The Future is Bright for Detroit’s Conservative Jews. Motor City Youth Group is “Chapter of the Year”
When I taught Hebrew school and looked at the sweet yet glazed-over faces of my students, I would gently yet firmly reassure them: “KIds, please. I get it. Hebrew school may not be your thing. But don’t ever let your feelings about Hebrew school cloud your love for being Jewish. There is a better Jewish life after Hebrew school and it is youth group.”
Personally, I owe my life to United Synagogue Youth’s high school and middle school programming. Whether it was learning how to do The Time Warp or Rock Lobster at a dance, or finally mastering the WHOLE Birkat Hamazon (Grace after meals) while singing it with hundreds of my closest friends, It taught me how to life Jewishly joyfully. Kudos to the Motor City Chapter of USY for winning for the second year in a row Chapter of the Year for the organization’s Central region.
This ran in the May 21, 2015 issue of the Detroit Jewish News. Please subscribe.
Motor City USY wins honor for second year running
| Stacy Gittleman | Contributing Writer
Recently recognized by the Central Region of United Synagogue Youth for membership growth and inter-generational religious programming such as “McKabbalat Shabbat,” members of Detroit’s chapter of United Synagogue Youth recently arrived home from their regional spring convention in Cleveland bleary-eyed yet happy to have clinched the “Chapter of the Year” award for the second year running.
Motor City USY, affectionately known as “MCUSY,” is witnessing a resurgence in membership growth and dynamic programming designed to engage and energize the youngest members of Metro Detroit’s Conservative Jewish movement.
The chapter has attracted about 65 official members in grades 6-12, and a little over 100 individuals have attended at least one USY or Kadima program in the past year, according to adviser David Lerner. Highlights of the year included a Purim limousine scavenger hunt, monthly volunteering at bingo games with adults with developmental disabilities in cooperation with JARC, and an “Iron Chef ” kosher cooking contest for students in the middle school grades.
The Conservative movement in Detroit has invested much in its youth engagement and informal education in the last several years with its Ramah Fellowship and by hiring a full-time USY adviser. For the past two years, this post was filled by David Lerner. Lerner is stepping down from his post, and this summer will begin his rabbinical studies at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.
“I have been so inspired working with the teens and witnessing their passion and ability to form a community around Jewish life and values,” Lerner, 32, said.
“I have merely served as the facilitator and supporter to all their passion and great ideas. They have worked hard through their frustrations to create so many positive outcomes over the past two years.”
Lerner hopes the organization will choose a new adviser who has an established relationship with the organization and can continue its upward direction.
In the last two years, Lerner said he focused on growing and strengthening programming and outreach at the high school level. In coming years, he said the focus should be on growing the organization’s Kadima group for grades 6-8 and Junior Kadima for grades 3-5.
Local area Conservative rabbis also place a high value on the way USY blends social and religious aspects to get teens enthused about Judaism.
Rabbi Aaron Bergman at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills attributes the chapter’s recent success to collaboration across all of Detroit’s Conservative synagogues and professional staff who are connected and invested in the teens.
Rabbi Aaron Starr of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield — where Lerner also worked as director of youth and young adult programming — echoed this sentiment of working together to create meaningful experiences of Jewish learning and fostering friendships for teens.
“As Conservative Jews, we are committed to developing passionate, educated young adults devoted to finding spirituality within Jewish ritual, meaning within Jewish life, and a commitment to repairing our broken world,” Starr said.
“Most of all, the teens who are part of MCUSY are exceptional leaders and, in them, I see a bright future for the Jewish people.”
To my dear readers,
This blog post focuses on synagogue life inside Conservative Judaism. If you follow a different faith and don’t wish to read on and get bogged down in all the Jewish lingo, I will completely understand. But, if you want to read on and offer your point of view on women participation in religious life, Jewish or not, read on and chime in with your comments.
Last Saturday afternoon, after many warm hugs and handshakes on a job well done, and a shot of chocolate schnapps over a Kiddush lunch with my volunteer co-chair, I finally breathed a sigh of relief.
I co-chaired Sisterhood Shabbat at my synagogue as part of a nationwide celebration of women and women participating in synagogue life. The service went splendidly with many firsts for our congregation: The first part of the service was led by our congregation’s first woman rabbi. During the Torah service, the Torah was capably lifted by a woman who is a weightlifting fitness instructor. My co-chair and I felt a great sense of accomplishment that we had risen to the challenge to find a woman to lead every part of the service. Every woman who volunteered rose to the occasion as well and did their parts beautifully.
What troubles me is who will lead in the years and decades to come.
My concern over the last few months as I helped put this service together was on two fronts:
- The sparse feeling that I get when I see the increasingly empty blue seats week after week indicates the dwindling number of families who take the time to be with their community on Shabbat mornings. I get a little concerned about the future of my synagogue and the future of Conservative Judaism as a whole.
- I also was troubled by the number of women who I approached to participate who were not comfortable leading services or not comfortable with their knowledge of Hebrew. Among those who politely said no to participating were Jewish educators themselves. This level of discomfort, the scarcity of women who are comfortable enough to lead services, comes after nearly two decades of the Conservative movement counting women in a minyan and allowing full participation in synagogue life.
Sisters, we have to do better. If we truly want to see egalitarian Judaism survive and flourish, if we have the privilege of being counted in a minyan, than we owe it to ourselves and our daughters to push out of our comfort levels and learn to lead.
Is this a challenge? Of course it is. But it is not impossible. Look how far women have come.
- Don’t be afraid of not being comfortable leading services. We all need to start somewhere. Know that however you do, your community deeply appreciates that you participated in this mitzvah, or good deed, of leading your community.
- There are so many resources available for learning. If enough people voice interest and commitment, synagogues will happily create classes or sessions with our clergy. I didn’t learn to read Torah until I was 38 years old. Why? Because when I was a kid, girls “didn’t have to” learn Torah. But I knew even as a child that I would someday learn.
- If you are more comfortable learning at home and are tech savvy, there are online programs galore to help. For example, Siddur Audio walks you through nearly every page of the Siddur Sim Shalom prayerbook of the Conservative Judaism movement. You can even download mp3 clips and listen to them on your iPod to learn.
Lastly, don’t be afraid of making mistakes or screwing up. Or the butterflies in your stomach. I get nervous – complete with sweaty palms – nearly every time I read Torah. I often say to myself right before I read, why am I putting myself through this? But I know why I do it: it’s good for the community, and reading Torah is really good for your brain!
But it is not an exercise in perfection, rather an act in participation, because if you falter, there are people right beside you who are there to help. That is why it is called a kehilah kedosha – a holy community.