It’s a teen thing
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It’s a teen thing

Marla Cohen is a freelance writer. She lives in Rockland County.

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Students at the Bergen County High School for Jewish Studies will be able to register for Shevat Achim: The Brotherhood, a monthly program for teenage boys, and Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing, for their female counterparts. The programs will launch this month.

Around the time that young teens have finished checking out the gifts they received for their bar or bat mitzvah, many check out of Jewish institutional life altogether.

With their heavy-duty course loads and their overscheduled extracurricular lives, something has to give, and it is often their Jewish learning, both formal and informal.

To keep the post-b’nai mitzvah set engaged, Bergen County High School for Jewish Studies will offer seventh- and eighth-grade girls a monthly program called Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing. Their male counterparts will be able to go to Shevat Achim: The Brotherhood. A free program offering a taste of both will be held at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 24 at the Jewish Community Center of Paramus,and again on Monday, Nov. 5, at 5 p.m., at Temple Emanuel in Woodcliff Lake.

Many teens no longer sign up for the Hebrew high school program, and continued Jewish education has become “more optional than ever,” according to the school’s principal, Bess Adler.

“If that’s a choice, of course they will cross it off their list, because it’s impossible for them to understand how important Jewish education and being connected to this kind of programming is,” she said.

The idea behind the two programs is to divide boys and girls into separate small groups. This allows them to speak freely about body image, school, parents, eating disorders, siblings, the opposite sex, friendship, pop culture, and pretty much the whole gamut of teen experience. The goal is not only to talk about their issues, but to do so within a Jewish framework.

The monthly sessions are held under the guidance of a trained adult mentor, who should come off as somewhat cooler than a parent, but still keep things moving along, safe, and under control.

“It’s a low-level of commitment, once a month, an easy access,” said Adler, who went to a training session on the program with two of her BCHSJS teachers – one male, one female – over the summer. “At the same time it enables the girls and boys to bond in very intimate ways with Jewish content, with their peers and their madrich – their facilitator. Because of the way the curriculum is written, it engages them in topics that are very timely.”

Moving Traditions, an organization that develops and distributes programming, created the two programs and materials, which are both grounded in Jewish tradition and informed by the ways people observe and connect to contemporary Jewish life. The organization uses existing research and conducts its own to examine the ways Jewish life and practice have changed. And in the case of these two projects, the organization worked with teens to come up with winning formulas.

Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing was launched in 2002 and now serves about 330 groups of girls around the country, according to Moving Tradition’s founder and executive director Deborah Meyer. Shevat Achim: The Brotherhood was launched last year, and already has about 60 groups nationwide.

Through games, arts, conversation, and ritual, the teens explore issues that are important to them, according to Meyer. About 80 percent of Jewish teens have a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony, “and for the most part, enjoy it,” she said. But about half of them drop out of any formal or informal Jewish education programs after the ceremony ends.

“Just at a time when they are struggling to figure out who they are, this is when they drop out of Jewish life,” Meyer said. Both boys are girls are “struggling, and it’s hard to be an adolescent in a very plugged-in society like ours. They are capable and want challenging, interesting conversations.” They are ready for more real Jewish content, for the values that Judaism has to offer.

The girls’ program has been successful, both in attracting many participants and in retaining many of them through high school. Shevat Achim, which is newer, was developed with adolescent boys and pilot-tested so that it would meet their needs, Meyer said.

“I’m Jewishly connected because I found my Jewish identity at Jewish summer camp,” Meyer said. When she was growing up in Maryland, she spent her summers at Hobonim Dror Moshava, a Labor Zionist camp. “This is the best of summer camp during the school year – seriously Jewish conversations and experience in a teen-centered way.”

The way she sees it, the programs offer an antidote to teens’ busy lives, providing them with more reflective time and space. It is not simply another extracurricular activity.

Moving Traditions offers the programs through synagogues, Hebrew high schools, day schools, and a few Jewish community centers around the country. The Rosh Hodesh program can begin as early as sixth grade for girls, but boys aren’t ready for Shevat Achim until eighth grade, Meyer said.

BCHSJS’s Adler sees the program as working through synagogues rather than the high school. She hopes that there will be enough interest to form intimate groups throughout Bergen County. She already is talking to Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley as well as the JCC of Paramus. She can foresee the groups meeting either in homes or in synagogues, depending on what makes most sense for participants. No matter how the logistics play out, the program must work well for the teens, she said.

“It’s truly exciting to be able to offer both these programs at the same time,” Adler said.

For more information about either Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing or Shevat Achim: The Brotherhood, call Bess Adler at (201) 488-0834 or email her at badler@bchsjs.org.

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