November 20, 2019

Merrill Alpert: Inspiring Youth

Sometimes, in the midst of Shabbat morning davening with her USYers, Merrill Alpert will fall silent for a few moments and listen to the teenagers’ voices.

“It gives me such pride to hear their ruach [spirit] and see them wanting to take part in prayer,” Alpert said recently.

As director of the Far West region of USY (United Synagogue Youth, the Conservative movement’s junior high and high school youth group), Alpert knows there are lots of diversions vying for kids’ attention. Between soccer practice, music lessons and swim team, busy teens often find little time for “being Jewish.”

That’s why it’s so gratifying for her to see hundreds of youths gathered together for a regional USY kinnus (convention), making friends, singing Jewish songs and taking part in religious practices. And for many of these teens, Alpert is the reason they’re there.

In her five years as director of the Far West region — an area that encompasses Southern California, Las Vegas, Arizona and New Mexico, and includes some 1,600 kids — there have been few hats that Alpert hasn’t worn, working well beyond what might be required of her job. She attends all monthly regional meetings, dances, seasonal conventions and camp retreats. She plans programs and coordinates host synagogues for events. She works with teen officers on the regional board, helps build local USY chapters, oversees social action drives, promotes summer Israel programs and — oh yes — does outreach and fundraising.

And all of this while welcoming kids to come to her for advice, guidance and hugs.

Alpert’s commitment to USY began as a child at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. She remembers looking up to the big kids who got together to celebrate Judaism and practice tikkun olam (healing the world). “That just seemed like the coolest thing to me,” she recalled. “I couldn’t wait to join.”

After actively participating in USY, Alpert got her degree in Jewish studies from UCLA and decided to go into youth work. She coordinated youth programming at several California synagogues,  eventually returning to her old stomping ground to become youth director at VBS, where she stayed for 18 years.

Alpert, then a mother of four teenage daughters, spent nine months in Israel as a Ziv Tzedakah Fund fellow, and when she returned, got her master’s in Jewish communal service from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. When the regional USY director spot opened up, she took it.

Alpert now helms a region that raises about $25,000 annually for Tikkun Olam, the organization’s national tzedakah fund. And she is amazed anew every time she witnesses the devotion kids bring to USY. She considers it her mission to inspire a love of Judaism in each child that keeps them engaged in their faith throughout their lives.

“I want to provide meaningful and spiritual experiences for kids that will make them want to keep being Jewish in the future,” she said.

But Alpert goes beyond being a Jewish role model in these teens’ lives — she’s also a counselor and confidante who guides teens through drug or alcohol problems, abuse at home or who are seeking information about birth control. She is always ready to refer kids to social workers or rehab services.

Kids recognize her sincerity and invite her into their lives in return. Over the years, Alpert has attended weddings, bris and baby naming ceremonies for former USYers, and has signed dozens of ketubot. 

Amy Mendelsohn, who met Alpert at VBS more than a decade ago and worked with her on the regional USY board, can’t say enough about her former advisor. Alpert has inspired thousands of kids to embrace Judaism, she said, and she has had a profound influence on her own life — Mendelsohn is now following in Alpert’s footsteps as a youth advisor at Shomrei Torah.

“Everybody looks to Merrill as a friend, a mother, an educator, a guidance counselor and a role model,” Mendelsohn said. “She’s loving and inspiring and is always there with wide open arms.”

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