When Rebecca Shankman, 12, and her 9-year-old brother Josh say the blessings and blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, they’ll be part of thousands of years of Jewish tradition – and part of a long-standing tradition at Temple Emanu El (Reform) as well.
“Our attitude is that teenagers are part and parcel of the congregation, and they’re treated the same way the adults are,” said Emanu El’s Rabbi Steven Denker. “If you’re willing to do the work, you have the honor of leading the service.”
On the High Holidays, a number of teens and pre-teens will join the Shankmans on the bimah for the main service at Temple Emanu El, reading Torah or haftorah, leading English readings and other prayers. Teens will also conduct an interactive service for children in grades 2-5, featuring music from Alex Berko of Solon High School and Julia Ullman of Hawken School.
“These young people are familiar with the service, and there’s no better way to learn a service than to lead it,” said Denker. He believes taking a leadership role in the service gives teens a great deal of confidence. It’s also nice for younger students to see someone leading the service who is “not quite an adult.”
Emanu El’s religious school also uses teens as madrachim (counselors). “Kids grow up seeing teenagers teaching them,” said Denker. “They understand this is something you get to do if you stick around (in religious school after bar or bat mitzvah), and that’s an enormous attraction for a lot of kids.”
Emanu El wants students and teens to feel engaged and comfortable in a prayer atmosphere, said education director Kate Milgrom. “Synagogue is not just for parents. This is where (teens and adults) spiritually stand on equal footing.”
Teens on the bimah is the norm in many local synagogues, even during the High Holidays. Here are a few more examples:
Beth Israel-The West Temple
Everyone who is active in the temple will have an honor for the High Holidays, such as a Torah reading or an English reading, said David Neumann, a congregant and attorney at Benesch Friedlander. Sometimes teens share an honor with older congregants, sometimes with their parents.
West Side teens look to the temple for their Jewish identity, Neumann said. Living in an area where there are few Jews, “the temple becomes a creative challenge for them. They run their own Saturday services, and they play a really active role in our temple.”
The West Temple’s teen volunteers run the children’s programming over the High Holidays, but “we don’t encourage that because it leaves them out of the adult service,” Neumann said.
B’nai Jeshurun Congregation
Teens read some of the Torah portions in the main service, organized by Rabbi Hal Rudin-Luria.
Congregant Dana Blocker will be organizing a teen-led study session.
“It’s in the middle of the main service,” said Blocker. “It gives teens and seventh- and eighth-graders an opportunity to be together, and it’s a way to keep them involved with shul socially.” She pulls the young people out of the main service typically around 11, when the sermon starts, so the kids stay engaged until the service ends, she said.
Congregation Shaarey Tikvah
Some teens read Torah or lead prayers during the main service, while others lead a learning session with younger children. This year’s topic is “Does God pray?” said education director Estee Gold Kaplan. The teens will also be invited to join a teen learning session led by others from the congregation on the same theme.
“Teens are such a high priority in our synagogue,” said Temple Emanu El’s Milgrom. “We believe our students are our future. We want them to be the guardians of our tradition.”
In an Orthodox shul …
Teen participation in Orthodox synagogues is different because young men are encouraged and obligated to join the davening (praying) as members of the congregation, according to Rabbi Ari Spiegler of Beachwood Kehilla. Orthodox teens regularly attend services every week, either with their parents or down the street with their friends.
Green Road Synagogue hosts a youth minyan on Shabbat, but it does not meet on the High Holidays, said Rabbi Aaron Bayer in an email.
Leading the congregation or reading Torah is “usually given to people of great reputation,” said Spiegler. “As these positions help us secure forgiveness and atonement, we look for representatives of our congregation who have displayed impeccable character. We look to older men as our ambassadors.”