Teenagers clustered in small groups playing hackeysack, shooting grapes into each others' mouths, sitting in corners snarfing copious amounts of candy -- and occasionally pondering the meaning of God.
The National Council of Synagogue Youth's (NCSY) Lord of the Regionals Shabbaton weekend was what camp would be like if camp took place in a four-star hotel. Some 400 teenagers from the West Coast gathered -- actually, nearly overran -- the Renaissance Los Angeles Hotel near LAX Dec. 19-22 to bond with Jewish high schoolers from around the region.
On this rainy, winter weekend, the ninth- through 12th-graders from Jewish and public schools in large Jewish cities such as Seattle, and smaller ones such as El Paso, Texas (with five religious families), came together to contemplate God: Who is God? Why does God do what he does? How can people come to believe in God?
While the weekend aspired to get the students to know more about God, there was no slog of learning the Talmud or Bible. Picture Jesus, Moses and Buddha on an island -- well, they weren't really there, but NCSY advisers (what they call the counselors) put on a skits -- like one about of the three religious leaders -- to enable to think more deeply about Judaism and their involvement with it.
The youth arm of the Orthodox Union, NCSY aims to inspire kids to want to become more religious, and -- like many kiruv organizations, they do this through social encounters. While NCSY primarily caters to modern Orthodox teens, there are also some non-Orthodox kids who join, too. NCSY's West Coast region -- which includes California, Arizona, Washington State, Vancouver and El Paso, Texas -- is the largest region in the country.
The recent weekend on was the largest Shabbaton the organization ever had, according to organizer Rabbi Steven Burg, the NCSY's West Coast regional director. "The next closest one only had 300 kids," he said.
For some, the weekend presented an opportunity to network among religious teens. "I am a freshman in college at University of Northern Arizona, and I haven't seen another kippah besides my own in the past 4-5 months," said Levy Cohn, 19, from Phoenix. "So it's great to be in the place where it is not only normal to wear a kippah, but it's cool to wear a kippah."
A big draw was -- what else? -- the chance to meet members of the opposite sex, but many found themselves entranced by the "inspirational" program, which included a hypnotist, a mystery trip, multimedia presentations and lots of heartfelt singing, where the students raised their voices and closed their eyes and banged on the table in rhythm to the music.
"The highlight of the weekend for me was definitely the singing," said Simona Fried, who attends Torah High Schools San Diego, a small day school of some 40 students. "It is such a great experience, and it is so uplifting to see the voices go as one."
None of the rigid strictness of high school for these weekenders -- an anything-goes atmosphere reigned: At sessions, or discussion groups, which were sandwiched throughout Shabbat between prayers and meals, the students were encouraged to get things off their chest and air gripes that they might have with religion. At one session on prayer, Zac from Vancouver asked, "Does God accept prayers that are said sarcastically?"
Sarah from Shalhevet complained that at her school they are forced to pray for the Messiah, which she doesn't want. "That's called shoving religion down someone's throat," she said.
Another girl suggested that set times for prayers were counterproductive, because, "I have to daven when I'm not in the mood, and my prayers are rushed and meaningless."
Advisers, as par for the NCSY model, didn't react to the teens' statements, and didn't come out with the pat answers one might receive in school.
"Do you know that Eminem song from the movie '8 Mile'?" asked Rabbi Yudi Hochheiser, an NCSY adviser who credits the organization with helping him get through his own troubles in high school. "'The moment you own it/You never want to let it go.' Well, the moment you have a chance to pray, you never want to let it go. When we pray, we build up a relationship with God, so that when we come to him and say 'I kind of need a favor,' God says, 'No problem -- you're my friend."
The emotional element of the Shabbaton was as strong as the intellectual one -- if not stronger. Speeches were compiled of inspirational stories about people whose lives were profoundly changed by something or other, and who believed in God despite the odds. "I will never forget what I saw in Poland last summer, when my life changed forever," said Yitz Novak, a YULA high school senior and the president of West Coast NCSY, who spoke at the ebbing ceremony towards the end of Shabbat. Standing on a table, surrounded by hundreds of peers, Novak spoke passionately, circling the table he was standing on, using his hands to emphasize the points he was making. "No, it was not the crematoria or the entrances to the ghetto sewers that most moved me, but an old man in the Cracow synagogue called Mr. Stern, who still cries for the brother he lost on the death march."
Throughout the Shabbaton, the energy was high: in the midst of praying, NCSYers danced through the aisles of the makeshift synagogue and, in the evenings, teenagers wrapped their arms around each other, singing Hebrew ballads with their eyes closed. At the havdalah service -- which took an hour and a half -- the hotel ballroom turned into a giant kumsitz-cum-disco, with 400 teenagers swaying languorously to the music until an up-tempo number had them jumping in the air and screaming.
NCSY is famous for its sentimentality -- many adults can recall passing the candle around while sharing religious stories -- and the tone often hits home with wide-eyed teenagers looking for a cause. But more than the sentimental, what many enjoy is the fun.
"I have been to the Shabbatons before and I really love them," said Shirit Stern, who attends St. Mary's Academy in Portland Ore. "Everywhere they say it is cool to be Jewish, but at NCSY, they know it."
For more information on NCSY programs, visit www.ou.org/ncsy .