Torah at the mall
It was a typical Wednesday night at the upscale Galleria mall of Mt. Lebanon.
A handful of moviegoers were filing into the Carmike Cinemas. A couple people were typing away at laptops on tables outside of Starbucks. Retail stores were winding down for the day, organizing merchandise and locking their doors.
No one could guess, at first glance, that a pack of teenagers would be gathered on the second floor, at a table between Panera and Track and Trail, to study Torah.
But there they were: three young men from Upper St. Clair High School and two from Pittsburgh Allderdice, discussing the Jewish perspective on alcohol use.
The teenagers, all members of the Jewish Scholars Program led by Rabbi Ari Goldberg, are part of a core group usually numbering around 15, that take advantage of a learning opportunity that is both stimulating and
“Now that I’m not in Hebrew school anymore, this class is a good time for me to study Torah,” said William Friedlander, a freshman from Upper St. Clair. “And by coming to this class, I met many new people I wouldn’t have met. It’s opened up more opportunities for me.”
The Jewish Scholars program is part of Goldberg’s teen engagement plan, bringing Torah to where he finds the kids. His is an effort to improve outreach to those who may not be affiliated otherwise, and to provide enrichment opportunities to those who are.
“This is the next step in the plan of how I see engaging Jewish teens,” said Goldberg, who also runs weekly Jewish Student Union (JSU) groups at both Upper St. Clair and Allderdice. “This is really trying to implement the ultimate plan, to take kids that aren’t otherwise engaged, and instill in them a passion for their own Judaism.”
But the first challenge in implementing this approach, Goldberg said, is finding the teens.
“Where are you going to find a Jewish teen who is not engaged? They are in school,” he said. “So you have to go to the schools and start a club.”
Goldberg, with the help of students Sam Neft and Amit Shimshi, started the JSU in Upper St. Clair High School in 2010. While the club began with just two student members, more than 25 kids came to its Chanuka party this past December.
“We have a list now of more than 35 names,” Goldberg said, “most who claim they’re not affiliated otherwise.”
Goldberg began a similar club at Allderdice about seven years ago, which also has grown exponentially. He is hoping to soon start JSUs at Mt. Lebanon High School, and Winchester Thurston.
The clubs are activity-based and engage the teens with projects such as making hamantaschen for Purim, or menoras for Chanuka.
“Our focus is on being comfortable, and spending time with other Jews,” Goldberg said.
Participants in the Jewish Scholars Programs are culled from the school-based clubs, Goldberg said. In addition to the Wednesday night program at the Galleria, a Monday night class runs in Squirrel Hill and offers an adult mentoring component through which teens learn in small groups with a variety of adults from the Jewish community at large.
The Jewish Scholars Programs provide teens with an informal environment in which to relate to their heritage, then, hopefully, develop the desire to become even more connected.
“We’re relaxed,” Goldberg said. “We’re at the mall, the kids get their Starbucks. But from there, some kids have decided to go to the NCSY (National Conference of Synagogue Youth) convention. Three came with us to New York on a trip over winter break. Three have signed up for our Israel program.
The ultimate goal is to get them more involved as a teenager, and hopefully, it will carry on to adulthood.”
Goldberg’s teen outreach model seems to be achieving results, and is being evaluated now by the Agency for Jewish Learning as an approach that could be emulated by other organizations in the community, according to Nitsa Bucritz Ford, teen engagement coordinator at the AJL.
“One of the things we’re concerned with is how to get teens involved with the Jewish community,” said Ford. “What Rabbi Goldberg does is fascinating, because he goes to them. We center everything in Squirrel Hill, but he goes out to Upper St. Clair. I told him that I look to him as the outreach model.”
Ford cited a similar model now employed at the Jewish Community Center where mostly unaffiliated teens who sign up for a basketball coaching program are required to participate in a day of Jewish community service.
“What Rabbi Goldberg is doing is very powerful; he has a personal connection,” said Ford, who noted that while affiliated teens tend to be “saturated” with programming, those who are unaffiliated are at risk of being lost to the community.
“Nationally, we are looking at this concern, that we are losing the future,” she said.
Much of the success of Goldberg’s outreach seems to be due to his ability to relate to the teens.
“Rabbi Goldberg is dedicated and hard-working,” said Sam Maizlech, president of the JSU at Allderdice. “He really cares about all of us.”
Sam Impellicceiri, a freshman at Upper St. Clair, agrees.
“Rabbi Goldberg is awesome,” he said.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)