Jewish Journal

How Do We Egage Teens?

By John R. Fishel

by John R. Fishel

Posted on Nov. 12, 1998 at 7:00 pm

There are more than 30,000 Jewish teen-agers in Los Angeles -- how do we engage them?

I was thinking about this a few weeks ago while visiting the Bern-ard Milken Jewish Community Campus in West Hills. The occasion was a happy one, the ground-breaking for a new youth and sports complex at the Jewish Community Center on that site. What really struck me was the enormous potential for our Federation programs to reach out beyond the traditional young users of our communal services and actively engage as many Jewish teens who live in greater Los Angeles as possible.

Among the dozens of programs and services located at the Milken campus is the JCC's Teen Services unit. Its highly specific mandate is to reach Jewish high school youth, and its goal is quite simple: begin to Jewishly engage a group of youngsters whose options for leisure time are endless and whose future Jewish identities are being formed. These are kids who could easily drift out of the Jewish community or worse, never really involve themselves at all.

Browsing through the JCC's Teen Services newsletter, you begin to get a sense of how complex it is to reach an age group whose members are still searching for an identity. Since one size does not fit all, the efforts to reach teens must be multifaceted and creative. This is where the Teen Services unit comes in. They are the glue that cements diverse initiatives citywide. Working together with representatives of a range of other Jewish youth organizations and involving those groups from the synagogues and Zionist movements, they are using a wide range of approaches, including educational programming, cultural activities and social-action opportunities to reach our youth. Teens can help feed the hungry at SOVA, help build a Habitat for Humanity or assist someone with AIDS through Project Chicken Soup. These projects reach the young communal activist with a message of tikkun olam.

But that might not be enough. So how about outreaching to Jewish kids in public and non-Jewish private schools? That's where the majority of Jewish teens are found. Almost 500 Jewish teens from 18 public and private schools, including Fairfax, Van Nuys, Santa Monica and Granada Hills, meet weekly to hear speakers, celebrate Jewish holidays, practice community awareness, have fun and hang out. With collaborative efforts from BBYO, United Syn-agogue Youth of the Conservative movement, the North American Federation of Temple Youth of the Reform move-ment and the National Council of Synagogue Youth of the Modern Orthodox movement, our communal efforts are maximized to reach more teens. For many, these initiatives are their only contact with Jewish communal life, so it takes on a special importance.

So while some teens are engaged by entering a Jewish creative writing contest or participating in a weekend retreat program of the Bureau of Jewish Education, others are attracted by taking a course in CPR or learning about Jews in film. The list is almost endless. With the new technology of the Internet, we have another way to reach teens.

But what really turns on a Jewish teen? How about speaking to their needs? Since so many teens in high school are actively thinking about college, what about a program to expose them to college life? We have it. Together with the Los Angeles Hillel Council, the JCC conducts a program to explore colleges in our own backyard. The teens might visit a campus, sleep in a dorm, and learn about Jewish college life at USC or UCLA.

Since not every teen wants to stay in Los Angeles, why not help them think about attending college elsewhere? We do it. By offering a program to visit campuses in Arizona, Northern California or even Boston, we reach teens by addressing their needs.

Additionally, the annual Hillel FACETS Conference, which assists local teens in decisions about college, drew more than 500 teens and their parents to this year's event at UCLA.

The Jewish Federation, with the support of the United Jewish Fund through its constituent agencies and lots of associated groups, is engaged in fashioning a vision for a Jewish community of the future. What we see has great hope and potential, if we can continue to secure the financial and human resources to accomplish our communal goals.

John R. Fishel is executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

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