Kevin Pruslin dressed up as Elijah at a Model Seder at Congregation Ahavat Olam in North Andover.

Merrimack Valley temples working to keep teens in the flock

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Merrimack Valley temples working to keep teens in the flock

Kevin Pruslin dressed up as Elijah at a Model Seder at Congregation Ahavat Olam in North Andover.

Many Jewish teens in the Merrimack Valley are searching for a Jewish connection with others their age. They may be the only Jewish student in their class, or one of a handful in their school.

Most of the congregations recognize this need and offer teen engagement programs, high school classes, or both. Many also have seen a decrease in the number of teen participants due to COVID and the end of the baby boom.

The Jewish Journal spoke with teens, advisers, religious school administrators, and rabbis of four congregations: Congregation Shalom in Chelmsford; Temple Emanuel in Andover; Congregation Ahavat Olam in North Andover; and Congregation Ahavas Achim in Newburyport.

Congregation Shalom is the only temple in the Merrimack Valley with an active traditional youth group. “The Shalomites have been an integral part of the congregation for over 25 years,” explained Sandy Moore of Billerica, who co-advises the group along with Rob Berkovitz of Chelmsford. Before the pandemic, there were 30 teens in the group, but today there are approximately 15.

Berkovitz, first vice president of the congregation that serves Westford, Chelmsford, Billerica, and towns in New Hampshire, said things have improved, but it’s still a struggle to reach teens.

The Shalomites run the Purim Carnival, a fund-raiser for the group. They have social action projects, educational programs, a shul-in, a bake-off, and an annual “no” ski trip (tubing) to New Hampshire.

The Jewish Journal spoke to Natalie Weinberg and Betta Shuldiner, who are currently on the board, as well as Hannah Wolman, who was student president the previous year.

Weinberg, 17, is a senior at Westford Academy and Shalomite president. “I’ve been a part of the youth group since eighth grade,” she said. Some of her favorite events are the Purim Carnival, the ski trip, and the bake-off. “For the Purim Carnival, we sleep over the night before and bake hamantaschen to sell. At the Purim Carnival, we dress up in costumes, and play games with the kids,” she said.

COVID affected the membership for a few years, according to Weinberg. When she joined, a lot of friends who were part of the b’nai mitzvah class also joined, and “we were close.” During the pandemic, the young teens did not make the same connections, she explained.

Numbers are beginning to tick upward. “I credit Rob [Berkovitz] and Sandy [Moore] for keeping it organized and together,” Weinberg said.

Shuldiner, 15, of Pelham, N.H., is a 10th grader at the Arts Academy of New Hampshire. She is vice president of programming for the Sholamites. “The best part about being part of the group is spending time with friends, and going to events,” she said.

Wolman, 18, of Chelmsford, who is now at Smith College, was president and a board member for five years. She stressed it was a valuable experience to be a leader in the community and doing something important.

Shalomites board members Josh Woolman and Betta Shuldiner preparing food in Congregation Shalom in Chelmsford.

Congregation Shalom also has a Madrichim program where teens volunteer to help in the religious school, as well as a high school program, confirmation and post-confirmation.

Temple Emanuel of Andover no longer has a youth group, but has a youth engagement program. “We want to empower the kids to do their own planning of programs,” said Judy Matulsky, assistant director of the religious school. Recent activities have included apple-picking, going to a trampoline park, and a shul-in. The teens also are involved in Family Hanukkah celebrations and the Purim Spiel. She said there are about 10 to 12 youths who participate.

“It is not easy to compete with sports, and COVID really set us back,” Matulsky explained. She added that Temple Emanuel hopes new rabbi David Wilford – who starts July 1 – “will bring new life and vitality back into the programs.”

Around 16 teens volunteer for the Madrichim program in the younger grades. “The little kids look up to them, they earn dollars to Jewish camps, and we even write reference letters for jobs,” Matulsky said.

The temple draws its members primarily from Andover, North Andover, North Reading, and Reading. In some of these communities, the youth programs may be the only connection to other Jewish teens, she said.

In North Andover, Congregation Ahavat Olam membership has grown from five founding members in 2022 to over 140 today. Ten students are becoming b’nai mitzvah this year, and another 10 next year, so the congregation can expect teen involvement to increase, said Rabbi Idan Irelander.

The congregation has monthly programs for eighth-graders and high schoolers. There also is a Madrichim program. “Our teens are great role models and develop great relationships with the younger children in our congregation,” said Einat Irelander, director of the religious school.

Ahavat Olam involves teens in other areas of congregational life as well. Teens volunteer along with adults at the Cor Unum Meal Center once a month, she said.

Friday and Saturday services are hybrid, and “we’re making [high schoolers] directors of the Zoom,” Rabbi Irelander explained. “My goal is to get the next generation more involved by giving them more responsibility.”

As the congregation grows, teen programming will grow. “We are planning a Purim Spiel for next year that will be an uplifting musical experience. We have a lot of kid musicians and singers. It is another multigenerational connection,” said Rabbi Irelander.

Kevin Pruslin, 15, is a 10th grader at Wilmington High School. This is his second year with the Madrichim program. “It is a great way to learn more about Judaism,” he said. As one of only a handful of Jewish students in his high school, Pruslin stressed the importance of being able to connect with others who have the same heritage and beliefs.

Congregation Ahavas Achim in Newburyport has six to eight teens in its high school program. They help out with the Purim Carnival and participate in activities including challah baking.

Rabbi Alex Matthews said he would meet with the group once a month for pizza and discuss topics such as how to find God in their teenage lives. “Then Oct. 7 happened, and now I go with the flow, as to what the teens need,” he said.

“I think teens across the board are facing a tremendous amount of isolation and mental health burden coming out of the pandemic and having so much of their formative years disrupted by the necessity of online learning,” Rabbi Matthews continued. “I would expect that is exacerbated for Jewish teens who … especially over the last six months, are sometimes called into the center of attention as Israeli politics and antisemitism take a center stage in the national discourse.”

Maddie Katzen, 17, of Georgetown, is a senior at Whittier Tech in Haverhill. She decided to attend the program at Ahavas Achim after her bat mitzvah, but felt a little disconnected. After deciding to go to Israel in 2022, she became more connected to the program.

“It is a welcoming and safe space to share our experiences,” she said.

Twins Becca and Eliza Naftoli, 17, of Newburyport, are seniors at Berwick Academy in Maine. They grew up attending Ahavas Achim’s Hebrew school and decided to join the high school program with Rabbi Matthews. They liked that they were able to stay connected to the synagogue community, as well as connect with other Jewish teens.

Eliza Naftoli said they loved the idea of having an open space to share ideas, ask questions, and connect to local Jewish teens. “I love that the group as a whole can strengthen our connections to Judaism and support each other in ways others may not be able to,” she said. Θ

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