STAR mixes tradition, values, fun for Sephardic teens

Who knew that playing paintball and taking trips to the Santa Monica Pier could be so … Jewish?
December 3, 2014

Who knew that playing paintball and taking trips to the Santa Monica Pier could be so … Jewish?

Since 1998, mixing social activities with Judaic values has been at the core of the nonprofit group Sephardic Tradition and Recreation (STAR). Thousands of the area’s young Sephardic Jews have mingled with others like themselves while learning about their roots — and having some serious fun in the process — thanks to the Van Nuys-based organization.

“We at STAR have one fundamental goal, and that is Jewish pride,” said Rabbi Yitzchak Sakhai, the organization’s program director. “As we like to say, empty pride is what has always been frowned upon by Judaism. We at STAR try to instill in our youth enough knowledge of their background, customs [and] history that when they do feel proud of their Judaism, it’s not just empty pride, but filled with history and knowledge.” 

The organization sponsors a host of activities for children ages 7 to 18, who are divided into four age groups. They gather for movie nights, parties, paintball, even trips to Israel — all in the hope of instilling a sense of pride in the younger generation of Jews. A trip to the Santa Monica Pier for Chanukah, for example, might also include arts and crafts or a show-and-tell on how to press oil from olives, Sakhai said. 

STAR is the brainchild of Hyman Jebb Levy, 88, a retired businessman and member of the Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in West L.A., who saw a need to connect young Sephardic Jews to their Jewish heritage. (Ashkenazic Jews are welcome to take part as well.)

“I’ve always been interested in Jewish education, and I’ve always believed that if you don’t educate the youth about their Jewish roots, you have no future,” Levy said. “So when I retired … I saw there was no youth program in the Sephardic synagogues in the city, and so I got together with some friends in the community and we started STAR.”

The key to STAR’s success, he said, has been working with children starting at a young age, and gradually sharing the beauty of Jewish traditions and cultures with them through different activities. The program focuses on six principles: community, tradition, values, preservation, Israel and pride.

“At age 7 is when you want to start educating them about what it means to be Jewish, and they have a place where they can make other Jewish friends and just have fun,” said Levy, who hosted a Sukkot party at his Encino home that drew about 120 people. “Studies have shown that Jewish children who are more involved in the Jewish community at a young age typically tend to  remain connected to Judaism as adults and marry other Jews.”  

STAR’s leadership said they try to offer a friendly approach without coming across as aggressive.

“We do not want to come across as pushy or forcing religion on them,” said STAR’s executive director, Rabbi Menachem Weiss. “Our goal is to be their friend and invite them into a Jewish environment that is enriching to their lives and showing them the value of being a part of the Jewish community.”

The staff is hands-on, visiting young Jews in their homes to pass out custom-made Passover haggadot and offering teens opportunities at Shabbaton events to ask STAR’s rabbis about challenging issues from everyday life — anything from drug use to premarital sex to peer pressure.

“When the kids see that the rabbi is friendly and approachable, then Judaism becomes cool for them,” Weiss said. “So when kids can’t speak to their parents about something, they can come to us for guidance. Or sometimes, if the parents are seeing their children getting off track at school or hanging out with the wrong crowd, the parents can ask us to intervene because we have had this relationship with their kids for many years at STAR.”  

To create a more direct connection with the Holy Land, STAR has developed the Magen Leadership Program for teenagers. It involves a three-week trip to Israel, where the teens not only learn about the Jewish state, but they also volunteer for charitable causes and help groom a new generation of Jewish leaders.

STAR alumnus Justin Daneshrad, a UCLA graduate who is now 21, said the organization provided a transformative experience during his younger years.

“The most important thing for me in being a part of STAR was the sense of unity and friendship with other Jews my age that I felt while I was involved with their activities,” said Daneshrad, an Iranian-American Jew. “If I could sit down with Jewish parents today, I would tell them that by getting your kids involved in STAR, you are helping to instill in them moral guidance, Jewish values and a strong foundation for their future, because the people at STAR really care about us.”

 For his part, Levy said he has been delighted with the outcome of STAR’s activities for young Sephardic Jews in the city over the years, and he hopes the organization soon can establish its own youth center where Jewish students can hang out, study and participate in different activities.

“This entire experience has been very gratifying for me because when I go to synagogue, these kids involved with STAR come up and shake my hand or give me hugs,” Levy said. “So I really feel like I’m doing right by the Jewish community, and that’s the best part of it all.”

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