Togetherness at Teen Shabbat

The traffic-filled streets and overflowing parking lots of commercial office parks bordering John Wayne Airport empty fast on most Friday evenings.

Occasionally, though, the traffic pattern at twilight is reversed. Such was the case earlier last summer at Baker and Redhill streets. There, a steady stream of vehicles arrived, disgorging clusters of teenagers at Orange County’s Jewish Community Center. Instead of movies, sleepovers and football games, the typical high school student’s Friday night pursuits, about 60 teens gathered to participate in the center’s "Teen Shabbat" program, now in its second year.

Wearing Volcom T-shirts and tennis shoes, slides and Capris, they filtered into an large, unadorned, wood-floored meeting room. Half the room was taken up by three rows of chairs aligned in an arc around two metal tables. A score of tea lights littered each tabletop.

Teen leaders from each of the county’s synagogues take turns leading a traditional Shabbat service in Hebrew. Afterward, the group disperses to socialize over a kosher dinner, hear from a speaker about teen-related topics and ask questions.

Attending for the first time was Courtney Mellblom, 15, of Placentia. She came with Heather Cohen, 13, and Adam Furman, 14, friends from the youth group at Congregation B’nai Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Tustin.

"I thought it would be fun," Mellblom said.

"We have Shabbat club at temple," added Cohen, which is also led by the congregation’s youth. "It’s more fun when kids do it."

"Parents don’t tell you to quit talking," Furman explained.

Mellblom appreciated the get-together for another reason. "When you go, you’re all on the same level," she said. At her high school, for instance, back-to-school night was scheduled on Rosh Hashana. As an officer of her class, Mellblom was expected to attend the school function, but she intended to attend services instead. "I’m torn between the two," she said, adding, "People don’t do it purposefully."

Sitting alone in self-imposed isolation was Karyn Lesnick, her orange-streaked black head lowered, looking toward her patent-leather platform boots. Asked why she came, the 14-year-old from Irvine said, "My mom made me come. She said I would lose privileges if I didn’t go."

"It’s Friday. I’d rather be other places," Lesnick admitted.

Looking over her shoulder, she had yet to spot a familiar face from Bat Yahm, the reform synagogue in Newport Beach she attends. "I don’t know anybody here," she said. "I feel kind of out of place."

As the teens were encouraged to fill the front seats, Mellblom, Cohen and Furman took seats beside Lesnick, and a conversation began.

The teen Shabbats were organized as a result of brainstorming by a countywide youth task force. Representatives of 31 Jewish organizations met in the spring of 2000 with the goal of fostering community by breaking down barriers — religious and otherwise — among youth. Teens told the group they enjoyed participating in youth-led services held during weekend retreats and wanted more of them. The first was held last spring.

"My guess was 25 kids would come," said Jay Lewis, assistant director of the Bureau of Jewish Education. Instead, 105 showed up. "It was a pleasant surprise," he said. Five more teen services are scheduled through May.

The success of the teen service is due in part to youthful attitudes, Lewis said. "Teens don’t see differences in the Jewish community that adults do. They take a more global view. Teens don’t see the differences. They see similarities."