Engagement and leadership programs for teenagers are vital ways that local synagogues can get young Jews involved with their community while instilling in them a sense of responsibility and leadership skills that they can carry with them throughout their lives.
Several synagogues in the DMV area have teen leadership programs, which include being a teacher’s classroom aide, mentorship partnering and working on service projects, all of which allow teens to build good connections with the synagogue and help shape their Jewish identity.
“I think it [widespread participation] shows that they [teens] are yearning for engagement. They want to stay connected to their Jewish community, and we want to find whatever way they can do that which will bring them joy and meaning,” said Mckinley Edelman, Assistant Director of Education, Teens & Young Families at Temple Micah in Washington, D.C.
The biggest teen leadership program offered across multiple synagogues is the madrichim program, which allows teens from ninth to twelfth grade to work in classrooms for religious instruction and be a resource for the teachers and students who may need extra attention. They are eligible for student service-learning hours through the programs, with some synagogues offering the possibility of wages instead.
“An important feature of the program is that they become older buddies to the younger students and that’s one of the advantages of having them there. The kids like to learn from teenagers and be around them and when they have someone in their classroom throughout the year, they often develop a bond with that person,” said Mollie Katz, a board member at Temple Emanuel in Kensington. “In terms of retaining young kids’ interest and being part of Jewish education in the Jewish community, that’s a great role model for them.”
The benefits of the program go beyond improving the quality of a young student’s education and differ depending on the synagogue and its mission.
The program is a great way for teens to learn how to give back to the community, according to Kim Hughes, Temple Emanuel’s Learning Inclusion Coordinator.
It involves teens in their local Jewish communities, deepens their relationships and furthers their Jewish education, said Edelman.
The growing involvement of teens also shows that there’s a hunger to participate in the community and these types of programs are effective in allowing everyone involved to get benefits and enjoyment out of their work.
“We really jump-started the program when I joined Temple Micah full-time three years ago. We had maybe 15 madrichim that year and this year, we have 24. Our school has grown a lot. We’ve added about 100 to 120 kids over the last three years. Our madrichim team has become really vital in the classroom,” Edelman said.
While extremely popular, the madrichim program isn’t the only offering that’s driving teen engagement. Teens across the area are being offered leadership positions in local Jewish camps and service projects that can span internationally.
Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church is a prime example of these outside programs, with their teens having the opportunity to be camp counselors at Camp Rodef Shalom, with skill and leadership training that takes place over several years as they progress through the program.
“It’s a camper program. They would come to camp as campers and it’s part of their program in seventh and eighth grade where they have some leadership training and they get to shadow bunks,” said Jordyn Barry, director of Camp Rodef Shalom. “The ninth-grade program, our CIT program, is a staff position and they go through our staff training … we really want to give them the tools so that the following year they can come back as junior counselors. The best staff that we can hire is the staff that we can train ourselves throughout the course of the years as they’re growing up with us.”
The program allows the synagogue to provide a safe environment for the teens to grow and enhance their leadership skills slowly over time, while keeping them engaged and incentivized to stay connected with the camp and the Rodef Shalom community throughout their developmental years.
Temple Emanuel takes a different approach to their teen initiatives outside of the madrichim program. They focus on student service projects as part of their Global Mitzvah program, which are somewhat unique in the DMV area based on their scale and focus, which sometimes stretches across international borders.
“This year, we’re doing some work with Nigerian markets. We’ve supported clean water projects in Africa, a library in El Salvador, the first time that this school has ever had a library. As far as the projects go in many cases, we’re mostly supporting organizations that do not have Jewish involvement,” said Stanley Fagen, director of the Global Mitzvah program at Temple Emanuel.
Fagen says their program opens a lot of doors for the teens and sets a foundation for future success, leading some people to find their passions for other projects or causes.
“I think the benefit for a lot of the young people in the temple was that when they get involved, and they do something constructive and they feel good about what they’ve accomplished and what they’ve achieved, then that spreads a little bit for their interests and their purposes. And often they get more involved in the temple activities that take them further,” Fagen said.
While the programs might differ, that attitude toward the benefits of teen programs was a common theme across the different synagogues. The community enjoys having the teens involved and getting to interact with them, while also seeing the positive impacts of their volunteer work in the community and beyond.
“The older generations, they recognize these kids because they attend most of the B’nai Mitzvah, regardless of whether or not they know the kids. And so, they start to recognize faces … It’s a wonderful tie that keeps our older members connected to our younger members,” Edelman said.