15-year-old Sasha Matusevich grew up on Boston’s North Shore. In many ways, the public school sophomore is your typical American teenager whose love for dancing made her drop out of Hebrew school at age 11.
But Sasha is also interning at an educational program in her community where she is taking responsibility for recruiting friends and planning events to raise Jewish awareness.
“I’m not very observant,” says Sasha, who two years ago joined JewCrew, an unusual teen program established by Chabad of the North Shore in Boston. Sasha now considers it an important factor in her self identity.
“I’m a very proud Jew, everyone knows that about me. I feel like JewCrew has added more, and prepared me better to be the person I am today, being open and happy about my Judaism.”
For the average American Jewish teenager, Jewish education begins in Hebrew School and ends at Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Once in high school, Jewish involvement declines markedly, so that by the time they are in 7th grade, teenagers are barely engaged in Jewish life.
Thanks to campus Chabad and Hillel Houses, many reconnect again in college. But the gap years spell missed opportunities for Jewish teenagers, and Chabad representatives Rabbi Yossi and Laya Lipsker were disturbed by this hole in their services.
“We hit on the idea of creating the equivalent of a new community of teens, where kids can form connections to other Jews,” says Rabbi Lipsker, who quickly discovered that he was on to a winner.
Now a household name in the North Shore Boston area, JewCrew is directed by David Nathan, a local resident and long-time member of the community who says the program aims to provide kids in the area with a fun experience while building their identity as Jews.
“The idea is to be proud of who you are, and to feel free to express that,” the 28-year-old Youth Director and former eco-biologist explains.
Three years since its establishment, JewCrew counts 160 13-18 year olds who participate in a wide variety of programs that blend typically popular teen activities with opportunities to explore issues of Jewish identity. The integrative experiences allow teens to develop their Jewish identity in a way that makes it personally relevant to them.
Nathan is emphatic that JewCrew is not about sitting in the synagogue and chanting Hebrew songs. It is rather an afternoon at a Celtics game with kosher hot dogs, paintball shooting on Sunday instead of Saturday, Jewish music concerts or a Shabbat in New York City.
For Sasha, now an intern for JewCrew’s Israel 3D course, a program developed by Chabad’s central Rohr JLI Teens, the social aspect has proven significant.
“If not for JewCrew, I would have a lot less Jewish friends. That’s really big factor for me, I feel very different with people who have the same background as me.”
She is certain that without the JewCrew experience, “I would be different.” It was the informal exposure that has taught her, for example, how one observes Shabbat.
“It’s not formal education and no one is going to sit there lecturing you – that’s what Hebrew school is for. This is about having fun with people just like you.”
JewCrew’s New York Shabbaton is legendary among the teenagers, combining the spiritual experience of a halachically observant Shabbat at Chabad-Lubavitch Headquarters location in Brooklyn, with the Saturday night lights of Times Square and a visit to the Statue of Liberty.
Dennis Averin, 15, is a Hebrew school graduate from Chabad of the North Shore and attended JewCrew for the first time after hearing about it from a friend.
“When we’re with Rabbi Yossi, we talk a lot about Judaism and what it means to be Jewish.” Rabbi Yossi has shown them, he says, “that being Jewish isn’t a burden, but it helps to enhance our lives and be good people.”
After participating in the New York Shabbaton last year, Dennis decided to take a more active role in his Judaism by putting on Tefillin every morning, and giving tzedakah, charity, whenever he has spare change. “It makes me feel good about myself, like I’m adding a light to the world and making it a better place,” he explains.
Rabbi Lipsker is gratified that JewCrew achieved his goal. “JewCrew has emerged as a community of teenagers within a community, giving teens a place to interact with each other in a safe and open environment.” For North Shore teenagers, he says, “this really is the place to be.”
Mitch Jacobson, whose 13 year old son Andrew is a JewCrew member, agrees. “As a parent, the challenge you have is for your kids to connect with other Jewish kids. JewCrew allows that to happen in a very enthusiastic and positive way, at a very critical time in their lives.”
That JewCrew succeeds as well to help teenagers integrate Jewish values and practices in their own lives, says Rabbi Yossi, “is icing on the cake.”