It’s a perennial challenge: how can congregations keep their teens connected to the Jewish community and involved in Jewish life once the bar/bat mitzvah is over? While many communities have success with vibrant youth groups that attract middle and high school students, the problem for four Conservative congregations in northern Westchester was that none of the congregations, individually, could sustain a viable youth program.
The solution? First, Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill, Temple Beth Shalom in Mahopac (in neighboring Putnam County), Croton Jewish Center and the Yorktown Jewish Center joined together to develop a professionally run youth group for the four congregations. The program is also open to unaffiliated Jewish teenagers, or those who belong to other congregations in the area.
“The synagogues up in this area are all, size-wise, medium to small,” said Rabbi Lee Paskind of First Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill. “It has been hard to get a critical mass of kids. Kids want to meet more of their peers. One of the attractions is having access to everyone in a region.”
Even though the northern Westchester area has seen significant Jewish growth during the past few years, geographical sprawl conspires against fostering the kinds of close-knit, cozy Jewish communities seen in places like New Rochelle or White Plains.
“Up here in Northern Westchester, there are no Jewish neighborhoods,” said Lili Kasdan, a member of First Hebrew Congregation in Peekskill who is a member of the youth group’s advisory committee. “All the temples draw from various communities and school districts. My kids are not necessarily seeing Yorktown kids in synagogue. They’re not going to Hebrew school with the same kids they’re going to school with. We all felt it was important for them to have a Jewish identity once they graduate from Hebrew school.”
Through a $10,000 grant from the UJA Federation of New York-Westchester Program Services Cabinet, and contributions from each synagogue, the group was able to hire a professional youth leader, Celia Baczkowski, as the director of the Hudson Valley Kadima/USY Youth Group.
“We’re always looking for collaboration,” said Ellen Holmon, director of program services and impact philanthropy for UJA Federation in Westchester. “This is really working. The kids are really into it, and meeting teens from all over Westchester.”
Added Cantor Adina Frydman, Westchester program executive of UJA-Federation’s Synergy program, “This emerged from a larger impetus to encourage community building and community resource sharing.”
There are also financial benefits to this collaboration.
“There’s definitely strength in numbers” said Kasdan. “We wanted the youth group to be professionally run, and I don’t know that any of us could have afforded it.”
Even more important for the 52 youth group members is the chance to connect to a larger Jewish social pool.
“For me, I think I’m the only practicing Jew in my high school,” said Travis Scavone, president of the Hudson Valley Kadima USY, who belongs to Temple Beth Shalom. “USY has been my religious life. It’s opened me up to the larger Jewish community. Without that, I would only know people from TBS.”
The group offers two events for both Kadima and USY each month, with meetings rotated among the synagogues. Besides participating in regional METNY events, some other activities have included bowling and miniature golf at the New Roc City entertainment complex in New Rochelle, an Iron Chef night, laser tag, making art as a social action project, and even a low-ropes course at Surprise Lake in Cold Spring.
“It’s about getting kids in the door of a Jewish institution and making Judaism something they think positively about,” said Celia Baczkowski,
Karen Mericola, who belongs to Temple Israel of Northern Westchester, a Reform synagogue in Croton, is delighted that her nearly 13-year-old son, Alex, has embraced the Hudson Valley Kadima with such enthusiasm. “By circumstance, my son didn’t get to know the kids in his class at the synagogue,” she said. “I would have loved for him to have been part of our temple’s group, but I don’t think it matters. Jewish community is Jewish community.”