alumni. “It can’t be just sitting and chilling,” says Liza Rozen-Delman, director of Camp Hatikvah and Young Judaea in Vancouver. “You’ve got to make it more exciting, you’ve got to up the ante.”

In Vancouver, she runs three programs a year and pitches them at younger kids. “The moment they have their own car, they’re not wanting to go to Jewish youth groups.”

Youth groups generally operate below the media’s radar, but in December, the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth made headlines when its leaders voted to drop a ban on interdating for its youth executive.

The change affected no more than about 100 young people, but it provoked a much wider debate. Clearly, while youth groups may have more difficulty attracting young people in an age of shrinking religious affiliation and competing interests, they still carry a lot of influence.

Across the country, BBYO (which was formerly called B’nai Brith Youth Organization) and NCSY are the two powerhouses, with representatives in many Jewish communities and attracting kids across religious denominations.

In the Toronto area, NCSY took its quest to make Orthodox Judaism attractive to non-observant kids into 14 public high schools, where it offers cultural clubs. After school, NCSY’s Torah High offers subsidized high school classes on Jewish subjects to about 350 teens. About 90 per cent of NCSY’s membership in Toronto comes from non-Orthodox homes, said Rabbi Black.

Last summer, NCSY staff went to Camp Northland-B’nai Brith, to reinvigorate its Jewish programming. They also met dozens of campers, whom they later invited to the group’s Shabbatons and courses.

Across Canada, the program is growing: a second couple has just been added to work in the Vancouver office, said Rabbi Black. Between 2,200 and 2,500 teens nationally participate in NCSY programs.

Rabbi Black praises his staff, who host Shabbat programs in their homes and engage with young people at summer camps and high schools. “Kids like the warmth, they like the encouragement. They don’t get that everywhere,” he says.

Another key to NCSY’s success is its deep subsidies. Torah High charges students $499 per credit, but it costs the organization $1,800. Its Israel summer trips are also significantly cheaper than those offered by other organizations.

About 90 per cent of NCSY’s funding is generated locally (with 10 per cent coming from the Orthodox Union). “I spend 70 to 80 per cent of my time thinking about affordability,” says Rabbi Black.

BBYO, which is a non-denominational youth group, is also on a growth curve in parts of the country.

In Winnipeg, where BBYO has little competition from other youth groups, membership has grown to 186 members this year, up from 137 the year before, says Gabi Kneller, youth and BBYO co-ordinator. BBYO “is such an ingrained thing. Everyone’s parents were in BBYO, everyone’s grandparents were in BBYO.”

Kneller’s own parents met in BBYO, she says, and she grew up as a leader in the movement herself. The greatest challenge BBYO faces is explaining the intricacies of youth groups to immigrant Jewish parents in the city, she said.

Kneller also reaches out to summer camp and synagogue directors, inviting their youth leaders to come on board and help plan events, such as a recent Shabbaton that attracted 80 teens.

“It brings everyone together. I would think it’s an advantage to be pluralistic,” she says.

Youth groups that focus on a particular niche, either political, such as the Zionist Hashomer Hatzair, or religious, such as the Reform movement’s North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) or USY, face a more challenging landscape.

Both NFTY and USY have taken a similar tack, attracting youths who do not necessarily belong to a congregation and reaching out to capture the attention of younger middle school students before they make decisions about how to spend their time outside of school.

Although denominational affiliation is shrinking, being part of a synagogue framework can have its advantages, the leaders find. “It gives young people a real voice, especially in synagogue. There’s no curriculum telling them otherwise,” says Josh Dubell, regional adviser for NFTY – Northeast Lakes Region, which includes Reform synagogues in Ontario, except Windsor, and some in upstate New York and Cleveland.

In Toronto, a recent event attracted 70 kids, a small turnout given the large Reform synagogues in the city, but the largest numbers seen in about seven or eight years, Dubell said. The Toronto area’s ranks have been bolstered by new Reform synagogues downtown and in the northern suburbs, which have started chapters.

For USY, synagogue affiliation lets young people become involved with a congregation’s children and seniors, breaking down generational boundaries and appealing to teens who need to earn community service hours, says Andy Pascoe, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s youth chair for Eastern Canada.

About 150 youths come to at least one USY event during the year, a number that has remained fairly steady over the last few years, he says.

Especially in Toronto, getting teens’ attention is tough. They can be involved in Jewish schools and camps, as well as have a wide range of options for socializing.

“We don’t get the numbers coming out to conventions, but that’s true for all [denominations],” says Pascoe. “But the kids are just as committed and just as engaged.”

While some youth groups have altered their names and their orientation, others have found success by remaining resolutely unchanged.

Two of the oldest Zionist youth groups, the modern Orthodox Bnei Akiva, in its 80th year and the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair, which recently celebrated 90 years, still hold weekly meetings that attract a steady core of youths.

Between 40 and 50 kids, many of whom are Israelis or the children of Israeli immigrants, meet Saturday afternoons for games, holiday celebrations and discussions, says Hashomer Hatzair’s Uri Ron Amit, director of Camp Shomria, the movement’s Ontario summer camp.

In Montreal, where the chapter closed 25 years ago, local leaders are being trained and a parents committee has been started in the hopes of reviving the chapter.

Promoting a progressive, Zionist movement is an uphill struggle, says Amit. “We do love Israel and we sometimes look at Israel in a critical way,” he says. With its emphasis on youth-led programs, Hashomer Hatzair “has the opportunity to provide kids with the peer group to explore around Zionism and progressive Judaism…. We provide this platform to explore these questions with their peers.”

Religious Zionism is the driving force behind Bnei Akiva, which holds weekly programs in three Toronto synagogues, as well as in Hamilton and Montreal, says Jonny Lipczer, Bnei Akiva shaliach.

Like many youth group leaders, he grew up in the movement, which had a life-changing effect on him.

“One of the beautiful things about Bnei Akiva is the presence of shlichim, somebody who has a real care and passion for Israel,” he says. “I made aliyah from Britain because of the impact my shaliach made on me.”

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