Growing up in Southern California, Beth Schwartz couldn’t imagine living in Pittsburgh let alone leading a synagogue, but decades removed from her childhood, Schwartz, a South Hills resident and vice president of Temple Emanuel, is doing both. The fact that she and her family are modeling local Jewish engagement is a credit to youth groups, explained Schwartz.
Like her husband Matt, whom she met in graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis, Beth participated in BBYO, a Jewish youth group formerly referred to as B'nai B'rith Youth Organization. But Matt’s experience as a Jewish youth in the Pittsburgh area was different from Beth’s.
“Whatever the least involved you can be, that was my upbringing,” Beth said. “We belonged to a synagogue for two years of my life, in first grade and in seventh grade.”
Although her family celebrated Passover and Chanukah, it wasn’t until a neighbor invited Beth and her twin sister to a BBYO chapter meeting that Beth increased her Jewish activity.
Following that initial get-together, the sisters repeatedly returned to events. “We used to have BBYO things every weekend, sometimes twice a weekend,” said Beth.
Like Beth and Matt, the Schwartzes’ daughters, Rebecca, 19, and Anna, 17, also have benefitted from Jewish youth groups.
Anna, an incoming senior at Mt. Lebanon High School, is currently president of NFTY-PAR, a Reform Jewish youth group whose region includes Pennsylvania, Southern New Jersey, parts of West Virginia and Binghamton, New York. Rebecca was also active with NFTY before entering college.
Anna has taken on considerable leadership roles within the youth group, a commitment her mother traces to Camp Harlam, a Reform Jewish summer camp in Kunkletown, Pennsylvania.
“Anna found a love of Judaism at camp,” said Beth. “I’m not sure how Jewish she would feel if not for NFTY and camp.”
Initially, youth group attendance enabled Anna to see her camp friends at weekend retreats, but as the years progressed Anna gained valuable programming and leadership training through NFTY, noted her mother.
“Kids are given a lot of encouragement to take on leadership positions,” said Beth. “The mentoring they get from regional staff has been impressive to see. The staff has been supportive of them and understanding of the pressures they face as teens in this crazy world, and has given them the help and guidance they need, but also drives them to be successful.”
Jonah Rosenberg, 16, an incoming sophomore at Pittsburgh Allderdice High School and MEM/KAD (Membership and Kadima) vice president of Congregation Beth Shalom’s USY chapter, expounded on the lessons gleaned from participating in the Conservative Jewish youth group.
“Being on the board, I’ve gotten so much leadership experience from USY in general. It’s made me prouder to be Jewish,” said Rosenberg.
Whether it’s designing programs for younger kids or recruiting and retaining new members, serving on the board has enabled a sense of accomplishment as well as afforded social connection.
“It’s fun to be on the board with all of your friends. It’s fun to see the programs get done and get done well,” said Rosenberg. Being a part of USY in this capacity, and going to conventions where “you meet so many people you wouldn’t have met is cool,” he continued, which leads to Judaism taking on greater meaning. “It makes it seem like there’s more than shul,” he added.
Both Rosenberg’s and the Schwartzes’ experiences align with findings in the 2017 Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study.
Commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, and conducted by researchers at Brandeis University, the 2017 study indicates that “from a numbers perspective, youth groups are one of the pillars of informal Jewish education,” said Raimy Rubin, Federation’s manager of impact measurement.
According to the Community Study, of households with age-eligible children, 22% included a child who participated in a youth group.
“When it comes to Jewish education outside of the classroom, there are only so many ways we know to engage Jewish kids’ attention and deliver Jewish content,” said Rubin.
Rabbi Chaim Strassman, director of Pittsburgh’s NCSY chapter, has been involved in the Orthodox Jewish youth group for eight years. Between running a summer trip for the national organization and facilitating local programming, Strassman has seen the benefit of youth group affiliation.
“Youth groups are probably at the forefront, and if not at the forefront then one of the most important components in forming a Jewish identity,” said Strassman. Teens receive considerable tutelage from school and home, but youth groups are “a space for you to exercise that and try it yourself.” By not having something “put on you,” but by having the ability to “opt into that decision-making,” youth groups grant an “individuality that is more formative.”
Youth groups deliver a sense of self, an awareness of others and a stability that resonates with teens, explained Yael Eads, director of informal Jewish life at Rodef Shalom Congregation.
“Kids have friends that they don’t always feel safe with, and I think that youth groups have that safe space where you feel like you belong and you can trust the people you’re with,” said Eads.
During her six years working with young people at Rodef Shalom, Eads has learned how meaningful youth groups are to them.
“Kids go to soccer or baseball because they want to, but they don’t always feel like they fit. When it comes to youth groups, kids don’t speak like that. They feel like they belong, they feel like they can be themselves, they feel like they have their safety net with them,” she said.
Pathways for community
Youth groups are avenues for finding or creating desired communities, echoed Linda Joshowitz, volunteer shlicha/director of Pittsburgh Bnei Akiva.
Joshowitz began working with the religious Zionist group more than a decade ago, after her oldest daughter, Jill, and other neighborhood residents, sought to experience the joys of
summer camp throughout the year.
“Camp Stone was their happy place and they really wanted to recreate that for themselves,” said Joshowitz. Given the Sugar Grove, Pennsylvania summer camp’s commitment to “Am Yisrael, b'Eretz Yisrael, Al Pi Torat Yisrael (The Jewish people, in the Land of Israel, living according to the Torah), it was just a safe space for them.”
Bnei Akiva had previously existed in Pittsburgh, but efforts to reestablish the youth group in 2005 led to a conclusion that “there was no recreating Camp Stone,” said Joshowitz. “It’s just not recreatable in a youth group setting where for parents school comes first and youth group comes last.” Even so, it was possible to simulate aspects of summer camp, such as informal Jewish education about “Zionism, the State of Israel, its history and the important people who made Israel what it is,” by designing regular programs and enabling teens to work together through leadership positions and to attend Shabbatons.
Joshowitz’s five children, who range between 30 and 21 years old, all participated in Bnei Akiva, but as much as she enjoyed seeing their involvement, observing the youth group’s effects on others has “enriched” her life, she said.
“These kids are the most stand-up leaders with integrity and commitment and passion,” said Joshowitz. “They are just kind and have beautiful middot (qualities).”
Whether it’s through a synagogue, religious school, community center or elsewhere, Pittsburgh provides its teens with an array of Jewish options, explained Marissa Tait, Beth Shalom’s director of youth programs.
“From talking to colleagues in different cities, we have a lot more opportunities. The Jewish content and the vastness of it is bigger than most other places,” she said. This is “amazing to me because growing up it was NFTY or synagogue youth group, that’s it. We didn’t always have programs that met the needs of the actual youth.”
Filling a void and impacting family
Marcie Weinstein, of Squirrel Hill, said that for her two children youth groups fill a void and “ensures that they are having a Jewish life outside of Sunday school.”
“Sometimes when you live in Squirrel Hill you forget that you have to make an effort to do Jewish things because it seems like everyone is Jewish,” said Weinstein. Whether it’s when shopkeepers and passersby say, “Happy Chanukah,” during the winter season, or other aspects of living in Squirrel Hill, “sometimes it just feels like we live in a bubble.”
Weinstein has previously volunteered with her children’s youth groups at Rodef Shalom. Doing so has been important for her family, she explained: It’s a reminder that “just because a lot of people around you are Jewish, you still have to make an effort to live a Jewish life.”
Because of his daughters’ participation in USY, Adam Kolko’s Shabbat has taken on increased liveliness in recent months.
“We’ve certainly upped our Friday night ruach (spirit) game,” said Kolko, a Point Breeze resident and Beth Shalom member.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Kolko family closes out its Friday night dinners with approximately 45 minutes of zemirot (Jewish hymns).
The medley of youth group and summer camp tunes “has brought us together. We actually Zoom it with my 92-year-old mother in Rochester,” said Kolko. “It’s pure joy. I like to sing a lot. I like to sing with my family. And to see them get into it like the way they do there’s nothing better.”
Although COVID-19 has transformed their family Shabbat experience, it hasn’t fully altered the Kolkos’ engagement with youth groups.
The incoming senior and sophomore at Pittsburgh Allderdice spend about 10 hours per month on USY digital meetings and activities, and have remained “very resilient in dealing with things,” said their father.
What comes next
Given the almost total reliance on digital connections and cessation of in-person gatherings, it’s difficult to foresee what youth group engagement will resemble in the fall, but local leaders are committed to ensuring that youth groups continue providing the benefits they afforded prior to “COVID-19” becoming common parlance.
“A lot of it will follow the leads of the different religious schools, but safety is number one — not just physical, but emotional and mental,” said Tait.
Regardless of makeup, youth groups will meet their constituents’ needs, explained Strassman. “It’s more difficult to get together but the heart of what we’re doing is relationship building: building relationships with teens and challenging them to grow and form a Jewish identity,” he said.
That commitment bodes well for a Jewish future, as youth groups offer the prospect of not only introducing Jewish kids to one another but to other Jewish experiences like summer camp or Israel travel, explained the Federation’s Rubin.
Before putting the cart before the horse (or the socially distanced traveler before the plane), however, youth groups are a chance for Jewish kids to establish those primary social networks.
“I think a lot of the groundwork is set as children, in the middle school and high school age years,” said Rubin. “There is such a strong correlation between your social group and Jewish identity. When kids form certain bonds and friendships, there is a very good likelihood they will have a positive Jewish identity as adults.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.