Hebrew Chai
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Hebrew Chai

Montebello Jewish Center’s rabbi leads a new group for local teens

Rabbi Joshua Finkelstein teaches text to Lexi Bernstein and Brandon Sherwood, who are charter members of the new Hebrew Chai. (Joshua Finkelstein)
Rabbi Joshua Finkelstein teaches text to Lexi Bernstein and Brandon Sherwood, who are charter members of the new Hebrew Chai. (Joshua Finkelstein)

How do you keep teenagers involved in their shul and connected with Jewish life once they’ve become bar or bat mitzvah?

The answer to that question varies, depending on the community. For some parts of the Jewish world, it’s a non-issue; the family’s day-to-day life and the children’s education is so tied to the community that the question itself is almost nonsensical. But for other people, it’s a very real issue. There are competing calls on a high school student’s time that makes spending it at shul very much a personal decision.

Rabbi Joshua Finkelstein of the Montebello Jewish Center wants to be sure that there are many ways for the teenagers in his community to retain their connection to the shul, and to have it flourish. The synagogue offers USY and Kadima, national programs the Conservative movement offers for teens and preteens, but he wanted to enhance those groups, which strengthen bonds with the movement and with other kids, with one that also would aim at cementing the relationship between the teens, their shul, and their rabbi.

Hebrew Chai is Rabbi Finkelstein’s solution to the problem he sees.

It’s a monthly group for teenagers, ranging from post bar or bat mitzvah to those about to leave for college; it will meet with Rabbi Finkelstein, because a large part of its mission is for the teens to develop a relationship with him, and he with them, individually.

Hebrew Chai grew specifically out of conversations with parents “who were concerned about keeping their kids connected,” Rabbi Finkelstein said. They all know that the old models that kept kids engaged will not work as they once did, because too many things have changed.

“These teens are living through such a strange, turbulent time,” Rabbi Finkelstein said. “There’s technology — which is both a blessing and a curse, because so much of their socialization is through social media. And they’re facing increased anti-Semitism.”

Some things about teenagers’ lives, though, don’t change. “They’re going to go off to college in a few years,” he said. “They’re in their parents’ homes now; but when they’re in college, they’ll have to make their own decisions. It’ll all be on them.”

He marvels at the fact that teenagers were born into a post-9/11 world. “Their world is so different from what mine was,” he said.

So all those factors — the ones that are new, the ones that are horrifying, and the ones that are age-old — all will be factored into the group. “I want them to be able to call me; I want them to know what their Jewish roots are, I want them to know the difference between anti-Semitism and being anti-Israel, and how they’re not always the same, and I want them to know what to do when the winds of anti-Semitism blow on them. I want them to think about their own personal identity, about being who you want to be.”

The group will meet once a month, over dinner, from 6 to 7:30. “Their schedules are so packed,” Rabbi Finkelstein said. “So the meetings will talk about life from a Jewish perspective, and we will study some texts, but we will start with dinner.” Because, he explained, they do have to eat; it’s not only social to meet, talk, and relax over a meal, it’s also an efficient use of time.

Hebrew Chai’s first meeting was on September 11; the date was coincidental, but Rabbi Finkelstein decided to use it as an opportunity for discussion.

The group will venture to Manhattan for a full-day expedition that “will be partly identity, partly social action, partly connection with the Jewish community,” he said. “We will work together to create the agenda,” because part of his broader agenda is giving them responsibility. “I want to take them to the 9/11 memorial, because that’s when we started, and a lot of them haven’t been there yet. And then we will go to one of the Jewish museums or a Lower East Side synagogue, and then we will do a social action program. The group will work on picking that program.”

Rabbi Finkelstein has been at Montebello for three years; he presided over the younger teens’ bar and bat mitzvah services. He already has a relationship with them; now, he wants to strengthen and broaden it.

But Hebrew Chai isn’t only for members of his shul. All local Jewish kids are invited to join him for an exploration of their Jewish identities. The next meeting is October 23 at 6 p.m. Call the Montebello Jewish Center at (845) 357-2430 or email  for more information.

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