Gayle Rubin and Michele Cohen are co-presidents of the Jewish Teen Initiative (formerly the North Shore Teen Initiative). Gayle grew up in Swampscott, and majored in recreational management at the University of Vermont. She met her husband Ken, a Newton native, and the couple decided to settle in Swampscott. They have two children, Jordana and Jeremy.
Michele grew up in Riverdale, N.Y., and attended Washington University in St. Louis, where she met her husband, Brian. She moved here, went to Boston University School of Law, and became an attorney. The Cohens live in Marblehead and have three children, Karly, Jake, and Jess.
Can you tell us about your upbringing?
Gayle: I grew up in Swampscott with my parents, Burt and Marcia, and two sisters, Linda and Rhonda. We attended Stanley School, Swampscott Middle and High Schools. We were members of Temple Sinai, I went to summer camp, and in the winter we skied. Our ski home was shared with cousins and always filled with extended family and friends. My parents opened their home to so many – our dining table sat 20 plus and most winter weekends was full. Both my parents had wide circles of friends, were active in the community, through the temple and in town. My entire upbringing left a lasting impression on me.
Michele: I grew up in New York City in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. I attended the Bronx High School of Science. My neighborhood had a large Jewish population and I was surrounded by a large Orthodox extended family of great aunts and uncles. My immediate family belonged to a Conservative congregation. We kept a kosher home, and I attended Hebrew school three times a week until my bat mitzvah.
You’re both very involved in JTI. What made you volunteer for the organization and why is the teen group so important?
Gayle: When my daughter was 16, she travelled with NSTI to North Carolina for a Habitat for Humanity trip. She went solo without friends. She came home exhausted and happy, with mud-filled work boots and cement-filled clothes. She felt accomplished, included, and energized. While my daughter attended and loved Gann Academy and Camp Pembroke, I knew there were so many teens that did not have that exposure. I knew so many friends whose kids were no longer affiliated with a synagogue and had no or very limited Jewish involvement. NSTI had teens volunteering to be Jewishly involved and I needed to understand how and why. Quickly, I learned teens will go and do with their friends, and do what interests them. The organization’s goal is to foster Jewish engagement among teens.There is no “competition” for attendance with other organizations. JTI prefers to connect teens to existing programming, and only builds programs with partners when a need is not being met. I intensely believed in the organization and wanted to enable other teens to have the opportunities to connect Jewishly.
At the time of joining, I did not understand all the trends about Jewish teen engagement, I just knew the organization was special and I wanted to make sure it continued to exist for teens. Today I know 75 percent of teens who have a bar/bat mitzvah will not participate in the Jewish community before going to college. Teens are in a formative period of identity development, and when they engage in effective Jewish experiences as adolescents, they are more likely to choose to live a vibrant Jewish life as an adult.
Additionally, I feel strongly in today’s world of building anti-Semitism, anti-Israel rhetoric and BDS movements, it is critical that we send our Jewish teens off to college, or the working world, feeling good about their Jewish identity. We can only accomplish this if our teens choose to connect to Jewish activities/communities and develop a positive feeling toward the land, people, and State of Israel.
Michele: I have been involved in many areas of the Jewish community, and I think I settled on the teen engagement realm because I see how much impact it has. When my children were in high school, I saw firsthand how hard it was for them to stay involved with the Jewish community. It seems like teens are always so busy, and yet don’t have enough opportunities to really connect with each other. At the same time, during their teen years parents start to lose their influence over kids as they rely more on their connections to each other. It’s a balancing act to learn to keep our distance and at the same time guide them towards opportunities to positively connect with each other.
JTI is a model of this theory – getting teens to engage in their community and build lasting friendships and roots in the Jewish community before they go off into the world. I feel so strongly that teen engagement is of the utmost importance that I recently joined the board of Artsbridge, Inc., another locally grown organization that provides programming that cultivates creativity, voice, and respectful listening to empower today’s youth to become leaders and change-makers.
Why is it so important for Jewish teens to interact and socialize together?
Gayle: We know from national studies that when asked why teens aren’t participating, adults’ and teens’ answers are alarmingly different. Adults answered that teens are over-programmed, stressed, and just too busy in general to participate in Jewish community activities or we don’t have good enough programming available. I myself answered the same way, prior to my involvement with JTI. Teens responded that they won’t know anyone, they didn’t know what was happening, nobody invited them, or that they did not feel that Jewish. If we want our teens to be involved Jewishly, we need to provide opportunities and assure we connect teens to opportunities, engage them, invite them, and include them in programming and activities that interests them and their friends.
The Jewish Teen Funder Collaborative, through 10 cities of Teen Initiatives, identified 14 outcomes that positively affect the lives of teens which cannot be accomplished without a connection to Jewish activities and community. Among those, teens need to have learning experiences, make their own connections, build relationships, express their values, grapple with their spiritual journey, develop their own desire and commitment, and make a positive difference. But, teens will only have opportunities and experiences if they are invited, feel they belong, and go along with their friends.
Michele: These are scary and uncertain times for Jewish communities around the world, our kids do not have the luxury of feeling as secure in the world as we did [however much we did], and it influences them. I think that there is a time and place for everything and while I don’t believe that we can keep our kids protected in a “Jewish bubble” forever, I do think it’s important to give them a strong Jewish foundation that they can rely on when they are faced with tough situations. Ultimately, we want our kids to be comfortable in their own skin and proud of their heritage. The opportunities that JTI offers through community service and peer leadership and other social events like pool parties and ski trips help ground our kids in a solid community and helps give them the confidence they need to confront anti-Semitism out in the world and especially on college campuses.
What’s your advice to young Jewish families who want their teens to get involved with Judaism?
Gayle: Connect your kids to activities that they are interested in, have a passion for, or just what their friends are doing. Jewishbostonteens.com, while in an early stage, provides both parents and teens a resource for the full menu of activities going on in Greater Boston. It’s sortable, and easy to use. The community has a wide range of activities to offer. If you are feeling that “the more I push as a parent, the less likely my teen will do it,” check out JTI’s Peer Leaders [jewishteeninitiative.org] and see if your child has a connection to any of our peer leaders. The Peer Leadership Fellows connect teens through personalized outreach, and I am sure they would be happy to speak with your child about the wide range of opportunities. Remember, our teens want to be invited, know they belong at the event, and if their friends will be there. Our program director, Dana Roth, or assistant director, Brett Lubarsky, are happy to meet your teen for coffee or ice cream and speak to them about opportunities.
Michele: My advice is simple: lead by example. Get involved in the community yourselves, through your temples, schools, CJP and the JCC. There is so much going on in this community for all ages. If our kids see us involved and proud of our community, hopefully they will follow our lead.