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Jewish Teen Initiative Expands into MetroWest

Fourteen students from North Shore Teen Initiative joined more than 250 other teens for a weekend of leadership training at URJ Eisner Camp in Great Barrington. Pictured above, clockwise: Nina Cushinsky, Jacob Abbisso, Elise Chigier, Emily Zieff, Michelle Slezinger, Ben Birnbach and Marissa Samuels.

Fourteen students from North Shore Teen Initiative joined more than 250 other teens for a weekend of leadership training at URJ Eisner Camp in Great Barrington. Pictured above, clockwise: Nina Cushinsky, Jacob Abbisso, Elise Chigier, Emily Zieff, Michelle Slezinger, Ben Birnbach and Marissa Samuels.

Mary Markos
Associate Editor

In a study conducted over ten years ago, research showed that 70% of Jewish students on college campuses didn’t feel comfortable participating in Hillel International, providing three common reasons why. The first was that they didn’t feel Jewish enough. Second, nobody had asked them or invited them, and third, they didn’t have anyone to go with.

From those three responses, Hillel International, the largest Jewish campus organization in the world, created a Jewish internship program where they trained college students in community organizing, outreach and building relationships, resulting in a higher percentage of Jewish involvement.

Throughout the Jewish community there has remained a question that countless organizations have tried to solve but ultimately failed: How do we get teens involved? North Shore Teen Initiative’s Sloane Peer Leadership Fellows program thinks they have found the answer in the Hillel model.

NSTI is partnering with Hillel International and Congregation Shirat Hayam of Swampscott to train local tenth and eleventh graders to reach out to un-involved Jewish peers and connect them to Jewish life, organizations and events. “What I’m so excited about with this particular program is the opportunity to be the first teen partner in the country to make use of Hillel International’s really incredible engagement model,” said Adam Smith, Executive Director of NSTI.

Peer Fellows Elise Chigier, Michelle Slezinger, Ben Birnbach (top), Emily Zieff, Daniel Kasten, Marissa Samuels and Jacob Abisso.

Peer Fellows Elise Chigier, Michelle Slezinger, Ben Birnbach (top), Emily Zieff, Daniel Kasten, Marissa Samuels and Jacob Abisso.

“We have long since recognized that the best people to connect to teens are through other teens,” said Smith. With the Hillel model, individual Hillel chapters on campus hired students, offering them a job alternative to working at the library or the dining hall, by getting paid to know Jewish students within their social network and letting them know about opportunities available through Hillel and the Jewish community. “Not with pressure to recruit them to specific things, but really just as a connector,” said Smith.

The fellowship is a paid program, with fellows earning a yearly stipend, generously funded by Toby Sloane, in memory of her husband, Carl, Harvard Business School’s Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor of Business Administration, Emeritus, who died last year.  Fourteen tenth and eleventh graders from across the North Shore applied and were accepted as Sloane Peer Leadership (SPL) Fellows. The fellows have already attended leadership training in the Berkshires, and created social network maps to help identify Jewish teens in different areas of their lives.

Hillel International met with SPL Fellows on Sunday, November 6, to train the teens in how to engage and recruit their peers. Averi Kaplowitch of Marblehead and Emily Zieff of Beverly are two participants in the program.

Kaplowitch applied because she wanted to get more Jewish teens involved in the community. “Many of my friends in the community are not connected with other Jewish teens,” said the Marblehead High School junior. Most of her friends stopped engaging after their bar or bat mitzvah. “I do believe it is important for Jewish teens to be connected to their Jewish community because it can feel very isolating when there are not other teens around that you feel connected to,” said Kaplowitch.

Zieff, a sophomore at Beverly High School, applied to the program because she’s passionate about Judaism and wants to help others have their own unique and positive Jewish experience. “There are a few Jewish kids at my school whom I’m friendly with, but they aren’t involved in any Jewish organizations,” said Zieff. In her mind, meeting people who share the same beliefs and experiences has a positive outcome. “I think that it’s important for Jewish teens to feel connected to each other and the Jewish community in general because they should be proud to be Jewish,” said Zieff.

Brett Lubarsky with NSTI led a training session for Peer Leadership Fellows.

Brett Lubarsky with NSTI led a training session for Peer Leadership Fellows.

“Entering its eighth year, NSTI has had incredible success partnering with organizations across the community in this kind of global effort to get more teens in our community engaged in all parts of Jewish life,” said Smith. NSTI, whose mission is to engage more Jewish teens in more aspects of Jewish life, has already experienced success in the early stages of this program.

CJP requested they take their model to MetroWest, and provided a grant for the expansion, and communities across the country are now interested in bringing the leadership program to their area, including San Diego, San Francisco and Baltimore.

“Honestly, we were kind of shopping for strategy,” said Smith. NSTI was asking themselves: What can we do to reach out to the under engaged kids that aren’t right in front of us? Smith and Rabbi Michael Ragozin were meeting with Sloane, the donor, who connected the two men with Hillel. “The more we talked to Hillel about the power of their model the more apparent it became that this is an incredible opportunity,” said Smith. When they approached Hillel International about collaborating to bring their model to the Jewish teen space they were ecstatic, according to Smith.

“Adam and I had a really similar vision for the ways in which we could transform teen Jewish engagement,” said Rabbi Ragozin. For him, it was important to put the kids and their experience first. But the idea of being part of something larger that will be impactful and have a deeper meaning for the participants, as well as for the broader population of Jewish teens on the North Shore, is what really excited him about the opportunity to partner with NSTI and be a part of formulating the fellowship. “When you transform it from being a synagogue only engagement model to a community wide engagement model, I think it really services the teens and what they’re looking for in terms of social opportunities,” said Ragozin.

What often stops kids from participating, as seen in the Hillel study, are the questions: Am I Jewish enough? Did anybody ask me and are any of my friends going? By recruiting and hiring 14 outgoing and diverse teen leaders, representing public and private schools and different synagogues, those questions will be addressed by training them to use the Hillel International model in how to connect with their peers. According to Smith, “What we think that we badly need is a way of saying to any Jewish family on the North Shore, ‘Welcome to the Jewish community, here is what is available to you.’”

Visit nsteeninitiative.org.

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