An Open Door: Youth Engagement in Our Jewish Community
by Lindsay Ganci
At The Community Synagogue of Port Washington, N.Y., all Jewish teens in the area are welcome to join our youth programs—whether or not their families are dues-paying members of our synagogue. Our youth programs include: Junior POWTY (JPOW for short!) for 4-6th graders, POWTY Seven for 7th graders, and Senior POWTY for 8-12th graders.
Throughout the year, youth program members participate in events, trips, and informal learning experiences that focus on tikkun olam, social justice, and Jewish culture and values. Over the past few years, POWTY membership has increased dramatically, and members of each of our groups are offered a variety of entry points into Jewish life in our community.The synagogue’s clergy, lay leaders, professionals and congregants all understand and validate the significance of Jewish youth experiences in the lives of our young people, and accept the reality that not all the families in our community are willing or able to commit to membership in our synagogue. As it is our goal to increase our level of teen engagement post b’nai mitzvah and to continue to involve our community’s Jewish young adults in our synagogue and Jewish community, we realize that we must not only offer them exciting, meaningful programs, but also make them available to our young people. After all, there are other Jewish youth organizations offering competitively priced, if not free programs, so it is important that we, too, find ways to welcome every Jewish teen who is searching for engagement opportunities. Therefore, for the past few years, we have welcomed teens as members of our youth programs—regardless of whether or not they pay dues to our synagogue.
POWTY Youth Programs seek to provide events and experiences that engage children and teens in Jewish life as a way to establish and nurture strong Jewish identities. We recognize that each time a child or teen participates in a youth program, we have an opportunity to make Judaism relevant, engaging, and hopefully permanent in their lives. We recognize that participating in a POWTY Shabbat dinner might inspire a teen to celebrate Shabbat at home with her family. Once off to college, she just might miss it enough to leave her dorm on a Friday evening to walk across campus to Hillel. We recognize that the time our kids spend gathered around the island in our synagogue’s kitchen, chatting with their friends while a batch of rugelach bakes in the oven just might deepen the cultural connection these emerging adults feel to Judaism. We recognize that just one day spent preparing meals for guests at the American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge might help young adults realize that Judaism isn’t just about prayer within the sanctuary, but that it lives in our acts of loving kindness, when we get our hands dirty through tikkun olam, and when these and other actions are guided by our Jewish values.
With all of this said, we also recognize the financial commitment our dues-paying members make to ensure our truly open-door policy, making it possible for all Jewish teens from Port Washington and the surrounding towns to engage in meaningful Jewish youth experiences. In an effort to assuage this cost, the dues for POWTY youth program members who are not members of The Community Synagogue are $50 more than for those members whose families are dues-paying members of the congregation. This pay structure allows us to open our doors widely so that our youth program can serve not only the teens in our building, but all those in our community who are searching for a place to belong.
As Hillel famously asks: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” As a Jewish youth professional, and a member of the Jewish community here in Port Washington, I am proud that the answers to these challenging questions can be found inside the open doors of The Community Synagogue, where we welcome every Jewish youth seeking to engage in our community.
Lindsay Ganci is proud and honored to serve as the Director of Youth Engagement at The Community Synagogue of Port Washington, NY where the clergy, staff, and community fully support youth engagement. She is currently enrolled in the Certificate in Jewish Education for Adolescents and Emerging Adults program at HUC-JIR and is a member of the Reform Youth Professionals Association (RYPA).