Stacy Rosenthal, Congregation Beth Israel’s senior director of education and youth engagement, has been working in Jewish education for nearly two decades and has held about every position there is. Now, she is one of several educators at the start of something new for Reform teens in Greater Phoenix. And ironically, it’s thanks — at least in part — to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While being consigned to virtual meetings over the last 18 months, CBI educators plotted a course to “work smarter, not harder” with other Reform congregations on teen programming, Rosenthal said. Five Reform congregations are involved: CBI, Temple Chai, Temple Emanuel of Tempe, Temple Kol Ami and Temple Solel. From Zoom meetings to group texting, it didn’t take long before the synagogues’ religious school directors became a tight-knit group.
“We all started having more conversations as we approached the pandemic’s uncharted waters and asked ourselves how we can work together and support each other,” Rosenthal said.
The result is Reform Teen Coalition, a youth group for kids between eighth and twelfth grades. Its first official event will be an outdoor Havdalah service on Aug. 28, where everyone will be following COVID protocols and masks will be optional.
This will be the organization’s welcome event, but it will also be tinged with religious significance.
“The Havdalah candle has to have at least three wicks to weave together,” Rosenthal explained. “We are weaving together the congregations to provide something special. It’s the change of status — the end of Shabbat and beginning of a new week. And it will also symbolize the end of how we’ve done things in the past and how we are looking forward to possibilities and sweetness.”
She quickly added that there will also be some “good old eating of pizza” as well as games.
One question is what this new group will mean for each of the synagogue’s existing NFTY cohorts. The Reform Jewish Youth Movement held regional elections last spring and each of the five synagogues taking part in RTC have teens who were elected to NFTY’s Southwest regional board.
But forming RTC was never about supplanting NFTY.
“We’re not breaking up with NFTY,” Rosenthal said, “We want to provide more. We know the social part of engagement is the reason teens come and the Jewish part is why they stay.”
The pandemic led the Union for Reform Judaism to make big cuts to NFTY, which meant that the adviser for NFTY’s Southwest region suddenly had a lot more congregations to oversee. And COVID denied NFTY much of its typical programming.
These events coincided with local religious directors asking one another what the future might look like when COVID restrictions eased and how they could do more with teens on the ground.
NFTY’s leadership has given its encouragement and support to RTC. Even the code of conduct RTC will use is NFTY’s.
RTC’s founders also see themselves as elevating and celebrating the recently elected teens and others for their leadership.
“We wanted to recognize our homegrown leaders to lead our local Jewish communities,” she said.
Eve Capin, 17, a high school senior and congregant at Temple Kol Ami, was elected this spring as NFTY’s regional president. She’s very passionate about the organization and “knowing I can help other people connect to their Judaism,” she said. “It makes all the hard work worth it.”
Yet, she believes NFTY can still thrive and have a partnership with RTC. She’s not sure how it will all work out, but said she and the other newly elected NFTY members are “excited about the partnership.”
Kaylie Medansky, Temple Chai’s associate executive director, belonged to NFTY as a kid, but she jumped between youth groups because her friends were in various groups. She hopes that RTC will give kids opportunities to see their friends from different synagogues.
“The NFTY brand isn’t as important as the relationships that are built,” she said.
Jessie Rubenstein, religious school director at Temple Emanuel, is excited about RTC because kids in her area will be able to see they are part of a broader Reform Jewish community outside of their synagogue.
She attended Mesa’s public schools as a kid, and well remembers being the only Jew in class. “Trying to develop a Jewish community in Mesa and the East Valley is really, really hard,” she said. She wants Emanuel kids to know “they’re not really alone and isolated in the East Valley. The Reform community extends beyond the walls of this temple,” she said.
The synagogues will not collaborate on everything, but each will be responsible for hosting two events during the year. Working together to provide monthly social and Jewish programming in the larger Reform community will be a “boon” to everyone involved, Rosenthal said.
“We’re better together and we enjoy sharing resources, ideas and the camaraderie,” she said. “It’s all snowballed and now we call each other up when we need something. We’ve become a community within a community and it’s bigger than any one of us. There’s no hierarchy. We all pitch in.” JN