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August 27, 2015 | 12th Elul 5775
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Youth and Teen Services--Worship Relevance

Includes discussions on:
  • Youth Services
  • Youth Leading Services
  • Junior Congregations
  • Family Services

See also

  • High Holy Day Youth Attendance and Services
  • Yom Kippur Youth Services

  1. Some of our teens are not interested in our regular adult services, and try to spend as much time helping the younger children as possible. While this is a service to our congregation, I feel like we are not offering them something meaningful on the High Holidays. The other thing we have tried with some success is offering the teens parts leading our services, especially on the second day of Yom Kippur. I was thinking this year of approaching our ritual committee and rabbi about a one-hour discussion program for the teens before they join the regular services. It could mix education and personal reflection on the meaning of the holiday to teens.
    280 Families

  2. As the former president of the Senior Youth Group at my temple, I can speak for the youth of the congregation when I say that our Teen Services on High Holidays is a great addition to the regular service. Our Teen Service is done for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the afternoon on each day. It does not replace the regular service. The youth group writes and leads the entire service and it's open to 6-12 graders. Many teens also go to regular services in the morning or help out with the K-5 programming in addition to coming to teen services.
    800 Families

  3. On Yom Kippur afternoon, each year the section entitled, From Creation to Redemption, is presented by members of our Temple Youth Group. Presented as a whole, rather than reading just one passage and skipping several pages, ensures that everybody in the congregation makes this journey together. It's a great way for recent Bar/t Mitzvah to keep up with their Hebrew skills. The congregation really enjoys seeing the youth group in this fashion.
    80 Families

  4. I've been lay leading Shabbat morning services once a month at our congregation since last spring. There had been no venue for families to worship together until then. Our sanctuary and chapel are in use, so we have taken over a double classroom. We set up in the round with a Torah scroll on a table at the center, on a rug large enough to leave room for the kids to sit.

    High points:

    MUSIC. The kids and their families love it and it opens everyone up. We have a congregant who is a part time cantorial soloist who comes with his guitar. We sing all of the service; no responsive reading. Earlier on I included some reading and asked individuals as they came in to be prepared to read

    MOTION. I have the kids come close to the center. I've learned an American Sign Language version of the Sh'ma; they love it. We do a long hakafah, letting everyone hold the Torah (parents and kids) or, if they are too young, at least to touch it without rushing.

    FREEDOM Be prepared to let kids wander in the room and even make more noise than usually expected; its not disruptive, and tolerating it lets families with young children feel very welcome.

    TORAH. Unroll it, have the parents stand behind it and holding it vertically and the kids hold it from below with flat hands. The Torah reader then reads while we are all holding and seeing the Torah. Keep it out and let them talk about it.

    LOVE. We end with kids cuddling with whoever they came with, songs of peace.

    AUTHENTICITY. Include the core prayers and chant the V'ahavta, if that's what your congregation does. Model whatever the congregation values.

    FOOD!!! We have a light Kiddush lunch (after the blessings) - with kid-friendly food: PBJ triangles, juice, cookies, as well as (we do vegetarian) adult food - tuna, egg salad, etc. This is the part that makes for preparation work and cost. Sisterhood sponsors ours, but a few families could volunteer or be designated for each time.

    850+ Member Households

  5. Part of being in a creative service is participation. Talk to a NFTY song leader about teaching a selection of melodies ahead of time to interested congregants. Then set up a service date with the youth group so that they are expecting you. And finally, sing, dance, and pray along side of the teens as part of the broader "k'hilah k'dushah" (holy community). Then be sure to treat everyone to pizza and ice cream afterwards.

  6. What we usually do is have one of our Hebrew School classes lead the balance of the service. The level of adult direction decreases of course with each succeeding level. The music we choose is lively and folkie - lot's of Debbie Friedman and Jeff Klepper. The children love "Miriam's Song" and two songs not in the Friedman/Klepper repertoire--"Let the Heavens Be Glad" and Flory Jagoda's Sephardic version of "Ein Keloheinu", "Non Komo Muestro Dyo". In addition we hand out tambourines and rhythm instruments, and the children love to accompany the songs--especially on the off beats.

    When the younger children lead services, I generally read or tell a story. When the older children are in charge, they perform a sketch related to the parashah from "Sedra Scenes", or occasionally write plays of their own.

    Numbers are always better when a covered-dish supper precedes services. You might also consider instituting junior congregation and teen minyan services once a month on Shabbat morning. This has proven to be quite successful.


  7. Our rabbi does a great job of including children at specific points in the service. He brings them onto the bimah to open the ark for the Aleinu (and gives them candy before they sit down). We have created "kid bags" including toys and other quiet distractions to keep kids busy during services. On Fridays when there is a speaker, we run a kids' activity during the sermon. And during the Motzi, we invite the kids to get close and PLACE a hand on the challah while we sing.
    557 Families

  8. At our temple we have Tot Shabbat services monthly, on the first Friday, at 6 pm. The services are led by one of our rabbis with a cantorial soloist who is also a well-known children's folk singer. Services are followed by dinner, which is largely potluck. The temple supplies chicken and drinks, while congregants bring salads, vegetables and desserts on an alphabetical system. We also have a monthly "Shalom Shabbat" at 6 pm on the second Friday, which is aimed at families with children in the early elementary grades. It follows a similar format to Tot Shabbat, with a service geared to the age group, and is also followed by a quasi-pot luck dinner. Both services have been functioning for many years and are very well attended. They have served very well to engage young families in synagogue life.
    1150 Family Units

  9. For the last couple of years or so, we have had a very successful monthly Tot Shabbat Friday night service. The service is the first Friday of the month at 6:30 p.m. and is in addition to, rather than instead of, our usual congregational Erev Shabbat service at 8:00p.m. It is in our sanctuary, so it is...cleared out...before the 8pm service. Tot Shabbat is led by lay people - usually a very energetic couple who have been the driving force behind this service and put together a siddur for the particular service. Many times they are accompanied by a lay music leader. The service lasts for about 20 to 30 minutes, with a short Torah reading (so the children see the tradition of reading from the Torah) and a story. Then the tot congregation moves to another part of the synagogue for an Oneg Shabbat put together by parent volunteers.

    Attendance may be 100 or more sometimes, with quite a few non-members.

    450 Member Units

  10. Our synagogue has monthly services that are led by our Religious School classes grades 2 through 6. The teachers for each grade assign parts and rehearse with the children. The kids seem to enjoy leading the service with the rabbi. Our senior youth group also leads services. They will generally lead one Shabbat service during the year and they conduct a service on Yom Kippur afternoon.
    555 members

  11. At our synagogue, we have been including post- b'nei mitzvah teens and young adults in leading Shabbat services in a number of venues throughout the year. Some of these are youth group services and, for older students 8th grade and up, services where the teenagers pretty much write and lead the service assisted by the rabbi and cantor.

    During the summer, many of our services are lay led. One year we used mostly teens and young adults to lead these services "solo"; this year we tapped a broader spectrum of volunteers from long term, older congregants to post- b'nei mitzvah teens for this mitzvah. The same holds true for the cantor's side of the bimah. In a nutshell, I could not be happier with the results. Lay-led services are "owned" by the congregation and the students and young adults are engaged in way that cannot be duplicated elsewhere. I wholeheartedly endorse placing our young people on the bimah whenever possible.

    400 members

  12. We have kids and teens lead in three different ways. First, we run a monthly Junior Congregation (aimed at 1st - 5th grades) where children volunteer to lead most of the service. The same Friday evening, our teens lead their own worship - holding a special youth program following their service. In addition, many years we have had an annual youth group Shabbat where the teens lead the entire congregation in worship.
    760 members

  13. Our congregation offers a youth Shabbat morning service twice monthly, on the 2nd and 4th shabbatot. It takes place from 9-10 AM, prior to the regular Shabbat service. Students are expected to attend and most do attend, along with many of their parents. It is a shorter service, very lively and engages the interest of the group. P.S. When I was a kid growing up at Rodef Shalom in Pittsburgh there was a Youth Shabbat in the school auditorium, led by the assistant rabbi.
    Approx. 600 members

  14. We are experimenting with different formats for our family Shabbat services that are conducted by members of each religious school class - some on Friday evenings, some on Shabbat morning. The format differs from class to class as the ability of the children varies. Our rabbi encourages each child to take part in the leadership of the service, but not in a way as to interrupt the mood.

    For example, a child may read the first line or sentence of a prayer in Hebrew and then switch to English. Two children may share a reading. Young classes usually rehearse a song or two, and the congregation is encouraged to sing along with familiar songs. The class sits on chairs facing the congregation and the little ones do have to come up to the microphone on our low bimah to be heard. Some adult congregants shy away from these services, other adult congregants (who don't have children in our school) tell us that they love these services; that it makes their hearts sing to know that a new generation is coming that will be familiar with the prayers.

    At a recent service led by the 7th grade, students and one parent read a short d'var Torah. At a morning service where the kindergarten and first graders sang an introductory song and led the recitation of the Sh'ma, the children also put on a Torah play following services. Congregation members as well as family members enjoyed seeing the children act out the story of Rebecca meeting Eliezer at the well.

    We don't have a perfect structure. Sometimes we experiment with a potluck dinner for the congregation after services, sometimes the class parents put out a festive Oneg Shabbat. Our family services are a work in progress; the one sure thing is that we have a commitment as a community to include young people in the leadership of services. It's a great way to involve whole families.

    There is no picture taking or taping allowed during our family services.

    400 members (155 school students)

  15. We have a Junior Congregation service once a month, which is mainly led by our associate rabbi and cantor. These services are well attended and have good youth participation. These are partly "learning" services through our Religious School and can be used to fulfill our Religious School service requirements, which were instituted three years ago. Many parents also attend these services and the response from them has been very supportive.

    We also have once a month Simchat Shabbat service for our younger group (preschool and first grade). This service, geared to their level, has a lot of singing and is followed by a Kiddush luncheon hosted by Nursery School Committee volunteers. Families love these services as well.

    1300 members

  16. We have begun a regional teen service program in the San Francisco Bay Area, East Bay. Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, the director of youth and informal education for the Union's Pacific Central West region is organizing the program. We have held one service already and plan to continue them on a quarterly basis. The services are led by teens at locations where two services can be held at once, so that parents who drive will be welcome to attend the regular service but not the teen service. We have scheduled Rick Recht to lead music at our next service. We have created a siddur booklet for use with these services. Together with a teen only Rosh HaShanah service, these have been well received so far.

  17. Our youth group has its own service once a month. They do it on the first Friday of the month, and call it First Friday. It is organized and led by the teens themselves. One of the teens is designated as coordinator for the year and is responsible for organizing them. They make it into a creative service, incorporating activities in which they find self expression. More information would be available through our Web site,
    About 850 households

  18. Our congregation has had a monthly lay-led "Tot Shabbat" service for a couple of years or so. It is at 6:45pm, and lasts about 20-30 minutes, followed by an Oneg. It precedes our "regular" Friday night service which is at 8:00pm. As I recall (I haven't attended it in a while), no published prayer book is used--the family that took the initiative to get this going prepared their own brief service based on the Shabbat evening service. Below is a brief description of the service from our congregation's Web site (

    "Tot Shabbat is a lively 20-30 minute Shabbat service for families with children eight years old and under with lots of music, interaction and story telling. Felt candles are "lit", as the sanctuary is filled with uplifting music led by our song leader. Services are held the first Friday of each month beginning at 6:45 p.m. and are followed by a wonderful child oriented Oneg."

    Some years back, I had tried to get a Tot Shabbat going on Saturday mornings around 9am or so, prior to the "main" morning service. We tried it from 4 to 8 times a year. It featured a short Torah service and child-oriented d'var Torah. It wasn't bad (if I do say so myself), but we only attracted a few families at each service. At first, we put together our own little service, or used one of the family-oriented services in the blue Gates of Prayer book. Later, we used Shabbat: A Family Service by Rabbi Judith Abrams and illustrated by Katherine Janus Kahn, published by Kar-Ben copies. I thought that book worked pretty well and it has lots of pictures for the non-reading kids (which was our prime audience).

    The Friday night Tot Shabbat has been very popular with 60 or more parents and children, many who are not members (so we are looking at the service as a means of welcoming prospective members). So for us, the Friday night services have worked much better. I was inspired to start the original set of Tot Shabbats based on the "Torah Brunch" my wife and I attended a few times almost twenty years Temple Beth Israel in Melbourne, Australia. That service was led by one of the rabbis and brought in a large number of families on Saturday mornings, while the "main" service went on in another part of the synagogue. (I don't know if they still have these services--I checked their Web site and couldn't find a reference to it.)

    440 member units

  19. I would not care if only ten out of 100 families wanted the Tot Shabbat service. Whatever happened to "we are preparing our children from the earliest days for a Jewish life," or do we wait until they are twelve, hand them a tape, have them mumble a couple of chapters of Torah, and then be surprised when they are not interested in continuing in Judaism. The earlier the better, and Tot Shabbat starts them on the road.

  20. With the exception of those who participate in the choir, most of our teens cease attending Friday night services on a regular basis after they become bar/bat mitzvah. We thought of holding services at an earlier hour (usually they start at 8 P.M.), as a way of making it more conducive for them to attend, and are seeking other suggestions. What do other congregations do to successfully encourage post- bar/bat mitzvah youth to continue attending services on a regular basis?

  21. We switched this fall from 8:00 P.M. to 6:30 P.M., offering a pre-service wine and cheese and fruit before services and our attendance has gone up rather substantially. We are working on a program specific to keeping post-bar and bat mitzvah involved, but don't have specifics at this time.

    The earlier service hour is not without its inconveniences for some, but most members have now adjusted and we plan to continue the earlier service time.


  22. Most of our teens enroll in our Hebrew High School program post bar/bat mitzvah. In doing so, they, like our younger religious school children, have a "service requirement", a specific number of services they have to attend each year. This helps with that problem.

  23. With regards to teen attendance at services, here are a few suggestions. (Having recently turned twenty, I hope that I can provide some insights).

    Instead of instituting service requirements to get teens to go to something that they otherwise would not want to go to, how about making services something that teens want to go to. Try speaking with the regional youth directors at your Union for Reform Judaism regional offices. Having experience in NFTY for two years and being a counselor at two different Union Camps, I have seen plenty of teens (and younger) who actually want to be at services.

    Some things to think about:

    • Moving away from rabbi- and cantor-led services with limited congregation involvement (participatory praying/singing is much better)
    • Avoid GOP responsive readings (creative and contemporary readings are better)
    • Is the sermon (and the person giving the sermon) interesting to teenagers?
    • Guitar led services, instead of piano or organ
    • Alternative, smaller, chavurah style services
    • Earlier Shabbat services with dinner or some other casual hang out event afterwards


  24. In my previous congregation, we had a database of all of our b'nei mitzvah students and the dates of their services. They would receive a notice a couple of months in advance to come and celebrate their bat or bar mitzvah anniversary at an Erev Shabbat service or at a Shabbat morning service when there was no one else becoming bat or bar mitzvah.

    The "celebrating" consisted of the students reading a prayer in Hebrew from the liturgy or chanting the Torah blessings or reading part of the Torah portion. If they needed help brushing up on their Hebrew, either my cantorial soloist or I would meet with them in person or speak with them over the phone. During most years, more than half of the students chose to participate and a significant minority did so all the way through their senior year in high school.

    In my current congregation, my confirmation students are required to do ten hours of mitzvot instead of a term paper or other assignment. One option is to chant Torah at five services during the year; another option is to help me lead five family services. Although the numbers aren't large yet for those options, we're off to a good start and it sends a message to the younger kids that the older ones are still around at services and in leadership roles. Starting next month, I plan to get the b'nei mitzvah anniversary participation going.

    By the way, the downside to this is that some adult congregants may feel that the service is being taken away from them, particularly when students read prayers that the congregants would be reading along with the rabbi. Because of that objection, we eventually limited the number of student participants at my previous congregation, which also included pre-b'nai mitzvah students. Otherwise, this works out very well.

    445 membership units

  25. Perhaps one of the reasons teens do not want to come services is that it is our service and not theirs. If your service still uses an organ and you are singing music by Max Helfman then that is not a service that a teen wants to come to. If you are using a guitar or keyboard and your choice of music is Debbie Friedman, Jeff Klepper, or Rick Recht, then you have a better chance of attracting teens to your service.

    I really am an optimist.


  26. Somehow, even changing the music to what teens like is just not enough. Synagogue services are not, and cannot be, camp or NFTY services, and the same ruach cannot be achieved no matter how hard we try. Nor do I think we should try. Teens need to have their own worship experiences, their own style, their own thing, and if we try to duplicate it in an adult service, then it ceases to be theirs.

    We need to continue to encourage participation in group NFTY events and attendance at camp for as many teens as possible, to gently lead them into a Jewish life. Just because they don't come to Temple on Friday nights, doesn't mean they don't believe or don't want to be Jewish; they need to express their dedication in their own ways. As the saying goes... give them roots, and then let them grow wings.


  27. Nov 2006 Digest 173

                Last Saturday evening, our congregation held an event, “Guide to the Perplexed Attendee of Shabbat Services.” Its purpose was to answer questions about Mishkan T'filah and to provide an historical perspective of Reform liturgy. Two of the six attendees were teenagers: My son, 15, and the daughter of our synagogue president, 14.

                The discussion about changing liturgical language to reflect gender equality sparked a heated debate. Both teenagers objected because they felt that recasting the prayers in inclusive and politically correct language misrepresented the original sources. Both describe themselves as feminists but expressed that reading original materials and understanding them in light of modern views was a more scholarly and authentic approach than rewriting or re-translating the Hebrew to eliminate sexist language.

                They asked, “Do we simply rewrite everything we don’t like? Where’s the integrity in that? Isn’t it more honest and instructive to retain the traditional language but discuss the differences between older values and contemporary values? Don’t we learn more about our history if we are aware of the biases and contexts of the original texts?” They also extended this criticism to liturgical changes in Mishkan T'filah to de-emphasize angelology, emphasize spiritual vs. physical resurrection, and de-emphasize particularism. As you might imagine, other participants raised counter arguments, and our group had to agree to disagree and move on.

                So, are we alienating young people because they view Reform liturgy as watered-down, dishonest and inauthentic?

                I do not agree that it is any of these, but I think these teenagers raised significant philosophical issues. Is their wish for "authenticity" part of the phenomenon described in an earlier post…that described youth as desirous of answers?

                Is it the job of the Reform Movement to serve up what congregants want? Which people should we please and which alienate?


    75 members


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