The Secret to One USY Program’s Success: Let Teens Run it

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Have you ever thought of bringing ice cream into the Shabbat liturgy? Seriously. You pick a prayer and, during the service, talk about how it relates to a flavor of ice cream. Then, when davening is finished, you celebrate Shabbat with a big sundae created around the week’s Torah portion.

If this sounds like something a teenager would come up with, you’re right. At Beth Judea USY of Long Grove Illinois (BJUSY) — recently named Chapter of the Year — teen members create, plan and execute all the programs themselves. In fact, the chapter’s Executive Board is made up entirely of synagogue youth. 

Giving teens the freedom to innovate.

“Our program is run by the teens for the teens,” explains Marc Sender, Beth Judea’s Youth Director for the past eight years. “I’m there to help them, but this is not my program. It’s theirs. It needs to be what they want it to be — what they believe will engage their peers — in order for it to grow.”

So far, so good. Along with the award for overall excellence, diversity, creativity and value of programming, USY recognized Beth Judea for excellence in overall and religious programming, and membership outreach.

The star of the regular programming is a lounge event every Tuesday night. One typical evening had an IDF theme. Youth group members rotated through stations where they watched selfie videos from IDF veterans, did boot camp exercises, spoke with a former lone soldier (IDF member with no family in Israel) and more, all planned and produced by the teens.

Religious programming starts during this Tuesday night lounge. Every week, the event pauses and BJUSY members join the adults in the main sanctuary for minyan. The teens lead the Maariv service, which always brings smiles to the congregation.

The youth group also organizes an innovative monthly Shabbat service. Each one has its theme, such as sports or, as previously mentioned, ice cream.

Membership outreach kicks off with the “kidnapping” of eighth graders. (Parents, of course, are in on this.) On a Saturday night in January, current BJUSY members “abduct” next year’s freshmen and take them onto a party bus. This year, the destination was a Neon Glow party at a trampoline park. Welcome to BJUSY!

And when these high school students aren’t in lounges, services or membership initiations, they’re involved in the community. You wouldn’t be surprised to see them running coat drives for the winter and planting gardens for senior citizens in the spring.

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Autonomy comes with responsibility.

Marc Sender, a middle school teacher by day, acknowledges that other youth groups give teenagers a say in programming. However, he believes Beth Judea pushes it further.

“You have to be comfortable with trying new things,” he explains. “And you have to be comfortable that sometimes they might fail. We talk through the programs that don’t work just as much as we do the ones that succeed. That way, we learn about ourselves and our community.”

Responsibility at Beth Judea goes beyond programming. A few years ago, the synagogue board voted to let BJUSY use a vacant house on the property for meetings and events. Youth group members sweep, mop floors, do dishes, paint and decorate as if it’s their own home.

Marc Sender adds, “I want them to own the program and feel proud of it. It is a program where they learn so many skills — how to write a program plan, how to communicate and market. There are so many transferable skills that they take with them for the rest of their lives.”

Preparing members for a life of community and leadership.

The BJUSY chapter has been in existence for more than 30 years and boasts many illustrious alumni. A good number, like Marc Sender himself, return to Long Grove and become leaders in the community and synagogue. A few years ago, one former BJUSYer became the youngest member ever to join the synagogue’s Board of directors — at 18 years old.

And for Beth Judea congregants, that’s even better than an Ice Cream Shabbat.

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