Portland’s Jewish Teens Find Spiritual Awakening and Fun at NCSY and JSU Activities

31 Jan 2008

By Rina Olivestone and Yonatan Frankel

Note to Editor: NCSY is the national youth program of the Orthodox Union for teens with some Jewish education. JSU – the Jewish Student Union – consists of high school clubs which meet on school premises at lunch and are intended for teens with little or no background in Jewish life. Rina Olivestone of Teaneck, NJ, is an Advisor for Portland NCSY and JSU; and, Yonatan Frankel of Queens, NY, is Head Advisor of Northwest NCSY and a student at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.

It started out with a simple math problem: How many seats could possibly fit into the tiny living room/dining room? The maze of tables was set with 47 spots, but in the end, it was not nearly enough. Nearly 70 Jewish public school teenagers skipped out on basketball and drama practice, declined to hang out with their friends in the mall, and instead chose to flood the Portland home of Rabbi Chanan and Meira Spivak, the NCSY Chapter Directors, for their monthly Shabbat dinner, known in NCSY as Friday Night Lights and fondly referred to in Portland as “Shabbat Shebang.”

Friday Night Lights is a national NCSY program, in which the lights refer to the Shabbat candles, rather than lights at high school football fields.

The Spivaks, founding members of the Portland Community Kollel (an institute for advanced Jewish study), were pleasantly surprised when 20 teens showed up at their first Shabbat Shebang last year. However, it soon turned into a major draw, and each successive Shabbat Shebang draws an exponentially larger crowd. Although they are never sure how many people will show up, there is always an abundance of Meira’s homemade food.

Friday night starts with a bang with a special Carlebach Kabbalat Shabbat held in honor of the teens. Kabbalat Shabbat is the weekly service, held at sundown, that welcomes the Sabbath. Carlebach services have special melodies; singing and dancing are emphasized in addition to prayer. Dinner is loud and crowded, but is a unique, spiritual, and fun evening that leaves the teens craving more. Last Shabbat, the Spivaks and their children willingly gave up their seats in order to welcome more teens. It certainly was not spacious, but everyone left happy, uplifted, and decidedly less hungry.

Since 2006, when the Spivaks came to Portland and became the NCSY Chapter Directors, they have brought unprecedented growth to the chapter, one of the fastest growing in the country. (The Portland chapter is part of the larger Northwest Region based in Vancouver, headed by Rabbi Stephen Berger, and with a large presence in Seattle.) In addition to NCSY, Meira also runs JSU in local high schools. She currently leads seven JSU clubs and is about to add another two high schools to her circuit — including St. Mary’s Academy for Girls. On Thursday night she presents “Latte & Learning” at Starbucks, where the teens have free coffee and different speakers each week. The Jewish presence in these students’ lives shows.

Rabbi Berger commented, “As one of the originators of Friday Night Lights in Long Island (NY), this was the culmination of everything that I hoped it would grow into. As my wife and I stood and watched, having long ago given up our seats, we could not help but notice that the energy in the room was palpable, and the teens were clearly excited to be keeping Shabbat.”

A life-altering experience:

Many teens have made major changes in their lives based on their newfound love of Shabbat and Torah Judaism. Jaclyn Rubinchik, a senior at Woodrow Wilson High School, was a member of the basketball team when she started getting more involved in NCSY and JSU in Portland. At the end of last year, Jaclyn made the tough decision to quit the team in order to become more involved in NCSY and to try to keep Shabbat more completely. “I felt that becoming more in touch with my Judaism was more important in life than the fame and glory of being on the basketball team,” explains Jaclyn. “I’m very glad that I made the decision that I did, it was so much more fulfilling.” Now Jaclyn is a Vice-President on the board of Portland NCSY (known as PNCSY) and is Co-President of the JSU club at Woodrow Wilson.

Max Spector is a junior who faced similar challenges. A star of two sports teams, Max juggles playing basketball and football as well as being president of the JSU club at his high school, Riverdale. “The importance of NCSY in Portland goes without saying,” says Max. “It’s a setting where I can hang out with some of my best friends in the world and do Jewish things that a lot of us wouldn’t otherwise be doing. I’m extremely grateful for that, especially since we all go to different public schools. The Spivaks make everything fun and accessible for everyone, even people who are less observant. It’s a warm environment where everyone feels welcome.”

Because of his involvement and growth through Portland NCSY, Max is now planning on attending NCSY Kollel – a program in Israel that emphasizes Jewish study for beginner through advanced levels — this coming summer.

With a minuscule budget but an overabundance of love and commitment, the Spivaks often use money from their own pocket to fund the events they plan. And it pays off. Last Shabbat in Portland showcased how much growth the chapter has experienced recently. In addition to the 75 guests Friday night, there was a “small” lunch for 30 more teens, including the PNCSY board. Then, on Motzei Shabbat (following the end of Shabbat), the kickoff event for Junior NCSY took place, drawing over 30 middle schoolers to an ice rink in the local mall. And on Sunday, 150 local teens showed up at LinkedIn, an event presented by JSU, for an evening of fun together with their Jewish peers from other public schools throughout Portland.

Note to Press: Rabbi Spivak can be reached at 503-757-3567 and his email is rcs@portlandkollel.org; Meira Spivak can be reached at 503-757-3037 or MeiraSpivak@gmail.com.