Two more young Pittsburgh natives have boomeranged, returning home to help foster enthusiasm for Judaism among local teens.
Andrew Exler of Fox Chapel will serve as the new regional director of BBYO’s Keystone Mountain Region (KMR), and Yasha Rayzberg of Squirrel Hill will take the lead as Beth Shalom Congregation’s new director of youth tefillah (prayer) and programming.
Exler, a 2009 graduate of Fox Chapel High School, said his immediate goal for BBYO KMR is to “not only increase membership, but also increase active participation in meaningful programming.”
BBYO KMR includes teens from approximately 13 different communities in Pittsburgh, Morgantown and Wheeling, W.Va.
Prior to joining BBYO KMR, Exler was the associate regional director of BBYO Cotton States Region, the region serving Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi, as well as the Nashville Jewish Community Center teen and camp director. He is a graduate of Ohio University.
“Andrew’s roots and background combined with his professional experiences give us confidence that he will bring innovative ideas to the region while building strong relationships with this great community,” said Debi Tozer, BBYO area field director. “Andrew’s enthusiasm and ability to connect with teens will be key to his success. We’re thrilled he’s decided to come home to Pittsburgh.”
Exler, who was active in BBYO KMR throughout high school, knows firsthand the positive effect the youth group has on fostering friendships and improving communication and leadership skills, he said.
He will be replacing former BBYO KMR director Chuck Marcus, who left his position last spring for a job as an account executive at CBS Radio.
While BBYO KMR will be headquartered at the South Hills Jewish Community Center, Exler intends to bring programming to various locales throughout the region, including Fox Chapel, the North Hills and Monroeville, he said.
Because of his Pittsburgh roots, Exler has well-established relationships in the community among other leaders of teen engagement organizations, which he hopes to parlay into collaborative, citywide efforts to further broader Jewish connection.
“I’m not trying to recruit teens in other youth groups to BBYO, but to create programming to bring all Jewish youth together,” he said.
His efforts will be part of the current communitywide movement to reinvigorate youth engagement throughout the city.
“Pittsburgh is making this a big priority right now,” Exler said, noting, as an example, the JCC’s newly created Department of Jewish Life and its focus on youth, under the leadership of Rabbi Ron Symons. “I think that in three or four years, we will see a major change.”
Yasha Rayzberg, who has already begun his daunting task of reinvigorating youth engagement at Beth Shalom, also has set his sights on connecting Jewish youth throughout the city.
Like Exler, Rayzberg intends to collaborate with other Jewish youth groups, including those of other denominations.
“I want to see all the Jewish youth in Pittsburgh flourish,” he said. “I don’t want it to be ‘us,’ and ‘them’ but rather, ‘we are all Jewish.’”
To that end, Rayzberg has met with the Youth Professional Network, an organization formed earlier this year by Symons at the JCC to provide a forum for the exchange of ideas, and for support.
“Our goal is to ensure that everyone working with teens has a place to work with each other and to grow professionally,” Symons said, adding that all area advisors of Jewish youth groups and teen programs are included in the network.
Rayzberg grew up in the Beth Shalom community and was active in the Conservative youth groups Kadima and USY. He attended Community Day School and Winchester Thurston.
He comes to his new position having just graduated from Goucher College with a degree in psychology and having served as president and Shabbat chair of its campus Hillel.
Beth Shalom’s USY chapter has faced challenges in the last couple years, both in finding a permanent youth director to lead it and in maintaining an active membership. Since its former director, Carolyn Gerecht, left in 2013 to run J-SITE, “there has not been stability in the position,” according to Beth Shalom’s president, David Horvitz.
“It needs a reset,” said Rayzberg. “There was not much programming in the last year, and we are trying to move forward.”
He is already well on his way in doing so, having joined up with Beth El Congregation’s USY chapter in planning a trip to Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, later this month.
Acknowledging that its youth programs need to be “built up from scratch,” Rayzberg is intent on giving Beth Shalom’s teens the opportunities he had while growing up in the Squirrel Hill congregation.
“I got connected with my Judaism,” he said of his experiences with Kadima and USY, “and I had a lot of fun. They haven’t had that for a while.”
Horvitz is convinced Rayzberg will bring “energy, leadership and innovation” back to the congregation’s youth.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.