If Only You Would Listen
I’ve grown up surrounded by a very active Jewish community. I attend synagogue regularly for Shabbat services, take classes at my local Hebrew high school, and actively participate in events at my synagogue and in the greater Jewish community.
I’m very lucky to have had access to high quality prayer services for youth when I was younger. There were options for every age from two to 18, and they were fun. Kiddie Minyan (preschool through second grade), Junior Congregation (grades three-seven), or as we called it, J-Cong, and Teen Torah study (grades eight-12) were all thriving. I never actually went to Torah study because I wasn’t old enough, but I remember peering through the glass in awe of the big kids, and waiting for my turn to sit in those huge leather swivel chairs. Even though I had my sights set on Teen Torah study, J-Cong was still pretty great. There were adults to help us, but we mostly had the freedom to lead the services on our own.
Unfortunately, this rich offering of services for kids didn’t last forever. The decline started after our Youth Director left the synagogue, and continued as many families left the congregation so there were no longer enough kids to sustain so many choices. There weren’t any services for us consistently, except for Kiddie Minyan, which was still geared towards toddlers and very young kids. Sometimes college students would come for a few weeks and try to lead something with the older kids and teens, but this programming wasn’t consistent.
I watched this happen as a fifth grader, and I really wanted to do something to change it. I had a lot of ideas, but no one would listen or take them seriously. I’d often go to the adult services with my parents–where I got shushed for whispering to my friends–while all the adults whispered throughout the entire service. Luckily, even though synagogue wasn’t super fun or engaging for me anymore, I had a lot of friends there, which still made going to services enjoyable. My siblings, on the other hand, started to dislike going to synagogue. I was always hearing members of the congregation talking about how youth are the future of the synagogue, yet the programs and services seemed to be pushing kids away.
I feel strongly that kids and teens should have services of their own so they can enjoy learning and praying together. When I suggested these ideas to synagogue leadership it felt like they disregarded me purely because of my age. By Jewish law, on a boy’s thirteenth birthday and on a girl’s twelfth birthday, they become a bar or bat mitzvah–adults in the eyes of the Jewish community. They can be counted in a minyan, be called to the Torah, etc... Even though I supposedly became an adult when I reached bat mitzvah age, very little changed for me.
I still love my synagogue and our community, which is why I care so deeply about fixing these problems. This isn’t just a problem at my synagogue, nor is it a new problem in the Jewish community. When I was frustrated, my dad would tell me similar stories about his synagogue growing up. At a very early age children start forming ideas and opinions about what they want. It only makes sense that kids would have a say in the programs designed for them. Young people’s opinions and ideas shouldn’t be disregarded just because they are young, especially since their ideas are often really great ones!
I was recently chosen to be on a committee at my synagogue to think about the future of our services. I felt like I just had to keep trying, and eventually someone heard me. It’s incredibly frustrating when people aren’t listening, but when they finally do, it feels really great. So my advice, as simple and corny as it sounds, is to keep trying. In my experience, adults aren’t going to come to you, so you have to go to them.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.