Coffee Talk: NCSY Latte and Learning Sessions Bring Teens to Torah Across North America

16 Oct 2007

Across North America, week after week, hundreds of Jewish teens flock to their local Starbucks and similar coffee houses to sip free lattes and to learn Torah from NCSY rabbis. The teens are part of a program called Latte and Learning that invites middle and high schoolers to discuss the relevance of Torah in secular life. The programs are led by dynamic speakers who share a perspective on Jewish identity, offering an open and interactive discussion for Jewish teens to ask their questions and to voice their opinions. For many Jewish teens, this is their only source of Jewish nourishment.

NCSY is the North American youth movement of the Orthodox Union.

The Latte and Learning program began in Detroit in 1996 as a way to attract unaffiliated Jewish teens to Judaism. According to Rabbi Steven Burg, International Director of NCSY who was then the director of the Detroit-based NCSY region, “The sessions represent a paradigm shift in reaching unaffiliated Jewish teens, bringing Judaism to places where teens want to hang-out, and offering diverse speakers on topics of specific interest to them.”

When Rabbi Burg moved to become the Director of the West Coast Region, he brought along the program, which has since flourished. The program quickly spread to dozens of locations across North America including California: Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, Sunnyvale; Canada: Vancouver, Richmond; Florida: Jacksonville, Miami; Illinois: Skokie; Maryland: Rockville, Baltimore; Michigan: Detroit; New Jersey: Bergen County, Cherry Hill, Manalapan, West Orange; New York: Five Towns, Oceanside, West Hempstead; Oregon: Portland; Texas: San Antonio; Washington: Seattle. Latte and Learning has also expanded to Santiago, Chile where NCSY has a thriving program.

NCSY has regions and chapters across the U.S. and Canada. According to Rabbi Chaim Neiditch, director of NCSY’s Atlanta-based Southern Region, “The Latte and Learning sessions are a microcosm of what NCSY is all about. It involves using creative means to reach teens wherever they are and it is working.” He is currently planning to spread the program to other areas in his region besides Jacksonville.

NCSY advisors coordinate with the local managers of Starbucks and the other coffee houses to ensure that patrons visiting the establishments will not have disrupted service; some sessions are so crowded that the teens bring their own chairs. In Cherry Hill, NJ over one hundred teens come to the Latte and Learning sessions. According to Rabbi Jonah Lerner, Director of NCSY New Jersey, “The manager gives us our own barista and check-out line. We’ve been there so long that the barista knows what’s kosher.”

Elana Resnick, a senior at Cherry Hill West High School, has been attending Rabbi Lerner’s learning sessions every week for years and has reworked her views on Judaism because of the program. “To say that the Latte and Learning sessions changed my life is an understatement,” Elana declared. “I wasn’t religious at all before the program and I was iffy about NCSY. Now I’m Shomer Shabbos (Sabbath observant) and I’m the vice president of my chapter.”

Starbucks and Coffee Bean, in Los Angeles, are useful locations because of their kosher drink selections and casual, fun atmospheres. “Many teens are more comfortable at a coffee house than they would be at a synagogue, declared Rabbi Burg, the NCSY Director. “The program became a conduit for unaffiliated teens to learn Torah in a way that was not intimidating. The Latte and Learning sessions are a perfect bridge for teens to meet other NCSYers and to get involved in additional NCSY programs.”

“The informality of the setting allows Jewish teens to discuss issues in secular life while learning Torah values,” declared Rabbi Effie Goldberg, Director of NCSY West Coast. “Discussion topics have included: jealousy of one’s friends; how to forgive someone you hate; belief in the afterlife; and belief in the coming of the messiah,” he said.

Edwin Nikrabesh of Santa Monica Junior College kept going back to Rabbi Goldberg’s sessions because the topics were so interesting. “Rabbi Goldberg would always end the sessions with a question and I’d be wondering about it all week. I had to go the next week so I could find out the answers. I also started going to other NCSY events like barbeques and a beach trip,” Edwin declared.

Some of the teens who attend Latte and Learning were already involved with NCSY and its public high school counterpart, Jewish Student Union (JSU); many get involved with these programs after attending, while others will only attend Latte and Learning. “It is really exciting when teens from non-observant backgrounds wind up going to yeshiva,” declared Rabbi Lerner of NCSY New Jersey. “One girl felt intimidated by Orthodox Judaism and now she attends Shabbat dinner at my house every week.