Growing array of innovative programs attract teens

With academics, sports and extra-curricular activities, it isn't unusual for teens today to be highly overscheduled. For those teens with a strong Jewish affiliation—either from home, camp or their synagogue—Jewish youth groups and organizations are a top priority. But studies show that the majority of Jewish teens look at their long list of extracurricular options and relegate the Jewish ones to the bottom.

National studies show a dramatic decline in Jewish involvement from the time of becoming a bar/bat mitzvah through high school. While more than 75 percent of Jewish 13-year-olds participate in a Jewish education program, by age 18 fewer than 25 percent are involved in any organized Jewish activity. With more than 4,300 Chicago-area Jewish teens enrolled in synagogue b'nai mitzvah programs, local organizations, including the Jewish Federation, are offering new models to keep teenagers involved in the Jewish community at a time when they generally disengage.

Teen giving circles

In an effort to foster a new generation of Jewish leadership and engage Jewish teens in Chicago's Jewish community, the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago in 2004 created the nation's first Federation-sponsored teen giving circle—Voices: The Teen Giving Circle.

Voices teaches teens the needs of the Jewish community, engages them in community service, provides compelling content for resumes, and serves as a forum for teens of varying levels of affiliation to meet on common ground.
Voices, now in its third year, teaches area Jewish high school students, grades 9-12, about philanthropy, the grant-making process, distributing funds to nonprofit organizations, and the difficult task of narrowing down which programs to choose with limited money to fund them. The teens, chosen through an application process, meet monthly throughout the school year, and decide in the spring which programs to fund. Voices was made possible through a $1.5 million grant to The Centennial Campaign by an anonymous donor. The endowment provides $25,000 each year for Voices teens to allocate to the organizations of their choice. In addition, the students donate an aggregate amount of more than $1,000 to the JUF annual campaign.

Building on the momentum of Voices is Kolot, a new Federation initiative that combines philanthropy and Israel education. "The concepts of tzedekah and Israel are shared by Jews across the spectrum," says Hallie Shapiro Devir, director of Federation's youth initiatives.

The hope, says Devir, is that by combining a giving circle with Israel education that includes a life-changing trip to Israel, Kolot will profoundly impact teens' commitment to Jewish philanthropy, the Chicago Jewish community and the State of Israel. The program is generously supported by a local family foundation that prefers to remain anonymous and the Fel Pro/Mecklenburger foundation.

Kolot—which means "voices" in Hebrew—is loosely based on a current partnership with Temple Anshe Sholom in Olympia Fields. Earlier this year, the congregation's rabbi, Paul Caplan, asked JUF to bring philanthropy lessons to the temple's high school Havurah. JF's teen programming and Partnership 2000 staff developed a curriculum for the classes and modified the Havurah's recent Israel trip to include a visit to JUF's P2K region of Kiryat Gat, Lachish and Shafir, located in the Negev desert. Federation recruited 14 outstanding teens from that region, who joined the Anshe Sholom trip.

Rebecca Jones, a sophomore at Homewood-Flossmoor High School, is a member of Voices and Anshe Sholom's Havurah. On her recent trip to Israel with the temple, she and her peers visited an Ethiopian absorption center in Kiryat Gat where she met a young man who benefited from one of the Voices grants. "Voices donated to that center for a deejay course, and when I told a kid who took that course that I was in the group that contributed to the program, I felt pretty powerful," says Jones.

Beginning in fall 2007, Kolot: The Israel-Centered Teen Giving Circle will bring together 20 Chicago teens, grades 10-12, and 10 teens from the P2K region in Israel to serve as board members. Ongoing communication through letters, e-mail, and at least one videoconference will connect the groups, who will follow similar curricula.

During winter break, the groups will meet in Israel in a trip coordinated by Federation and Shorashim, a Federation-affiliated organization that runs the Chicago community trip to Israel. Home hospitality in the P2K region, site visits, a joint community service project and touring around Israel will make up the fact-finding trip. Upon their return to Chicago, the group will focus on gaining research skills, developing grant guidelines, and reading grant proposals and budgets.
In the spring, Israeli teens will visit Chicago to learn about the local Jewish community and to jointly make decisions about the groups' philanthropy allocations.

The short-term goal of Kolot and Voices is to teach students about Jewish philanthropy. Long-term, Devir hopes what the students learn in these two teen philanthropy programs will cultivate the next generation of Jewish philanthropists and leaders.

Teen volunteering

In an effort to better serve teens in the Chicago area who are interested in volunteering, JUF TOV Volunteer Network is developing new programming targeting young people post bar and bat mitzvah through high school. Camp TOV, two one-week volunteer programs to take place in August, will be the kick-off to TOV's new initiative. Programming will also include two teen mitzvah days per school year and the TOV Fellowship Program, where students can annually earn a certificate by completing 18 or 36 hours of service.

Camp TOV is open to students, grades 8-10, and will take place in the Chicago and the suburbs for two weeks in August. The hope, says Joanne Greenstein, director of TOV, is to attract teens who have a break between camp, jobs or summer school and the start of the new school year, as well as those who are genuinely interested in volunteerism. The day camp will provide some 80 participants with hands-on volunteering, socializing and group discussions about tikkun olam. "This is a great opportunity for teens to meet teens from all over Chicago who share similar interests," says Greenstein.

TOV has worked extensively with teens and youth groups on an informal level, but there has not been an initiative to focus entirely on middle school and high school students. Numerous teens with a general interest in volunteering and with school social service requirements have turned to TOV to find opportunities throughout Chicago. And teen nights at the JUF Uptown Cafe have always been popular.
In the past, TOV has also held teen in-service days where teens from all over Chicago met together on a legal holiday and then dispersed in small groups to locations throughout the city. Up until a recent grant from the same anonymous donor, however, there was not enough funding and staff to continue the popular program. The generous new funding allows TOV to implement programming like the in-service days and to develop new programming that focuses exclusively on teens, whose schedules and interests can vary from other volunteers.

There's a high demand for volunteer opportunities among teens starting after bar and bat mitzvah. Giving back just resonates with a lot of kids," says Greenstein.

Write On for Israel

Providing an intense Israel education to 11th- and 12th-grade students in the Chicago area is the Write On for Israel program, now in its third year. The Israel advocacy program is offered by the Community Foundation for Jewish Education of Metropolitan Chicago, JUF News, and The Associated Talmud Torahs, supported by The AVI CHAI Foundation and JUF's Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish United Fund. By combining Israeli history and politics education, a fact-finding mission to Israel, and writing and public-speaking experience, the intensive program provides strong Israel advocacy skills to high school students just before they enter college.


Shorashim, a Chicago-based organization and affiliate of the Jewish Federation devoted to building bridges between Israeli and North American Jews, developed two recent programs to reach marginally affiliated high school students in Chicago. In October, Shorashim's Club Israel, in cooperation with the Jewish Federation's Jewish Community Relations Council/Hillel Israel Initiative, launched the "Israel Student Ambassador Fellows" program with 28 students ranging from a school president to a wrestling star, and everyone in between. The student leaders are training to learn Israel advocacy and programming skills in order to be ambassadors in their public high schools. Training workshops in students' homes feature Jewish professionals, including Harvard Professor Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar and former White House Jewish liaison to President Bill Clinton, Jay Footlik.
Juniors and seniors who were admitted to the program joined in order to increase their knowledge of Israel and to be able to implement Israel programming. Becky Tannenbaum, a junior from New Trier High School, said, "I've personally had teachers in high school make comments about Israel that I felt were untrue and it was frustrating for me to just sit back and let them fill students' minds with false information. Unfortunately I didn't feel confident enough to question what the teacher was saying. That really bothered me.

Reaching for the stars," a program set to launch in the coming months, will gather some 20 students for periodic meetings with inspiring Jewish figures and leaders such as Rona Ramon, the widow of astronaut Ilan Ramon, and Natan Sharansky. The program will also include a trip to New York.

Jewish Student Union

Reaching out to marginally affiliated high school students of all ages is Jewish Student Union (JSU), a national group that has been operating in Chicago for the past two years. The program, which reaches out to students in public schools, was the brainchild of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), although now it is an independent organization.

The goal is to get Jewish teens involved in Jewish life, says Brad Sugar, JSU director in Chicago. By organizing weekly meetings at 10 Chicago-area public high schools, the five full-time staff members try to get to know each student one-on-one. They then direct them toward Jewish organizations and groups in line with each student's interests. "It's kind of a Hillel model. We want to get kids hooked in whatever way they feel comfortable," says Sugar.

Some 250 students attend JSU meetings weekly, and some 500 total students have participated on some level. The majority of those students are unaffiliated with Jewish life.

Key to JSU's success has been free pizza and location. "They come to us because we go to them," says Sugar.

Meetings are student driven and can feature a discussion led by the adviser or a visiting speaker. Whatever the students are interested in, is what they discuss, says Sugar.

Some [students] come for the pizza, some come because their parents can't pick them up right away, and some come because no one's ever reached out to them in this way. But in general, it's working."

For more information about these programs, visit or e-mail with any questions. For more information about TOV's teen programming, call the TOV hotline at (312) 357-4762.

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