During the summer, Temple Israel staff and clergy met with lay leaders, parents and students to come up with a plan for the post-B’Nai Mitzvah continuing education of the congregation’s teenagers. The committee knew they wanted it to be something new, something special, and now, less than two months into the Temple Teen Night program, all parties involved say it’s been a great success.
“It’s wonderful to have the kids back at Temple Israel on Wednesday nights,” Rabbi Aryeh Azriel said. “We have kids who maybe disappeared from the community high school that are coming back. … It’s wonderful to see them eating supper, joking with each other and just having a good time.”
In addition to the weekly Temple Teen Nights, students also attend monthly activities organized by Omaha Jewish Connection, or OJC.
“We encourage all of them to participate in the community high school, which I think is also a great idea and has been providing some wonderful programs,” Rabbi Azriel said.
Temple Teen Night begins at 6 p.m. Wednesday night, when the PreK through Grade 6 Religious School classes end. Students and their families are invited to enjoy dinner with the clergy in the social hall, after which the high school students head to their respective classes taught by the clergy; Rabbi Azriel teaches the 10th graders, Rabbi Josh Brown the 9th graders, and Cantor Wendy Shermet teaches the 11th and 12th graders.
“The best part for me is the dinner,” Rabbi Brown said. “Kids and their families have started to stay after Religious School because they enjoy the community. The social hall is just overflowing. There’s a lot of energy.”
Students are also invited to sit in during Temple Israel’s Adult Education programs, where they can get a taste of what continuing education at an adult level looks like, with discussions about the Middle East and Reform Judaism’s role in social justice.
“I like being with the adults and doing the same activities,” Hannah Budwig said.
At 7:30 p.m., students from all the grades come together for what has been dubbed “Beit Cafe,” a half hour of informal, relaxed discussion between the students and the clergy.
“I think it’s going very well,” Rabbi Azriel said. “We get together in the youth lounge and we talk about topics of interest. A few weeks ago we talked about the coming election. … We definitely try to listen to the kids and talk about what they are interested in.”
Ninth grader Abby Hack said that Temple Teen Night has been fun and educational for herself and her peers.
“The Beit Cafe is actually really nice,” she said. “It’s a good time to give everyone updates on OTYG events and for all the grades to hang out together. It’s a really chill time to just relax.”
In addition to Temple Teen Night and the Beit Cafe, other programs, like the upcoming 9th grade trip to New York City with Rabbi Brown, have created a lot of energy and enthusiasm.
“There’s been so much enthusiasm that our 8th graders have decided to do a trip at the end of the year,” Rabbi Brown said. “I would call it a contagious excitement. I’m happily surprised how much our teens love Temple. That is beyond my expectations … the kids that are showing up on Wednesday nights, they really want to be there. It’s very energizing for me being around a group of people who really love being at Temple.”
But as successful as Temple Teen Night has been, it’s still in its infancy and the clergy, along with the Temple Israel staff, are constantly discussing ways to tweak and improve it in the coming months and years.
“We want to work on the programming for our 11th and 12th graders to see how best we can serve them,” Rabbi Brown said. “We have a pretty good system for 8th, 9th and 10th, but we want to treat our 11th and 12th graders with a lot of respect and honor for continuing education past confirmation. We want to figure out how we can best connect our 11th and 12th graders to meaningful Jewish study.”