Teen ‘Meet Market’ Offers the Chance to ‘Sell’ Judaism

Ross Levy plopped down at a table across from two curly-haired teenagers, and started shooting the breeze.

"Hey, man, what's up?" he asked brightly, slapping their hands and flashing a wide-toothed grin. "What kinds of stuff are you into? What does a typical afternoon for you look like?"

One braces-clad eighth-grader responded that he liked the drums; another said he was into guitar and old-school music.

Sensing an "in," Levy, the director of student life at Gratz College's Jewish Community High School, began his pitch.

"Well, what if I told you that at JCHS, we will form our program to suit you? Like imagine playing 'Oseh Shalom' to a Green Day song. Imagine pumping it out," he said, as the boys nodded enthusiastically.

Levy was hardly the only salesman in the room last Wednesday night, as proponents of Jewish education tried to sway teenagers to "do Jewish" this summer.

The event — held at Ohev Shalom of Bucks County in Richboro, and slugged a teen "meet market" — introduced nearly 100 middle- and high school students to Israel trips, like BBYO's Passport to Israel program and USY's Pilgrimage; camps such as Young Judea's Camp Tel Yehudah and Camp Ramah in the Poconos; athletic opportunities sponsored by Maccabi USA/Sports for Israel; and internships offered by the Jewish Employment Vocational Service, among others.

In between marketing the sexier aspects of summering Jewish — exploring travel hot spots, making an international network of friends — the 15 program representatives took time to stress the impact such experiences can have on a teen's Jewish identity.

"They say that little kids are the sponges, but actually teenagers are," said Ami Monson, program director for Maccabi USA/Sports for Israel. "Studies show that informal Jewish experiences are the No. 1 reason kids stay tied to Judaism as adults."

He also noted that these activities can offer teens a side of Jewish spirituality outside of Hebrew school and Bar or Bat Mitzvah lessons.

"Like how kids fall in love with Havdalah," said Monson. "It's more than just a service — it's a feeling of closeness. You're in a circle waving back and forth, hand in hand."

Likewise, informal Jewish programs show young people a Judaism rooted in values that matter to them, according to Young Judea area supervisor Joe Zanger-Nadis.

"We understand the need for kids to relate to Jewish identity through social action," he said.

Lisa Sandler, who directs the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Philadelphia's youth initiative, said that the main goal is to "match the kid up with something that fits." It wouldn't, for example, be appropriate to send a Shomer Shabbat kid to a Reform overnight camp, nor would it make much sense to stick a non-observant girl in a place where she'd have to sit apart from male friends during services. Sandler said she strives to give each teen a "spiritually safe place."

Often, added Sandler, teens need just "one positive connection" to forge a new relationship with Judaism.

But making that first connection isn't always so easy.

In addition to the usual slew of time constraints — homework, SAT preparation, extracurricular activities, jobs — Israel trips and sleepaway camps carry substantial costs.

And even when parents are willing to shell out the dough, who's to say that they'll pick a Jewish venue for their child?

Monson said that with such a saturated market — many facilities offer state-of-the-art amenities, jazzy brochures and highly individualized programs — it can be hard for Jewish programs to compete.

"We offer Judaism, but a lot of times that's not enough of an appealing aspect" to attract teenagers. "For the parents it is — not for the kids," explained Monson.

Take, for example, Josh Vinikoor, a ninth-grader at Council Rock High School South.

After attending Jewish sleepaway camp for three years, Vinikoor worked at a camp last year where he said that he was among the only Jewish staffers. Though he said he would consider something Jewish this summer, he listed his main priorities as getting paid and staying near home.

"I don't think I could go to Israel because it's expensive," he said. "I don't know. I just want a regular job."

On the flip side are those like Lower Merion High School senior Alex Zarembaur.

A Young Judea camper for five years, Zarembaur now serves as the national vice president for the Zionist organization — and as a spokesman for the cause.

"People think they're done with Judaism after their Bar Mitzvah, when it's really just the opposite," he said. "What started out simply as a fun thing became a real passion for me. It really helped me grow into the person I am today."



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