BROOKLINE – For over 100 years, Congregation Kehillath Israel has been the gathering place for a Jewish community that combines ancient traditions with progressive ideas.
Among the most recent developments has been a series of teen-led programs that arose during a time when many programs were being shut down.
“It’s been a tough time for teens during the pandemic,” observes KI’s immediate past president, David Williams, “but the teens have stepped up to take on highly visible and successful leadership roles.”
Among the new programs have been online Shabbat services that are led by KI’s teen members and virtual experiences that coincided with the celebrations of Israel’s soldiers’ commitment and the Jewish state’s independence.
“We wanted to see what we could do to advance teen participation at a time when many didn’t think that possible,” Williams explained, noting that the efforts to expand teen programming even as so many other programs were being limited has not only succeeded but served as “a source of hope for … folks in the community who are excited to see a new generation coming along.”
“There is a lot of stuff we are doing with teens,” observes Rabbi Bill Hamilton.
“We have never seen as strong a group of young people as we are now.”
Among the young leaders of the new programs is Williams’ son, Eli.
“I first got involved in these programs after my bar mitzvah,” Eli recalled. “Since I learned how to lead Musaf … I learned how to lead more services … and am excited to learn, and lead more.”
Though he initially led only on “special occasions,” Eli now participates in services nearly every week.
“Engaging with the community is very special,” he said, “even in the pandemic, it allows me to be closer to my community than I would otherwise.”
Looking into the near future, Rabbi Hamilton looks forward to a program in May to mark Jerusalem Day, which commemorates the reunification of the capital city after the Six-Day War in 1967.
“We not only put these young people at the center of the programs,“ Hamilton observed, “[we] show them how exciting it can be to … live and activate their Jewish practice and lives.”
In addition to offering more opportunities for teens to lead, KI also has added a new dimension to its young congregation programming by having Assistant Rabbi Elizabeth Bonney-Cohen act as the head of the Boston-area Base Movement (basemovement.org/bstn) for Jews in their 20s and 30s that is affiliated with Moishe House.
“The Base movement picks people up after Birthright and helps deepen their connections,” Rabbi Hamilton said, noting that KI is the first shul to partner with Base.
As strong as the younger congregational community is, however, there are plans for further growth.
“My goal for the teen programming at KI is consistent with my goal for the children of our community across all ages,” said Lisa Redisch, the congregation’s director of family engagement, who maintains that her primary objective is to allow and encourage all members of the KI community to find a “spiritual center” for Jewish learning, growth, and community. “I hope that our teens feel comfortable exploring and discovering their Judaism as they become adults and find a safe space to ask big questions as they go through a developmentally crucial age.”
Among Redisch’s projects have been launching a BBYO chapter and developing a quarterly Teen Takeover Shabbat that will be in addition to any other events the younger congregants undertake.
“In addition to leading the tefillot and reading Torah,” Redisch explained, “[the teens] have an opportunity to prepare some words of Torah to share with the community during the time that we would normally hear a sermon from one of the rabbis.”
Now that the programming at KI has taken hold, Rabbi Hamilton looks forward to expanding it further once people return to the KI campus and Redisch hopes to use it as a model for other congregations and communities.
“What we are looking forward to,” Rabbi Hamilton said, “is developing a strong core of pre-college kids and a team of post-college kids. That is really a great recipe for instilling some important formative commitments at these critical ages. We want to establish commitments that make holiness attractive in the world. That is what animates our campus vision and it all feeds into that sense of purpose we have.”