Amid the gleaming, densely populated towers of Hong Kong, a dozen Jewish teenagers from various backgrounds were in full-swing class mode at the headquarters of Chabad-Lubavitch of Hong Kong.
The conversation grew more animated as the subject matter jumped from bullying to honesty to issues of privacy. The teens were excited, engaged. They tried individually to express their own opinions, grappling to apply the core Jewish principles they had been discovering to the topics at hand.
This scene is not an unusual one, explains Rabbi Michoel Shapiro, director of JLI Teens. He says that while for years conventional wisdom has maintained that the best way to connect Jewish teenagers with their heritage is through social activities, JLI Teens—a branch of the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI) dedicated to creating Jewish content and programming for high-schoolers—took another approach.
“Teenagers are a notoriously difficult demographic to attract,” says Shapiro. “Following bar or bat mitzvah, they often will drop away from doing anything Jewish, and many assume that the only way to get them back is through social events. JLI Teens has proven that if you create an exciting curriculum with real-life pertinence, discuss issues that teenagers actually deal with, and create an environment where they can feel safe developing and expressing their own views, it can be a very attractive and transformative experience.”
It’s an opinion shared by Rabbi Mordechai Avtzon, co-director of Chabad of Hong Kong with his wife, Goldie Avtzon. When they arrived in the then-British colony in 1986, they became Chabad’s first emissaries to the Far East.
Last year, the Avtzons began offering JLI Teens to their community. The rabbi explains that the program is unique because it invites teenagers to participate actively.
“Teenagers like to form their own opinions and are mature enough to do so,” says Avtzon. “Unfortunately, with of all the moral equivalency that teens are exposed to today, they are often not equipped with the necessary knowledge and tools to really be able to handle it. JLI Teens encourages them to be independent thinkers, while informing them of the universal truths of the Torah.”
Jewish teenagers from various backgrounds learn together with Rabbi Mordechai Avtzon as part of a Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI) course given at Chabad-Lubavitch of Hong Kong.
The Torah’s Application
The concept of empowering teenagers seems to be catching on. Since its inception in 2009, JLI Teens has grown to reach thousands of Jewish young people around the world in more than 100 locations. Internationally, the program is offered on six continents, in countries as varied as Australia, Brazil, South Africa, Sweden and Turkey.
Whether in Sao Paulo, Montreal or suburban Philadelphia, the challenges teens face seem to cross all borders, uniting them in a way language or sports teams cannot.
“Teenagers are teenagers,” states Avtzon. Hong Kong has long been known as a cosmopolitan hub, and its Jewish community is famously drawn from a wide range of ethnic and religious backgrounds. “They face similar moral dilemmas wherever they are and whatever background they come from.”
Rabbi Levi Raskin has been leading a JLI Teens course in the heavily Sephardic Montreal suburb of Cote St. Luc for the last two years. Originally signing up because he was looking for something new and different for the Jewish teen groups he was leading at Beth Chabad CSL, it didn’t take long for him to become a fan.
“I didn’t realize how good it was, but once I started, I was hooked,” says Raskin. “What’s amazing is that it’s a down-to-earth class that transmits the truth of the Torah. For many kids growing up—even those who go to a Jewish school—the Torah is looked upon as a history book, not something that is applicable to their own lives. With this program, they can finally understand that it does have an application. It totally changes their perspective on life.”
Eytan Cauvy, 16, had some free time in his busy schedule last year when he decided to give the class a try. “It was different than other classes I had taken. I studied Talmud before that, but this was different; we were studying life lessons, Torah logic,” explains Cauvy, who immigrated to Canada from France with his family at age 6.
“As a teenager, I want my opinion to be heard. Even if I’m wrong, I want to know why I’m wrong. I want to understand. In a regular class,” he says, “you can ask one question, or two or three, but how many questions can you ask? The teacher has a class to give! At JLI Teens, the questions and the conversation are essential parts of the class.”
In suburban Philadelphia, 15-year-old Alex Freedman echoed Cauvy’s assertion, saying that she most appreciated the ability to apply what she had learned to her own decision-making process.
“It’s helped me become a better person,” says Freedman, who attends Rabbi Mendy Cohen‘s JLI Teens classes at Chabad of the Main Line in Merion Station, Pa. “The format is great, the videos are very funny, and I love the discussions. When I speak, I feel like I’m a teacher. Everyone listens to me and when they speak, I listen to them. So it’s a very dynamic learning experience.”
Rabbi Levi Raskin has been leading a JLI Teens course in the Montreal suburb of Cote St. Luc for the last two years.
Preparing for the Future
For so many teenagers today, high school and the extracurricular activities that fill their time revolve around one big goal: college. From studying and getting good grades to joining the debate team or engineering club, the teens themselves—in addition to their parents and educators—do everything they can to ensure that they get accepted to the best school possible.
Gil Troy is a professor of history at Montreal’s McGill University, as well as a noted American presidential historian, and the author of multiple books and articles. Speaking about JLI Teens in a past online interview, Troy says many high school students have an uneasy transition into college because they lack what he sees as a valuable ideological and moral grounding.
“I think too many modern parents put so much pressure on the kids to get the good grade that they don’t realize that they’re often sending their kids off into the world naked,” he says. “They’re not really prepared for the ideological challenges, for the moral challenges, for the lifestyle challenges.”
In contrast, Troy notes that the students who did begin exploring the larger ideas of who they are and how their Judaism affects them as people do significantly better.
“Those students who prepared not just academically, but ideologically—who know who they are, who had conversations with friends, with rabbis … about what they believe in are better prepared for what is a very complicated and very challenging transition. You can see a student who is grounded. I’ve never done a study, but I’m convinced that it has an impact on grade-point average.”
JLI Teens alumni have been known to apply their newfound understanding to great effect. Back in 2009, a California girl talked a desperate stranger out of jumping off of a multi-storied parking lot, drawing on the knowledge she had gained from a JLI Teens class that discussed suicide. A few years later, Sasha Pines, a JLI Teens student from San Diego, founded Camp Let Loose in conjunction with the Friendship Circle, a summer camp for special-needs children in her community run entirely by teen volunteers.
For Freedman, the class gave her a positive outlet when she was going through a difficult time. “In my sophomore year, I underwent treatment for thyroid cancer,” she says. “I had amazing support during that time from my peers, and Rabbi Mendy was always able to be there for me. I’m good now, but JLI Teens was able to provide me with an escape that didn’t focus on treatment.”
“Everyone in this world wants to know how to get ahead,” says Troy. “I would say one of the keys to success is taking a course like a JLI course, which helps you learn who you are, what you can stand for and joins you into the conversation of what it means not just to be a good Jew, but a good human being.”
Rabbi Mendy Cohen, seated at right, began offering JLI Teens when the program first came out and sometimes invites guest speakers to class.
Respects and Challenges Them
Cohen began offering JLI Teens at Chabad of the Main Line when the program first started out. He says that more than being a class, he views the program as a tool.
“It is a tremendous way to teach and communicate. It’s really more than just teaching; it’s engaging a teenager with their Judaism,” explains Cohen. “It’s very unique and has the ability to attract teens I normally might not meet. It respects and challenges teenagers, and they find that liberating.”
Many affiliates started teaching JLI Teens at local Jewish high schools: Rabbi Raskin taught it at one in Montreal last year; and both Cohen and Avtzon hope to teach it in high schools in their respective areas, too.
Always looking for more ways to attract teenagers, who are constantly being pulled in different directions, Shapiro says that JLI Teens headquarters is actively working to bring college credits into the mix. He is optimistic that by the end of the year, JLI Teens students will have the ability to acquire valuable college credits for each course they take.
“This year, we’re also changing the format,” says Shapiro, noting that integrating feedback he gets from affiliates is crucial to the program’s success. “We’ve optimized the lessons for a 45- to 60-minute class, and we’re now offering 18 weeks of classes that can be tailored to each individual branch’s specific schedule. This gives teachers more flexibility as to how they want to structure the classes throughout the school year, depending on their student’s school schedules.”
At the end of the day, says Shapiro, what fuels his work is feedback about real changes in young people’s lives that he receives from instructors around the world.
“Teenagers have a real desire to know and to learn,” he says. “The material we use could be taught to college students or adults; it’s just branded for teens. We really respect a teenager’s desire to think maturely and independently. This is not a watered-down class; teens need to be talked to like adults. Perhaps that is another refreshing thing for them.”
Maddie Feldman, an 18-year-old junior from Philadelphia’s Main Line, agrees. “Most classes just get to the surface of the issues. JLI Teens goes deeper than that, to understand what happens and why.
“I would say that the class has really helped me see the world differently,” she says. “I know it’s a cliché to say that, but it’s true.”
Teens with their course completion certificates at Chabad of the Main Line, outside Philadelphia. With them is Rabbi Mendy Cohen, standing, far left.