Bucks County CTeen Center Provides Safe Space for Future Leaders

Teens at the ribbon-cutting for a new lounge at the Bucks County CTeen Center in Southampton. Photo by Theerapon Prueska

Jon Marks

Having been in Jerusalem during the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, Jackie Gershman needed a place to unwind and leave those memories behind once she returned home.

A new lounge at the Bucks County CTeen Center in Southampton provides that.
“Seeing the lounge come together, especially after what’s been happening, really means a lot to me because I was there experiencing it first-hand,” said Gershman, an 11th grader at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, who was attending a three-month study program in Israel. “It’s great to see everyone come together in support and be there for each other.”

“The lounge is our sanctuary,” agreed Jessica Soyfer, a 10th grader who’s attended events there for two years. “There’s no judgment; it’s a safe space for teens. It’s an amazing place where we can hang out and forget our outside problems. If people have anxiety after Oct. 7, they can come there and let loose and connect with their inner Jewish soul.”

That’s the goal according to Rabbi Chaim Shemtov who, along with his wife Nina, has been the driving force behind the lounge, which had its ribbon-cutting on Jan. 28. Some 120 attended the festivities, including 100 teens.

That’s music to Shemtov’s ears, convincing him that he’s on the right track.

Teens at the ribbon-cutting for a new lounge at the Bucks County CTeen Center in Southampton. Photo by Theerapon Prueska

“From the beginning, our goal has been to have a space for teens to come and be with each other,” he explained, having moved from Brooklyn during the pandemic to become the director of social activities for the Lubavitch of Lower Bucks County. “To socialize, learn, study and build a community for teens, as opposed to a program for teams run out of a synagogue.

“We’re always focusing on everyone’s differences. When they come to CTeen what they all have in common is being a Jewish teen in today’s environment. When we find what we have in common, it’s a much deeper connection. Social pressure decreases.”

Some of the center’s funding comes from the local Chabad, along with several local donors and alums. The CTeen name comes from Chabad’s international brand for its Jewish teen network. Proclaiming it’s for “The Next Generation of Jewish Leaders” on cteen.com, CTeen has 730 chapters in 58 countries and on six continents.

But while the Chabad may house the Bucks County Center and lounge, which has everything from Ping-Pong and pool tables to a library to a multifaceted media center, the rabbi said it’s not involved in the day-to-day operation — or any teen’s degree of Jewish commitment.

“We reach a demographic that goes much further than the synagogue walls,” said Shemtov, a third-generation Chabad rabbi, following his grandfather Abraham and father Yudy. “We reach unaffiliated and unassociated teens.

“We believe in the fundamental belief a Jew is a Jew and labels are for clothing. You do have to be Jewish to join, but the independence of our community creates a much easier threshold for teens to feel accepted in our welcoming environment. All you need is that connection.”

That connection became more essential in his mind after Oct. 7.

“When Oct. 7 happened, I turned to my wife and said, ‘This space is needed,’” he recalled, which resulted in an expedited timeline. “Our target date was this summer.

“After that, we were willing to do anything to get it done fast and furious. Now that it’s here, the response we’ve gotten affirms it even stronger. One line I keep saying is back in the day they used to build programs for adults who tolerated teens. CTeen builds a community of teens who can tolerate adults. These are our future leaders — the teens who’ll be going to college and representing Jewish people in the future.”

“We understand we have to build them up now. Give them the strength and confidence to be proud Jews and learn how to be Jewish,” Shemtov said. “Being a Jew is unwavering. We want to give them confidence to not suppress or shy away from that, especially at a time like now. That makes our job more important.”

Yet it’s just the start.

“Like I said at the grand opening, this is not a celebration of the completion of our work,” Shemtov said. “It’s phase one. We want a space here where we can offer everything under the sun for our Jewish teens.”

The key word is Jewish, as teens try to cope with post-Oct. 7 antisemitism.

“The most important thing is we’re all Jewish,” said Irene Feldman, a 10th grader at Council Rock South High School. “Every single event we go to brings us closer. We share stories and just talk. It’s a safe space to get away from the stress or hang out. And it’s good because we’re all Jewish.”

Jon Marks is a Philadelphia-area freelance writer.


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