Youth groups help teens navigate these trying times

New techniques and old memories bring teens together

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Forty NCSY teens participated in a Chesed/Relief mission in Puerto Rico in August 2021, rebuilding schools, farms, and homes damaged during 2017’s Hurricane Mariah.

High school is hard enough during "normal" times--let alone during a pandemic. Without question, COVID has exacerbated many other stressors teens already face--academic pressure, evolving family and peer relationships, drive for self-actualization, and the unrelenting pull of technology and social media.

But thanks to longstanding Jewish youth groups affiliated with movements across the religious spectrum--like BBYO, NCSY, NFTY, and USY--Jewish teens and their parents have resources to help guide them through these unsettling and uncertain times. These organizations, targeting Jewish teens and sometimes pre-teens, are using a combination of new technology and ancient Jewish values to help their participants navigate today's challenges.

One silver lining to the pandemic has been discovering how much Jewish teens long for meaning--in terms of repairing the world and connecting with one another, both in a Jewish environment.

Social action, in the last 19 months, has taken precedence for teens over social events. "What was fun was going on roller coasters. The mood now is less 'amusement park,' more 'make your mark,'" said Rabbi Donny Schwartz, Midwest Regional Director for NCSY--under the auspices of the Orthodox Union. "They want to build, paint, farm, and serve-- [do] something that matters. They want to find a Jewish lesson that connects with our history and values."

Issues motivating teens these days include racial justice, the environment, gender and orientation issues, inclusivity, and consent, said Drew Fidler, Director of the Center for Adolescent Wellness for BBYO--a pluralistic movement. "They want more education on these issues, and spaces to discuss them, to become better advocates. And they tie these issues to Jewish values," she said.

Combating rising antisemitism, particularly anti-Zionism, is another issue that compels many Jewish teens active in youth groups, according to NCSY staff. Even when their classmates are ignorant about Israel's history and politics, said Schwartz, one thing they do know is that "it's trendy to be anti-Israel." In response, youth groups equip their participants with facts about Israel so they can respond to criticism and misinformation from a place of confidence. 

In addition to social justice, youth group leaders say their teen participants are hungering for a return to communal religious experiences. "The teens missed, even craved, many things they might not have expected to, like Kabbalat Shabbat and Havdalah," said Marc Sender, Branch Director for both the Chicago and Midwest Regions of USY--based on the ideology of the Conservative movement. 

Most of all, youth group staff have found that teens just want to be together--in person--after being isolated, and sitting in front of their screens, for so long.

"Last school year, we saw participation go down as teens became all Zoom-ed out by the end of the school year," said Stacy Bernstein, the Midwest Area Associate Manager of NFTY--affiliated with the Reform movement. "Many teens have expressed excitement for in person programming this year."

More than big-ticket events, teens are craving simply being together. "We used to rent out Second City or have a kickoff at Wrigley Field," said Sender. "Now, we're going to put up a succah and hold lawn games. Getting together is, itself, the attraction. [Teens] just want to be with each other."

The pandemic has taken a heavy mental and emotional toll on teens. In response, Jewish youth group staff and other Jewish youth professionals have mobilized to help teens find their way through the anxiety pandemic that has accompanied the COVID pandemic--investing in increased mental health resources and other types of support.

"COVID just threw gasoline on the fire," Fidler said. "COVID has taken milestones away from teens. Some lost years of middle school, and the development that comes with it, at a time of their life [when they're discovering] who they are." 

JUF has supported local youth-serving organizations through special grants to help them meet teens' needs during COVID, including technology that strengthened virtual programming, supplies to make in-person programming safer, and hiring additional staff--especially staff equipped to handle teens' increased anxiety and stress--to ensure that teens felt seen and heard. Springboard, Chicago's hub for teen programs that sits at JUF, also provided professional development for Jewish youth professionals that ranged from virtual facilitation to managing their own mental health and well-being.

Youth groups staff and other Jewish youth professionals are helping teens navigate the return to in-person learning and social interaction. The JCC Chicago system hosts social activities for teens. In addition, "JCCs are working through our Teen Engagement department to help with matters like social interaction, returning to classrooms, time management, and organizational skills," said Julie Rubin, Senior Manager of Teen Engagement.

"For some teens, COVID was a respite from social life--some were introverted, or had been bullied," Fidler said. "Reintegration took a toll. It was as if they had been shot out of a cannon.   Reading social cues had to be relearned. Social distancing was confusing. There has been a rise in anxiety and fatigue."


Ultimately, said Moshe Isenberg, NCSY's National Director of Strategic Partnerships, youth groups offer support for teens at a crucial time in their lives: "They don't expect to have answers, but they want to know how to get them. We can provide answers."


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