By Erin Goldstrom, Youth Director at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, CA
It is Saturday night and the sanctuary is dark. Twelve 8th and 9th grade students are sitting in a circle on the bimah behind the ark with only the light of the ner tamid and the havdalah candle to cast shadows on their faces. This is one of my lucky moments as a Youth Director: watching my teens bonded with others, and celebrating their Judaism together in a way that gives everyone goosebumps.
This moment took place over a month ago on our Avodah! retreat. Avodah! is a Jewish Service Learning program at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills for 8th and 9th grade students. We meet once a month during the school year on Sunday afternoons at various places in the community to volunteer, such as a soup kitchen, park clean-up, and family homeless shelter. We also meet once a month on Tuesday evenings to learn about the issues with which we volunteer, like hunger, poverty, homelessness, and the environment, and what Judaism says about these issues. At the end of the program we have a one night overnight retreat in the San Francisco Bay Area.
This past year was our second year of Avodah! and we decided to partner with Temple Isaiah in Lafayette for our retreat. One of our Educators, Mike Mason, had told Isaiah’s Educator/Rabbi Alissa Miller about our upcoming retreat and she asked if their 8th graders could join us as their curriculum in 7th grade is also about tikkun olam and philanthropy. Our goals in doing the trip together were to make a social action impact on the community while also helping them bond with Jews from their greater community. The retreat also took place a month before 8th graders were invited to their first NFTY event, so we hoped in meeting some of the cool teens they may see at NFTY, we would increase our participation in this event. We were pleasantly surprised by the results!
The retreat itself began Saturday morning. Beth Am participants boarded the bus early Saturday morning and we drove an hour to the Mission District of San Francisco where we met the Temple Isaiah participants in a park for mixers. Together we participated in a walking tour of the murals in the Mission District and completed a mural workshop with an organization called Precita Eyes that helps preserve murals in this district and use them to educate the public about art, community, and social justice. Both synagogue groups each created a beautiful mural that we took home afterward. Our mural’s theme was peace and it will be proudly displayed at the synagogue. Saturday afternoon we toured and had dinner at Delancy Street, a complex that helps convicted criminals, homeless people, and others who are not successful in society get back on their feet. We went to Berkeley for delicious ice cream dessert and finished the evening at Temple Isaiah for havdalah and a shul-in. Sunday morning we concluded the retreat with breakfast all together and visiting residents at the Jewish Home of San Francisco.
Throughout the retreat, we were so impressed with how well our teens blended. Whether we were on the bus, walking, or in programming, Beth Am and Isaiah kids talked and were genuinely interested in getting to know one another. One teen said that he “liked being together with other synagogues in a group in which we get to know each other on a personal level and as friends instead of as classmates in an academic setting.” Two girls said were so excited that they “made new friends” and “met interesting people” that they signed up for the upcoming NFTY event within an hour of returning home from the retreat! Overall, this weekend was a great lesson in synagogue partnership leading to teen engagement.