In years past, J-Serve Pittsburgh has enabled hundreds of teenagers to give back to their communities while enjoying social engagement. This year, like so many other educational and communal endeavors, the March 29 scheduled event was moved online due to COVID-19 concerns.
“Obviously, for community health reasons, we’ve had to do a little bit of revamping,” said Hannah Kalson, director of teen engagement and experience at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. As opposed to gathering participants in the Squirrel Hill JCC gymnasium, presenting the teenagers with matching t-shirts and sending the young people to sites across the city, teenagers were encouraged to participate in “service projects that are easy to do from home.”
Examples included gathering canned goods for donation, writing letters to shuttered seniors and undertaking digital learning sessions with Holocaust survivors.
The wide variety of offerings facilitated by BBYO, which also included a virtual rally with an at-home DJ, was intended “for teens all around the world, just like J-Serve is every year here,” said Kalson.
On April 5, Young Judea also took advantage of technology to host an educational and fundraising event. The Zionist youth movement partnered with Repair the World and Amplifier Giving for a Zoom conversation about food insecurity and philanthropy.
It was a first attempt at bringing together Pittsburgh youth in such a fashion, explained Chaim Steinberg, Young Judaea’s city coordinator.
“We’re all trying to figure out the best ways to adapt our models and adapt our goals to this rapidly shifting environment that we’re all in,” Steinberg said.
In light of COVID-19, national youth organizations and local groups are struggling to determine the best course of action when it comes to keeping teenagers engaged, continued Steinberg. There are multiple options and right now youth group leaders are debating whether the emphasis should be on providing purely social experiences where kids can go online and “get in a room together with their friends and hangout,” or whether the goal should be to “create standalone content that kids can access later,” or to host an educationally rich Zoom call with 10 participants, or to post an Instagram video that garners 50 views.
“Kids are looking for stuff to do and they’re looking for ways to engage with one another,” said Yael Eads, youth director at Rodef Shalom Congregation. “The kids definitely miss each other. They like spending time with each other, and mostly what they’re looking for is that face to face socialization. Texting is easy, of course, going on Snapchat, Instagram, all that is great, but they’re really looking for that immediate kind of conversation that they could have while they’re looking at their friends.”
To help, Eads has created virtual challenges for Rodef Shalom’s teens, such as at-home scavenger hunts and other Zoom hosted events where “everyone sees each other.”
The programs are geared more toward facilitating social connections than necessarily promoting Jewish content, however, a recent offering for younger participants opted for the latter, she explained. Titled “Passover Lego Challenge,” the program pitted families against one another in a weekly creative building competition. After entrants completed their designs, photos were sent to Eads, who posted the images on Rodef Shalom’s Facebook page for viewers to vote on whose project best matched the specific Passover related theme.
Similar challenges have been available to Congregation Beth Shalom’s teens.
The focus “right now is about getting online and having fun,” said Marissa Tait, Beth Shalom’s youth group director.
Since youth activities have become primarily digital, Tait has discovered that “small groups” where participants are “able to connect and talk to each other” have been most beneficial.
“That’s what’s bringing them together,” she said.
While the focus has been fun, quality has not been compromised.
“The formula seems to be high quality intentional small group programming, and it has to be thoughtful. You can’t just throw something together,” said Tait. With so much time on their hands, and so many options of things to do, “it feels like teens are entering online programs when they need it.”
During this period, Tait carefully selects the programs and games she offers teens.
It is important to remember, she said, that “this is the second year of them having major disruption in their lives. It’s also important to remember that we shouldn’t project our own feelings onto the kids.”
“From an educator perspective we’re there to support the teens, and the most important thing right now is just that they’re feeling healthy, and stable and that their mental health is in check,” noted Kalson.
Many adults are “feeling lonely or feeling separated,” and there are resources and options available. “We want to make sure that the teens are given the same opportunity, and the same with the younger kids, to feel like they’re still connected to the community that they were prior to all of this happening,” echoed Eads.
Recent weeks have prompted much thought about the goals of youth programming, explained the city’s professionals.
“For people all around the world this is a really trying time,” but as an educator, and someone who works with the area’s youth, it’s been helpful “remembering that what we do is important, and it matters and it’s a valuable community resource,” said Kalson. “We want to make sure that these teens who have already been through a lot in the last year and a half know that we’re there for them.”
Also important to know is that when the pandemic ends, and people begin congregating again, there are boxes of iconic free t-shirts waiting for teens.
“We’ll find a way to get them the J-Serve T-shirt,” said Kalson. People need them “otherwise, who’s going to know you did anything?” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.