07 Oct 2010


BY: Efron Sturmwind

Efron Sturmwind is Youth Director at the Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City.

“If you build it, they will come.”

Looking back on the Youth Professionals Conference presented by the Orthodox Union’s Karasick Department of Synagogue Services recently in Stamford, CT, this message left ringing in my ears by OU Executive Vice President Rabbi Steven Weil, holds the key to establishing a thriving youth program in synagogues, and by doing so, strengthening the shul immeasurably.

The conference gave youth directors from across the country a chance to discuss many ideas, learn new skills, network with each other and take back practical information and programs to be used in their youth departments. I was happy to attend the conference and plan to implement much of the content that was discussed there into the Youth Department at Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York, an OU member congregation, where I am youth director.

Youths Department as Marketing Tool:

Rabbi Weil emphasized that the youth department is a vital force in the success of a synagogue. On a personal note, it is a good for youth directors to hear and understand that the role we play is imperative to the shul’s success, because the youth department is perhaps the greatest marketing tool attracting non-connected Jews and bringing them to the synagogue. Families are looking for great children’s programming and if your youth department can be that address, the families will come. The youth department can be your shul’s premier outreach center, and this can be accomplished first and foremost by simple of word of mouth invitations to Jews around the community whom we work with and interact with every day, or who are strangers to us.

Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn, founder and creator of WINGS, the OU’s developing initiative to inspire “new growth synagogues,” offered a wealth of information benefitting our youth departments. He advised that each program set a general theme for the year – for example, Tanach (Bible), or Chessed (acts of loving kindness) – to provide the youngsters with a great deal of education, both informal and formal, on the specific topic. At the end of the year, each youth department member, no matter their age, will feel they have accomplished a great deal.

Youth Leading Other Youths:

The vital role in the youth department played by the group leaders – themselves participants in the program and not professional staff – was emphasized Rabbi Uri Pilichowski, youth director at Congregation Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills. His session on creating teen leaders was enlightening, as he advised how to make a successful youth department even better with dynamic group leaders. As Rabbi Pilichowski put it, group leader training must play a fundamental role in the youth department, referring not to staff leaders, but to the teens themselves. Training these peer leaders will not only take programs from good to great, but will build the teens up as leaders in their own right.

At Lincoln Square Synagogue we have held group leader training sessions in the past, but we now will be adapting our sessions to emphasize leadership skills. We are also instituting a once a month shiur (class) given by the rabbinical staff, specifically to enhance the roles group leaders play in the shul. An innovation we will introduce this year will be the “Group Leader Programming Initiative,” which involves having group leaders create their own programming on Shabbat mornings (under the direction of the professional youth staff ) and allowing them to take a true ownership of the groups they run.

Rabbi Pilichowski described a terrific program at Beth Jacob — a service for pre-bar/bat mitzvah youth, to give the flavor of an adult Shabbat service, which they both take part in and run. The service includes davening, a “mock Torah reading,” d’var Torah (sermon), and other aspects of the Shabbat liturgy. The young people develop a feeling for how a synagogue service runs, even before they become bar /bat mitzvah age. By the time they graduate to teen minyan, they have already gained the skills to effectively take part in the synagogue’s main service.

Not Your Father’s Youth Program:

It may seem obvious, but Rabbi Josh Broide, formerly youth director of Boca Raton Synagogue in Florida, made it clear that we must know exactly who our audience is. The youth department that is run with the same programming today that it had when we were “customers” may not, and probably does not, apply to youth today. We must be constantly analyzing and catering our program to today’s children. I appreciated his message that we must be honest with ourselves and look at our programming, which may be excellent, but not applicable to whom we are serving. At Lincoln Square, we constantly survey the children of all ages on a range of topics — from toys and candy for prizes to types of programs and games they like coming for.

Rabbi Broide made another point which I must keep in mind as I continue to grow as a youth director. The idea is that everything takes time to grow; small but significant changes are the ones which truly stick and make a program better. While we all might have ten great ideas, focusing on implementing two or three will ultimately be more successful than trying all ten. To build a model youth department we must look at our programming and find ways to introduce positive and innovative changes that will last and over time build new components into our program. Then, our audience will grow, helping the synagogue to grow along with it.

As Rabbi Weil made clear, “If you build it, they will come.” They – meaning the kids — are coming to Lincoln Square Synagogue in increasing numbers; it is my hope that these helpful hints will enhance the youth programming at other synagogues as well.