Tuning into Teens
It is no secret that the teenage years can be quite challenging. Today, this is truer than ever. Today’s high school student faces added responsibilities and pressures. Whether it is striving for excellence in grades, sports, extracurricular activities or just good old peer pressure, the life of a teen is packed.
Five years ago, Rabbi Yitzi and Rishi Hein settled in Pittsford, a Rochester, New York suburb, to open a new community Chabad center with a special emphasis on programming for Rochester area Jewish youth.
Armed with many years of youth-related service the exuberantly energetic 20-something Hein couple possess just the right mix of earnestness, knowledge, and approachability guaranteed to appeal to even the most challenging of youthful audiences.
The couple’s foray into the field of teen programs began with social programs such as Bat Mitzvah Club, sushi-making and The Friendship Circle, a mentoring program that matches teenagers with special needs children. All the teen programs acquaint teens with Jewish values in a fun and meaningful way.
A couple of years ago, Rabbi Hein looked into a custom- crafted teen educational series designed by the Jewish Learning Institute (JLI), the educational arm of Chabad Lubavitch. “I saw what the JLI for Teens series was accomplishing in other Jewish communities around the world,” he said. “So I thought, ‘why not try it here in Rochester?’”
Yet the rabbi still had a nagging worry. “Initially, I was a little skeptical that teens would want to study more,” he admitted. “I mean, as noble as the idea might sound, maybe this type of program would not be a priority for them given their overcommitted schedules.”
In the end, Rabbi Hein realized his fears were unfounded. Alex Hollenberg, a senior at Pittsford Sutherland High School, described the impetus for his attendance at the teen JLI study program, “This class is important to me,” he said, “because I get to learn about Jewish values and how they relate to real-world situations. I learn about things I wouldn’t have otherwise learned had I not attended the class. For instance, the Ten Commandments teach us both not to steal and not to kill; so are you allowed to steal to save a life?”
“It amazes me how legitimately busy these kids are, said Rabbi Hein, “they’re striving for academic excellence and involved in sports. Yet their level of interest in participating in a forum to discuss these issues in a deep way blew my mind.” Over the course of eight weeks, during the recent bleak winter months of October through December, some fifteen teens spanning the gamut of Jewish affiliation, ranging in age from 14-18 years old and from all corners of the metropolitan area (even as far as Honeoye Falls!), gathered on Sunday evenings in the new Chabad Center of Pittsford to wrestle with Jewish law as it pertains to modern life.
The aim of the series titled Life on the Line: You Make the Call is, according to the informational flyer, to “discover a different way of navigating through life’s tough decisions.” With the help of textbooks, videos and interactive Power Point presentations, participants were encouraged to voice their opinions regarding the case studies examined during each of the course modules. With intriguing module titles such as Heroes and Hoodlums, Your Money or My Life and Last Man Standing, the students grappled with moral choices such as: Whose life is more valuable - yours or your friend’s? Is it morally acceptable to save one’s own life by killing another person? Is it permissible to steal or damage someone else’s private property to save oneself from danger? To place these conflicts within a Jewish framework, the students delved into a wealth of Jewish sources, from the Talmud to the present day, to learn the Jewish approach to these modern-day dilemmas.
Helen Kaufman, a Pittsford Sutherland High School junior, stressed the importance of discussing modern issues within a Jewish context. “I think it’s really important to learn about what your religion believes regarding these issues,” she said. Sixteen year old Michael Seluanov, a junior at Honeoye Falls High School, underscored a greater appreciation for the worth of life as the most important take away message from the JLI teen sessions. “It really helped me understand the worth of life, within a Jewish context and Jewish values. You don’t often find classes like these,” he said. His parents, Vera and Andrei, were greatly impressed with the program as well and were pleased to see how motivated Michael was to attend.
“For us, this course was exactly right,” Vera said, “we missed the window of opportunity for Jewish education for him when he was younger.” Andrei shared that the family had been looking for a good Jewish studies program, expressly for teenagers, for quite some time. “Michael was very motivated to attend the classes because the discussions were relevant – real-life situations. He will definitely go to the next level.”
And he and other teens will soon have the opportunity to do so. Scheduled to begin after Passover, on Sunday evening April 7, 2013, the next JLI for Teens series enticingly titled The Adventures of Super Jew – the Miracle of Jewish Survival, will address issues of anti-Semitism, assimilation and Jewish pride.
For further details on how to participate in this innovative learning experience contact Rabbi Yitzi Hein, Co-Director Chabad of Pittsford, at firstname.lastname@example.org.