With JCC as hub, Jewish teen engagement is finding new life

With JCC as hub, Jewish teen engagement is finding new life

From left: Rabbi Ron Symons, senior director of Jewish Life, Ariale DiFelice, Carolyn Gerecht and Chris Herman make up the staff of the JCC’s Department of Jewish Life. (Photo provided)
From left: Rabbi Ron Symons, senior director of Jewish Life, Ariale DiFelice, Carolyn Gerecht and Chris Herman make up the staff of the JCC’s Department of Jewish Life. (Photo provided)

The new trajectory of local Jewish teen engagement can be compared to a salad bar that begins with separate ingredients, said Rabbi Ron Symons, senior director of Jewish life at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh.

But take down the walls between those compartments, he said, and “there will be many flavors mixing together.”

“The cucumbers will rub against the onions,” he said, “and the onions will rub against the tomatoes.”

 It is the “cross-pollination,” he said, that will eventually make up a great salad.

Symons has been working over the summer with his team of Jewish youth professionals to create a new vision for collaborative teen involvement, crafting a blueprint that could serve as a game-changer for Jewish teens in Pittsburgh.

Through a Hillel On Campus-type model — with the JCC serving as the hub for Jewish teen activity — Symons envisions an atmosphere of cooperation that not only will inevitably benefit each individual youth organization, but also will create a network of youth engagement communitywide.

“Every organization that has something to do with teen engagement will be part of that network,” Symons said.

Symons, along with Chris Herman, Pittsburgh Diller Teen Fellows coordinator, and Carolyn Gerecht, the JCC’s director of teen learning, is facilitating the evolution of that network by organizing opportunities for teen leaders and their adult advisers to come together to share best practices and work through challenges.

While a few Jewish teen programs in Pittsburgh have been growing, others, such as J-SITE, the former Agency for Jewish Learning’s high school education program, have experienced a decline in membership and participation in recent years.

“I don’t think there is less of a desire among teens to be engaged, but it is a matter of finding the right opportunities,” Herman said.

Symons and his team are determined to help facilitate those opportunities by focusing on the successes of the various youth programs and to employ those strategies “to realign the efforts that are working well in our great Pittsburgh Jewish community,” he said.

To that end, the leaders of every Jewish teen program and youth movement in the city will be put into communication with one another through the JCC.

“We are trying to work collectively, rather than individually,” said Symons, adding that the JCC is ready to create an online resource of every Jewish youth professional in town, along with the teen leaders of each program, and include their activities through hyperlinks.

“But more importantly,” he said, “we are all talking to each other. We are going to try to do something that will help everyone. We are lined up to do better than we’ve been doing.”

Area youth professionals have been meeting together as part of the JCC’s Youth Professional Network, an organization formed earlier this year by Symons to provide a forum for the exchange of ideas and for support.

Teen leaders have been engaged in a similar exchange through the Teen Leadership Council, which was established last year, said Gerecht. The Council will meet four or five times over the next year.

While the JCC will be facilitating the networking of leaders in the teen engagement community, it will also facilitate joint programming opportunities initiated by the networks, such as a communitywide eruv Sukkot gathering, Symons said.

“We want to give teens a sense of ownership in their own Jewish experiences,” said Herman.

The JCC also has designated a space in its Robinson building for teens to hang out, do homework, or grab a cup of coffee, Symons said. The JCC also has revamped the former J-SITE, launching this year with a new name and a new model for post-Hebrew school education.

The program is now called J’Line, “inspired by the concept of a metro line, where teens have an opportunity to choose their own journey,” Gerecht said.

“We are designing a program to give teens as much choice and diversity in their learning as possible,” she added.

Teens may select as many classes and programs that interest them throughout the year, rather than signing up for a determined number of hours per week.

J’Line will follow the same schedule as did J-SITE, meeting on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings at the JCC. One-hour courses will run on trimesters.  Hebrew will continue to be offered for three hours each week.

Additionally, a four-week lunch and learn series on Sundays will be offered, led by community educators. The first in that series begins in October, led by Symons, and titled “GLBTQA: The Torah, The Rabbis, SCOTUS and Us Jews.”

A descriptive list of all class offerings will be available on Aug. 20, at which time registration will open. Classes begin on Sunday, Sept. 20.

“Thanks to the new model, we will offer up many opportunities to engage,” said Symons. “We are trying to use all the resources in and among the JCC. We will have serious Torah classes as well as classes such as Jewish yoga and Jewish art.”

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.

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