This article was produced as part of JTA’s Teen Journalism Fellowship, a program that works with teens across the world to report on issues that impact their lives.
(JTA) — When youth group leader Evan Shrier first started organizing events for his peers at Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, California, he was excited to take on the leadership role. Two years later, he struggles to keep the spark alive in his work now that so few young people show up after their b’nai mitzvah.
“I got to watch it grow and watch 20-30 people, mostly high schoolers and some 8th graders, coming to events, and now it just hasn’t really been the same,” Shrier, 17, said. “We still try to put on really fun events, but it doesn’t feel very rewarding when there’s one person besides the board that comes to them.”
Shrier is experiencing what many religious leaders witness every year: a drop off of synagogue participation after b’nei mitzvah. As teens grow older, some struggle with making time for religious activities because their focus is pulled by sports and extracurricular activities that build their college resumes.
“When I apply to college for kinesiology and to be on the track team they’re going to look at my sports medicine and running team” experience, says Shrier. “They’re not going to look as much at Kol Tikvah.” While he still makes time for Kol Tikvah, he says he needs to prioritize activities that get him merit scholarships for college.
A 2016 report commissioned by the San Francisco-based Jim Joseph Foundation found that Jewish teens feel torn on how to balance their secular and non-secular activities, and more often choose to prioritize the former.
Most surveyed said that they don’t consider Jewish activities as chosen free time. Instead, they look at them as a meaningful third category between school obligations and fun pastimes. The students — between 12-and-a-half and 17 years of age — said that having Jewish friends impacted their involvement in Jewish activities.
The report also found that encouraging “cognitive competence” among teens is a key factor for engagement in Jewish activities. “They’re seeing the world around them, they’re building their identity, they’re developing values,” stated Rabbi David Kessel, former BBYO chief program officer, in the report. “And if we help them do so in a sophisticated and engaging way by providing these content-rich experiences, they will come and they will resonate with it.”
Many organizations are working hard to provide such “content-rich experiences.” For example, BBYO provides leadership training, community service and Jewish education for teens. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism funds the social justice program L’Taken for high schoolers across the United States, where they learn how to lobby senators and representatives in Washington, D.C. Another organization, Moving Traditions, teaches the importance of personal wellbeing, justice and caring relationships through a Jewish lens. The emphasis on leadership and tikkun olam — social justice — in these organizations bridges teen’s Jewish and secular interests through meaningful and “[non-]boring Jewish content,” said Kessel.
Kessel and the 2016 Jim Joseph study also suggest that teens are more likely to engage in Jewish activities that are compelling and add value to their lives. Said Shrier: “I carry myself through life a lot differently with the values I see in Judaism and that I’ve created for myself through my connection with Judaism. There’s a lot of things I do now that I wouldn’t do if I hadn’t connected with the temple, and I’m really happy that I do them.”
However, teens are involved in other enriching, secular activities that compete with Jewish extracurriculars, causing the teens to grapple with how to spend their limited time.
Ava Naiditch, 16, of Los Angeles, ranks soccer as her most important extracurricular. As a Reform Jew, she resonates with the youth group culture at her temple and wants to stay involved in activities such as confirmation, but has a life-long commitment to her sport. She says she can’t stop soccer now to make more time for her Jewish activities because it would feel like quitting and abandoning years of dedication and hard work.
Academic pursuits also pull teens’ attention away from synagogue. Orli Adamski, 15, from New York City, serves on the editorial board for jGirls+ Magazine, a publication for teen journalists, and may pursue writing in college. The magazine offered her professional, resume-building experience, which was her primary goal in joining. “It being a Jewish magazine was just a bonus,” Adamski said.
However, for some teens, pulling away from synagogue does not mean they cut themselves off from their Jewish community.
Julien Deculus hasn’t been active in the synagogue where he got bar mitzvahed seven years ago, but the 20-year-old is still close to friends he made at the Los Angeles temple.
“The relationships I fostered at temple extended outside temple youth groups so I did not feel like I was losing connection to the Kol Tikvah family,” he said.
The relationships teens develop at temples connect them more with Judaism than synagogue itself in some cases.
“I do care about Judaism but I care more about the connection and the friendships that come along with it,” said Nathan Gaffin, 16, a junior from Waltham, Massachusetts. “I can confidently say that if I didn’t have a lot of friends at my temple, I would not go as much, although I still do feel Judaism is very important.”
Gaffin co-founded the Jewish Student Union at his high school, where only about 30 out of 1,800 students are Jewish. “It’s very important to have that small, safe space where we can say what we want without feeling threatened, we can have fun, and make connections with people that are similar to us,” he said. Gaffin’s club addresses topics like antisemitism in pop culture and at school along with intersectionality within Judaism. He also makes sure there is time for light-hearted activities and just hanging out.
Gaffin dedicates a lot of his time to his tennis team, while also working as an assistant Hebrew school teacher at his synagogue, and on the board of his temple chapter of United Synagogue Youth. During the tennis season, Gaffin misses a lot of his Hebrew school classes, but says “he doesn’t feel like he’s missing out on too much,” but wishes he could make time for both.
Naiditch regrets not staying involved in Jewish activities because, like Gaffin, they provided a “safe place” where she felt comfortable discussing the prejudice Jews face. Especially with the recent backlash regarding rapper Kanye West’s antisemitic tweets, talk amongst ignorant teens has spread antisemitism around her school. She realizes how uncomfortable she feels and misses the connection she had at her synagogue. Naiditch wants to join her temple’s confirmation class, even though it conflicts with her Youth and Government meetings.
Making the time to engage in Jewish activities isn’t a big concern for Charlotte Saada. “If it weren’t for my parents’ connection to Judaism, I wouldn’t be as connected as I am,” says the 16-year-old from Los Angeles, whose family attends a Conservative synagogue.
She takes part in her family’s religious activities, like weekly Shabbat, but acknowledges that once she moves out and becomes more independent, she will likely not maintain her family’s traditions because she’s “too lazy” and would rather spend her time building her crocheting business.
Time management is a challenge for all young people, but Shrier, the youth group leader, won’t trade in his Jewish connection. “Even though I don’t have the time, I love the temple and the little time that I have to give I want to give,” he said.
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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