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


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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