Beth Or Enhances the Teen Connection

Aaron Nielsenshultz, the director of religious school and b’nai mitzvah training at Beth Or, discusses Israel with high school students. Photo by Allison Levin

Leslie Feldman

Aaron Nielsenshultz, the director of religious school and b’nai mitzvah training at Beth Or in Maple Glen, strongly believes in connecting teens to their Jewish background to offer them a sense of identity, belonging and cultural richness.

After the COVID-19 lockdown ended in the fall of 2021, Nielsenshultz was looking to re-engage with teens because they had not been active in the synagogue’s online pandemic programming.

“I wanted to re-open those connections, so I reached out to a teacher who supports the Jewish Student Union at Upper Dublin High School. She was eager to work with me, and I started visiting every month,” he said. “Our meetings involve Jewish holidays and culture, and I aim to create hands-on, active events.”

What started out at one high school, has now grown to five.

“After the terrible attacks in Israel on Oct. 7, 2023, I heard from three more schools whose faculty wanted more support for Jewish students,” he said.

Along with Upper Dublin, the others in the program are Central Bucks South, Wissahickon, Central Bucks West and Cheltenham high schools.

At first, Nielsenshultz was trying to address a need among teens for meaningful Jewish information and knowledge.

“Some teens in the schools I go to are not affiliated, and among those whose families belong to local synagogues, my colleagues and I have all seen a drop-off in teen participation in our programs. I wanted to make sure that teens still had some connection to Judaism outside of their families,” he said. “As well, there has been such a distressing rise in antisemitic episodes that our teens of late have needed reassurance, information and a sense of support.”

For one Cheltenham high school student, participation means “being offered the possibility for an output of action and a community of people with some similarities to comfort social pressures which may be felt through antisemitism and other means.”

Depending on the school, between 15 and 50 students participate. Discussions include understanding the situation in Israel; Simchat Torah: surrounding ourselves with Torah; spreading joy; being mensches; and the happiness of Chanukah.

Nielsenshultz is pleased that students of all religious and cultural backgrounds attend.
“It is true that most of the students are Jewish, but there are other cultures and religions represented at each meeting, including students who have told me that they identify as atheists,” he said. “While my content is very much designed to support Jewish students, I try to make sure that there is enough information available about our topic so that anyone can join in.”

Max Sawyer, the Jewish Student Union “schmooze and schmear leader” at Central Bucks West High School, said the program offers him a large community that he can turn to whenever he needs to because he knows they will have his back.

“It has helped me create relationships with people I never would have before, and has led to friendships I won’t forget,” he said.

Nielsenshultz believes programming benefits students because it provides them with information, knowledge, support and connection in an increasingly tough time.

Central Bucks West High School students. Photo by Allison Levin

“I give students a place where they can speak openly and freely about what they’re experiencing in their daily lives, or where they can just engage in some Yiddishkeit that feeds their souls and fuels their connection to Judaism,” he said. “Schools benefit from the robust programming and the creation of a space for Jewish students and those who want to learn about Judaism. Beth Or benefits by connecting local Jewish teens with a Judaism that they can identify with.”

The synagogue plans to continue the program and hopes to get more high schools involved.

“This program is so easily available. Students don’t have to go anywhere else — the program takes place right at the end of the school day. I try to mix fun and meaning at the same time and by creating a very low barrier to entry,” Nielsenshultz said. “Students have learned that I’m not there to try to talk them into going to shul or to make them feel guilty about not attending synagogue programs. Instead, we learn, we act, we eat and I can recharge their Jewish batteries.”

Leslie Feldman is a Philadelphia-area freelance writer.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here