The winter of 2011 will find Pittsburgh as the host city to two distinct — and large — regional conventions for Jewish teenagers.
More than 140 teenagers from NFTY PAR (the Pennsylvania and New Jersey region for the North American Federation of Temple Youth) will converge at Temple Sinai from Jan. 14 to 16 for a weekend of social action projects and spirituality.
From Feb. 24 to 27, 130 teens are expected at Congregation Beth Shalom for the CRUSY (Central Region of United Synagogue Youth) specialty kinnus.
Both conventions will focus on tikkun olam (repairing the world).
Each winter, Reform congregations in the NFTY PAR region vie for the opportunity to host the teenagers for their winter institute, or WINSTY, said Jackie Braslawsce, youth adviser at Temple Sinai. None of the seven Reform congregations in Pittsburgh has had the chance to host this event “for many years,” she said.
“We won the bid this year,” Braslawsce said. “Everyone is coming here. It’s amazing.”
With 142 kids registered for the weekend — and 10 more on a waiting list — this year’s WINSTY is “the biggest ever,” she added.
Teenagers from all across Pennsylvania and New Jersey will arrive on Friday afternoon, and will be housed at the homes of members of Temple Sinai. They will lead the congregation in Shabbat services Friday evening at the temple, and will have Shabbat morning services at Hillel Jewish University Center, followed by learning sessions.
Braslawsce has been planning this convention since August, and has arranged for the teenagers to volunteer at several service agencies throughout the weekend.
The social action projects she has organized are numerous, and range from field checking the rain barrels at Nine Mile Run, to decorating the doors of guests at the Ronald McDonald House, to leading the residents of Charles Morris Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in song and bingo.
The teenagers will also work on projects at Temple Sinai, including baking challas for the congregation’s Caring Committee, and painting a 30-foot Jewish timeline for the religious school. They will be treated to an ice-skating and DJ party on Saturday night.
Braslawsce sees scoring the honor of hosting the winter institute as a “huge accomplishment,” and something that will have a positive impact on the teenagers of Temple Sinai going forward.
“This will change the way our teens look at youth groups,” she said. “It will empower them. They will see they are not on the periphery, but that they are important enough for everyone to come all the way here, instead of us going all the way there.
“The kids are meeting once a week, and have really taken ownership for the entire weekend,” she added. “I’m really psyched about what it’s going to be beyond WINSTY, how it’s going to grow our youth group.”
While the teenagers at Temple Sinai have been gearing up for WINSTY, Beth’s Shalom’s USY chapter has been hard at work organizing its region’s specialty kinnus, which will also help mark the 60th anniversary of international USY.
Conservative Jewish teenagers from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and West Virginia will arrive in Pittsburgh on Thursday evening, Feb. 24. On Friday, they will choose to volunteer at a variety of venues, including Thriftique, the re-sale shop operated by the National Council of Jewish Women, the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry, and the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.
Like their NFTY counterparts, the USY teenagers will be housed at the homes of congregants, and will lead Shabbat services.
On Saturday afternoon, the USY teenagers will participate in study sessions on the subject of “special needs through a Jewish lens,” said Carolyn Gerecht, youth director at Beth Shalom.
CRUSY holds a social action convention every year, according to Gerecht, with congregations in the region taking turns as host.
“Beth Shalom hasn’t hosted since 2008, so we’re really excited,” she said.
Another component of this year’s kinnus will be a celebration of 60 years since the inception of USY, she said, and an effort is being made to have all past presidents of Beth Shalom’s chapter attend the event.
“We’ve had a chapter here for more than 50 years,” Gerecht said. “We’re trying to include all those past presidents. It’s great. Some are in their 70s, and have been calling friends they haven’t talked to in 30 years.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)