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Jewish Teens Explore Identity With Chabad Teen Network

By , New York

( It’s a sophisticated group.

Roughly 93% of teenagers use the internet today, with 70% regularly accessing social networking sites such as facebook and myspace. Three out of four teens carry their own cell phones, and even more communicate via email and instant messaging. 

But last Sunday afternoon ten Florida teens unplugged, to connect face to face with patients at South Miami Hospital. “Sure they can go to the mall or the movies,” says local program coordinator Mrs. Chany Stolik, “but they go home feeling so much better about themselves when they know they have helped someone.” 

The visitors are part of a larger association called CTeen, Chabad Teen Network, which has divisions in 30 cities around the country. Launched last year, the social and community outreach network aims to reach what organizers at Chabad-Lubavitch’s Educational Division deemed an underserved market. 

“Chabad houses are excellent with their programs geared towards kids, college students, and adults,” says Rabbi Mendel Perlstein. “But when it comes to teens, there was a big demand for some real programming.” Perlstein directs the national endeavor, which helps local Chabad centers plan monthly teen events based on Jewish themes and also incorporates some aspect of social service. Although currently limited to teens in 30 cities, he plans to expand the pilot program to include many more young adults.

This weekend 100 boys and girls from 20 cities will meet in the Big Apple. Plans include a day of shopping, sightseeing, and kosher eating in Manhattan, followed by Shabbat in the Chasidic neighborhood of Crown Heights. After Havdallah services in the center of it all, at Times Square, the teens will retreat to the Hudson River for a cruise and concert. The popular weekend retreat is CTeen’s second this year.

Rabbi Zalman Stiefel and four teenagers from Laval, Quebec will drive the 320 miles on Thursday morning. “We want to give them a fun, inspiring Jewish experience,” says Stiefel. “Our hope is that the teens will appreciate the practice of Judaism and connect with it.” 

This is CTeen’s third program in Laval with some 15 kids attending on average, not bad considering the size of the city’s Jewish population, explains Stiefel. It is precisely because the population is so small that Stiefel believes strongly in CTeen’s message and goals. 

“There was nothing here for Jewish teens before,” he reveals. “We needed to create something exciting for them to be a part of.” 

As most of their participants are public school students, CTeen represents the teens’ only opportunity to socialize Jewish, and revel in that Jewishness. “Just making the choice to come to a Jewish program is a big deal for many of these kids,” Stiefel says. “They experience real peer pressure at school: coming here provides them with the pride and information necessary to combat any hostility and respond to questions.”

According to Perlstein, the interactive, hip programming can’t be reaching a more important target audience. “Yearning for independence, teenagers try to distinguish their values from those of their parents, while carefully balancing their plans for the future. The result is a stressed and heavily burdened individual.”

“By being part of a group, socially involved and socially connected, a teen’s interpersonal and intrapersonal skills are broadened, which in effect greatly enhances this period of personal growth,” explains Perlstein.

Being part of a Jewish teen group will, he says, “sow significant seeds in the inculcation of Jewishness through their self-image and identity, especially as they mature into adults and have to make major life decisions.”

In South Dade Stolik is experimenting with her first few CTeen programs. She has coordinated teen events for years, but says CTeen makes the programming “more professional and funky.” Like the other groups around the country, CTeen here attracts teens from 14 to 17 years of age, both girls and boys. Aside from the lighthearted fun, Stolik hopes that the teens will take away a secure sense of Jewish identity before they go on to face the real world. 

Aggie Grossman
, 15, is only a sophomore, but she can’t wait to get out there. Grossman attends a small non-denominational prep school in Coconut Grove, where “everything is about getting into a good college.” (Her personal dream is Columbia.) While she has been invited to other youth groups, she plans to stay at CTeen for the socializing and cool trips. Israel and Judaism are very important to her. 

Vivi Warman, her friend, has been coming to Chabad since Bat Mitzvah Club three years ago. Warman enjoys CTeen “not only as a way to see friends I otherwise wouldn’t see,” but also because she appreciates the emphasis on “learning even while having fun.”

Yesterday’s foray to the local hospital was a perfect example, says Warman. “It was great to do things for people, visiting patients and cheering them up. I feel better knowing that I made a difference in their day, their life. I really did something to help them.”


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