(Originally published in the Temple Israel Voice, 4/1/2011.)
Once Purim has passed, the rest of the Jewish school year always seems to speed toward Shavuot and hence the end quite rapidly. From my vantage point as the interim director of the Youth House, it has been quite a year. Rabbi Stecker, the lay leadership and I set a few goals for the Youth House this year, goals that were not entirely met, but that we hope will continue to be on the table as new leadership takes over. Here they are:
1. The Youth House should be open to all local Jewish teens in grades 8 to 12. While it has always (at least in recent memory) been available to non-members of Temple Israel, it was generally something that you had to know about to join, and only those who were enrolled had access to YH activities. This year, we have tried to expand the pool of participants by sending out our updates and information not just to those who come on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but to all TI member teenagers in our age range, and also non-members for whom we have email addresses.
For nearly every YH event this year, there have been two prices: one for students enrolled in the YH academic program, and one for everybody else. This has in fact encouraged non-enrolled students to come our activities, because we have made it clear that all our welcome.
We have a wonderful facility and an excellent program for teens that has the potential to attract many others whose families have never been associated with Temple Israel. With wider promotion and more savvy social networking, the Youth House could very well become the primary center for Jewish teens on the North Shore.
2. Youth House programming needs to be more flexible to accommodate the busy schedules of our teens. Parents and kids are more selective about what they choose to participate in, and are less likely to commit lots of time to the Youth House. The Youth House needs to function more as an a la carte activity center: classes can be available on Tuesdays, Thursdays, or both days, and there will be the monthly social action program Team Tikkun as well as other social action programs on Sundays, and some sort of regular trip to Israel, and the fall, spring and winter retreats, and March of the Living (we have 5 Temple Israel members participating this year), and so forth. Rather than functioning on a membership model, the Youth House might work well with a variety of options for participation. The bar will be set low for those who want only minimal participation, and many options will be available for those who want more.
3. The Youth House needs to develop greater involvement with USY and Kadima. We are not alone! There are other Jewish teens on Long Island, and all over the country and the world. Although we have had a few participants in various regional USY events from year to year, we think that the Youth House program would benefit from more involvement. In a dramatic attempt to raise the interest in USY, we are holding the Chazak division’s Spring Kinnus here at the Youth House next week (April 8-10). There will be around 150 teenagers from all over Nassau County coming to stay with us and socialize as they celebrate Shabbat in an appropriate context. This has not happened at Temple Israel in recent memory, and is a credit to our Youth Director Joe Pearlman for helping to put it together. (By the way, we probably still need help housing teens; contact me or Joe ASAP if you can help!)
Kadima is the Conservative youth group for kids in 6th through 8th grades, and although we have had a few Kadima events this year, we think it would be a benefit to the Youth House to develop this program further as well. It would also serve as a feeder to USY.
4. There should be an annual subsidized Youth House trip to Israel. Children who fulfill the requirements of the entire Religious School program and continue attending through Hebrew High School should be taken together on a trip to Israel some time during the 11th or 12th grade. This would be a positive incentive to attend, and would be something that the kids would all look forward to. Our trip to Israel has, in fact, galvanized the Youth House membership, and has in fact generated new members. To have such a trip annually would be a great community-building program.
5. The Youth House needs some official documents: a handbook and a mission statement. I began work on a handbook last summer, although the day-to-day running of the institution as well as my other job (that of the Associate Rabbi of Temple Israel) conspired to prevent me from finishing it. The Youth House, it seems, has been running on momentum for a number of years; given that I am the fourth director in five years, continuity has been somewhat lacking, such that the goals and objectives are now unclear. A good policy handbook would give everybody affiliated with the institution - parents, teens, educators, etc. - clear guidelines for how it works, what to expect, and so forth.
Meanwhile, the Youth House needs its own mission statement, distinct from the Mission Statement for Education that was drafted by Project Re-Imagine a few years back, to help focus the academic and social offerings. It is not enough to continue doing things just because they have always been done that way; every now and then we must re-evaluate, and the time has come.
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There are many challenges to the building of a successful youth program, and we have many pieces in place already. But as I stated during one of my High Holiday sermons, the Youth House does the holiest work of any part of Temple Israel. As such it is all the more important to continue to reshape and redefine it. I look forward to being part of that conversation as the new director starts pouring fresh ideas into the mix in the coming year; I hope to hear your voice as well.