Across history and geography, demographics and denominations, one of the most defining characteristics of being Jewish has always been our “sense of peoplehood”—our commitment to and reliance on being a community.
Synagogues and community centers serve as physical hubs, but even when we lose or outgrow them, the intangible bonds of our Jewish community hold us together at nearly every life stage. Seniors enjoy meals together and tour museums. Sisterhoods and brotherhoods plan events and serve those in need. Playgroups and preschools teem with our youngest generation. Our school-age children gather for religious school or meet up at summer camp.
But what about teens? Opportunities for kehila (community) drop off dramatically after kids pass bar or bat mitzvah age, the point in their lives when they might need it most.
This is the point when our kids are waking to a world much bigger than themselves. Community can be a sense of connection. This is the point when they start noticing society’s complex web of ideas and opinions. Community can be a safe place to process, discuss, and disagree. This is the point when they start imagining life outside our home. Community can make them feel comfortable anywhere. This is the point where Judaism, which may have always been baked into their routine, starts competing for time with academics, sports, jobs, and social schedules. Community can be the tether that keeps them from drifting.
However, unlike the Jewish traditions, recipes, and kiddush cups that we pass down, we can’t give our kids community. What we can do is put our teenagers in a supportive environment where they can build it for themselves.
Teen-only environments, like summer programs, are the birthing ground for communities that serve our kids throughout their lives.
All teen, all the time
Living together lets them build relationships from the ground up. In a teen-only environment they support and rely on each each other. Parents, school friends, and teammates take a backseat so teens lean on one another, build relationships, and grow as individuals.
Sing, dance, and play
Music, movement, arts, and adventure bring teens together today. Melodies, memories, and alliances hold them together over time. Plus, let’s face it, our teens generally are not looking for Judaism. When they can find it as they have fun with their friends, it becomes one with their experience.
Learning and enlightenment
Teens bring a variety of backgrounds and experiences, but coming together to hear new ideas and consider different opinions in a safe environment helps them try out their own points of view while learning how to respect each others’.
Prayer and ritual
Tel Yehudah’s Shabbat rituals balance community togetherness with individual choice, exposing teens to more than what they came with. Their prayers may have the same words, but when teens from all over the world come together and learn new versions and interpretations, it builds connections to each other and bridges into Judaism.
Each element of a teen-only community is important on its own, but together they are powerful. Teens realize they can sing and dance together and discuss differing opinions about politics or Israel. They learn that strong communities make them strong people.