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by Kara Liu
Youth engagement is about more than just teens. Rather, effective youth engagement is a whole organism made up of parents, leaders, and the young people themselves.
That’s the main takeaway from my experience at a recent day of professional development at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, organized by Rabbi Bradley Solmsen, director of youth engagement for the Union for Reform Judaism. At the seminar, I came to fully appreciate the network of colleagues who are doing youth engagement work – and I learned that I, too, am a bridge connecting all the entities of youth engagement to my temple family and our youth group.
Three years ago, my congregation set out on a journey to try to create an active teen presence, something our community had been missing. As a part of this effort, we sent our new ninth grade class to a regional NFTY kallah. At the event, our excited teens made new friends, experienced NFTY’s shared history and culture, and immersed themselves in the joys of Reform Judaism. They were a little bit lost when they arrived, but by the end of the weekend, the teens knew one thing: They wanted to bring the magic of NFTY back to our synagogue.
That’s how our youth group began.
We call it ANDI, in memory of Andi Joustra, a dedicated teacher and mentor to our teens.
That weekend’s NFTY event marked the beginning of our teens putting down roots in our own community, Temple Israel in Long Beach, CA, and expressing themselves spiritually. Now, they have an active presence in our synagogue, where they attend board meetings, lead services, raise money for social justice causes, volunteer, create original content, and host regional NFTY678 events. Since then, they’ve traveled to Atlanta for the North American NFTY Convention, where they networked with other teens from all over the U.S. and Canada, and they’ve even traveled to Israel with NFTY, bringing back energy and ideas to share with their peers.
Through their participation in congregational life and the greater Jewish community, they've made a glorious declaration about their willingess to step up and be seen, heard, and accepted for all they have to offer.
It is that declaration that drives me to keep learning what I can do to empower my teens. In addition to learning from Rabbi Solmsen at the recent professional development day in Los Angeles, two other conversations from that day have stuck with me that will help me continue to do this work.
The first was with Rabbi Tali Zelkowicz, associate professor of Jewish education at HUC-JIR, who shared with us the idea that “Jewish identity” is not a noun but a verb. Jewish identity is not something I can give teens; rather, it is in motion, something our teens must discover themselves. Our community provides teens with tools to explore their own identity, to express their beliefs, and to find their own Jewish spiritual life, a long-lasting and integral component of who they are and who they want to be. I am their guide and their co-creator on the journey.
The next memorable conversation was with Samantha Rosenberg, vice president of marketing and strategy at Walt Disney Studios, who explained to us how Disney Studios markets films to various groups. Together, we explored the question, “How do you get a buzz going and generate interest for the same product from vastly different individuals?” This question applies directly to our youth work. In particular, I learned to “fish where the fish are,” and to have ambassadors who will be supporters of our work. I learned about the importance of when to give people their 15 minutes of fame and when to be concise, ideas I will take home and translate into ways to help my teens enrich and enhance their dreams for our community.
As I looked around the room filled with my diverse colleagues – youth advisors, directors, rabbis, educators, activists – I realized that, like my temple community, we are all parts of one organism moving toward one goal: engaging young people in meaningful, vibrant Jewish life.
Sometimes, I sit back and wonder how I got here. Though I have no background or formal training for the path that has been laid out in front of me, I am learning that I am not alone. I have amazing teens to work with, a regional team like no other, and support from my synagogue community. I have the support of my temple’s educator, rabbi, and community, not to mention my teens themselves, as well as the NFTY SOCAL team and the URJ. And now, having participated in this seminar, I have access to continued encouragement and new resources from my Jewish community at large. I don’t know where this path will take me, but wherever it is, I know that this work – and my teens – are truly a gift.
Kara Liu is the eighth- and ninth-grade Torah center teacher and youth advisor for ANDI, the youth group at Temple Israel in Long Beach, CA. Kara also works with NFTY SOCAL, helping to supervise logistics, programming, and staff happiness. She is an artist, wife, and mother who enjoys drawing, ceramics, cooking, and working in her organic garden.