It’s Never Too Late To Engage Our Teens

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by Ellie Laycook

During Rosh HaShanah this year, one of “my” teens was invited to give the High Holy Day appeal during services.  The board and professional staff of Temple Beth-El in San Pedro, CA, where I work, recognizes the power that teens hold and understands that they are the future of the temple.

The teen they asked was someone who had felt disenfranchised from the synagogue and was pulled back in by his peers, youth programming and the idea of building his own youth group community.  He felt blessed to share his journey and relate how NFTY and youth group have reconnected him to a community he thought he had left after bar mitzvah. I wanted to share some of his words and the approach he took at being given the significant responsibility of the High Holy Day appeal.

He started his speech with an excerpt from a comic strip about The Thing saying the Shema. He spoke of the bond that every Jew shares and his feeling that this is the reason why we have a strong community. He continued to speak about how he reconnected and found his home in our temple youth group and NFTY.

“In the years following my bar mitzvah, however, my dedication to Judaism and the temple dwindled. By 9th grade I no longer attended the temple as a student, madrikh, or youth group member. Other responsibilities and commitments had slowly drawn me further and further away from the temple until I’d almost completely lost sight of what it was that had drawn me to Judaism.

So, when the rabbi and my fellow peers reached out to me right before my tenth grade confirmation class year asking me to return, I was grateful and extremely joyous. I returned to my studies, my community and was confirmed a year later. Though I had had a blast, and developed a powerful bond with my peers, I began to worry. Was this the end of my Jewish journey, until when I was grown up and would join a temple?

That is when I was introduced to NFTY—The Reform movement’s national youth organization, and our temple’s youth group formerly known as BETY (Beth El Temple Youth).

Our recently-hired youth advisor Ellie Laycook convinced me to attend an event hosted by  NFTY SoCal, a reform Jewish youth organization, and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever been forced to make.”

The full speech can be read on the NFTY blog.

In the car ride home from this event the teen looked at me and asked with all sincerity, “I know I started NFTY late and I’m already a 10th grader, but do you think I could run for regional board my senior year?” Having a teen feel like I coerced him into going to a NFTY event may not be the greatest message, but him saying it was one of the best decisions he has made makes it worth it. The connection to the community he made in that one weekend makes what we do seem worth doing.  Since this “forced decision,” he hasn’t missed a youth group or NFTY SoCal event. And, even though he was scared by the concept, he ran for and was elected to his regional board.

His High Holy Day appeal was given with such conviction and sincerity that he received a standing ovation during Rosh HaShanah morning services.

It’s never too late to engage our teens.

Ellie Laycook is the youth group advisor at Temple Beth-El in San Pedro, CA. She has degrees in early childhood development, culinary and patisserie arts, and English language. She is working towards an M.A. in Jewish Education with a focus on adolescents and the arts.


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One Response to “It’s Never Too Late To Engage Our Teens”

  1. avatar

    Wonderful story! Exactly as it was for me and for my brother as well a few decades ago. That brother became the Rabbi of Beth El San Pedro in 1973 (David Lieb z”ll) and I’ve spent many a delightful time in this community with David and now Chuck Briskin. No it is never too late and there is not a lot new under the sun or moon. Bravo!

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