A Different Kind of Youth Program

For many teens, having a bar or bat mitzvah is both a beginning and an ending. According to Jewish tradition, the ceremony signifies a child’s transition into manhood or womanhood. For some teens, it also marks the end of a structured Jewish education. Some kids dread Hebrew school and deem this coming-of-age ceremony their educational swan song. On the other hand, some parents see the bar or bat mitzvah as a means to an end, leaving teens to discover where Judaism fits into their lives on their own.

This fall, the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) is offering a new and innovative youth program for eighth- through 12th-graders that combines outside interests with a Jewish sensibility. The program, Netivim, boasts 17 different activities and classes including photography, Israel advocacy, community service, camping and mentoring, among others. Each experience consists of educational seminars and/or excursions explored with an element of Judaism. Teens who enroll for the photography program will take pictures of the local Jewish community. Those who participate in the camping and hiking programs will experience Judaism in the great outdoors.

"[Netivim] is based on the philosophy that there are many different ways to build your Jewish identity," says Phil Liff-Grief, BJE’s associate director.

For some, the program, will serve as a supplement to religious school and youth group involvement. For others, Netivim in itself will help maintain a connection to Judaism. In both scenarios, teens will have an opportunity to participate in activities they enjoy and make friends along the way.

In the past, the BJE offered a series of youth programs through particular religious schools. Due to a decrease in membership in recent years, the BJE decided to revamp the teen program and come up with a new strategy.

"The new model is to provide programs that start with teen’s needs, have strong Jewish educational elements and complement what’s being done already in schools and youth groups," explains Liff-Grief. "We didn’t want to simply provide additional confirmation classes."

While Netivim’s programs do not start until September, the new group is already making a name for itself for parents who hope to encourage teens to continue their education. Denise Ormand of Sherman Oaks has already signed her two teenage daughters up for several Netivim classes.

"I have a rule in my house," Ormand says, "After your bat mitzvah — I don’t care what it is you do — but you have to be involved in at least one Jewish event per month." As both of her girls had strong Jewish educational backgrounds since their preschool days at Valley Beth Shalom, Ormand feels she would be doing them a disservice if she did not insist that they remain active in the Jewish community. "I want them to continue," Ormand stresses, "I don’t want all that Jewish education to be for nothing."

Having just graduated from Hebrew school, Ormand’s 13-year-old daughter, Breanna, has already signed up for three of Netivim’s upcoming programs. "A group of my Hebrew school friends and I are doing it," says the soon-to-be eighth-grader, "We decided we’re going to stick together." Breanna looks forward to participating in cooking, sign language and Rosh Chodesh, a program just for females. She will continue her religious school education simultaneously.

While Netivim will primarily serve the religious school population, it is open to teens from all branches of Judaism, including those who are unaffiliated. The program is already attracting kids from the day school community.

"There is not one entry point to Jewish life," Liff-Grief says, "The idea of multiple entry is the hallmark of this program. We’ll provide them an opportunity to come to new insights about their Jewishness and have sense of each other, as well."