Chabad Turns the Lens on Jewish Teens, Young Jewish Professionals

In the past year, Chabad has sent 75 new emissaries worldwide to serve teens and young adults


Chabad Turns the Lens on Jewish Teens, Young Jewish Professionals

by Rena Greenberg - New York

November 4, 2015

Some 75 young Chabad couples were appointed emissaries to communities around the globe over the past 12 months with the intention of cultivating two particular Jewish demographics: teenagers and young professionals.

Established by the New Shluchim Initiative at Merkos 302, working in tandem with its CTeen program and its Chabad Young Professionals (CYP) program, the initiative is making inroads to these populations that have generally opted out of Chabad’s existing educational programs, which are geared more generally to families. Employing creative approaches to Jewish learning experiences with the 13-18 and 21-36 age group in mind, the initiative, sponsored by the Meromim Foundation, supplements dedicated human resources to full time positions, funding the new recruits with seed money, training, and top-tier programming.

This year, 40 young couples have opened new chapters of CTeen, the premiere Chabad teen club network, and 35 couples established CYP worldwide. These new additions bring the total number of CTeen chapters to 236 and CYP to 63.  

Demographic vs Geographic

Research shows that the more that children are exposed to formal Jewish education, the greater their chances of strongly identifying as Jews in adulthood. Yet, according to a Brandeis Study, there is an alarming 75% drop off from Jewish programming post Bar and Bat Mitzvah.

“Reversing this trend, by keeping youth connected through adolescence and into adulthood, can be a key factor in stemming the tide of assimilation,” says Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos and chairman of CTeen and CYP.

Today, with Chabad serving every city that has a significant Jewish population, it has turned its focus to more targeted outreach populations. “The shift from geographic to demographic is important because it forces us to look closely at who might be slipping through the cracks,” said Kotlarsky.

Rabbi Meir Plotka, CTeen director in Belgrano, a neighborhood in Buenos Aires, Argentina regularly draws over 60 teens to his monthly barbeque and soccer game, both national pastimes of the South American nation. The number is impressive for a program that is barely 6 months old, but the 24 year-old rabbi is not satisfied. Two high schools in the area have 3,000 students combined, 90% of which are Jewish, Plotka claims. “We need to engage these teenagers or we will lose them.”

Reaching Teens In Time

The teen years are formative and critical to developing a sense of identity. In most communities, the current menu of learning opportunities for Jewish teens attracts less than 20% of the total potential audience. This means that the vast majority of America’s estimated 540,000 Jewish teens do not engage in effective Jewish learning experiences that make them more likely to engage as Jews.

16-year-old Jake Nicosia of Redondo Beach, California said he saw this statistic play out before his eyes. “My Jewish friends and I all went to Hebrew School, but after our Bar Mitzvahs, a lot of my friends just disappeared.” Wishing to stay connected to his Jewish heritage, Jake stayed on to help out in the younger Hebrew School classes with one other friend his age. “It was just the two of us.”

While his mom, Beth, felt that it was important for him to be involved in some way, she wished that he could find a community of peers that allowed him to develop Jewish friendships. “In our community there were a lot programs for young, young kids and then for adults. No one was bringing the Jewish teens together.”

That was until Rabbi Levi Diskin moved to town in August 2014 and opened Redondo Beach’s very own CTeen club. Jake was delighted to help establish the program and took on a leadership role in recruiting his friends.

“It was exactly what I had been looking for,” said Jake, explaining that CTeen was different than just hanging out with his friends from school. “In a random social setting, you don’t have any real connections with those around you. But at CTeen you already have a built-in connection with whoever you meet on a cultural level. You already have that bond, so it feels different and it’s so much more enjoyable.”

That innate Jewish camaraderie has proven immensely compelling for today’s teen, who is often drowning in social-media, but thirsting for real connection. With two hundred and thrity six chapters worldwide, CTeen reaches 40,000 teenagers monthly. In February 2016, 2,000 will travel from around the world for a Shabbat experience at Lubavitch World Headquarters.

In France, the demand for teen programs was so great that a dedicated CTeen coordinator, Rabbi Mendy Mottal was hired to develop original programming and translate CTeen materials from English to French. Mottal says that when he arrived in Paris in September 2014, only about five Chabad emissaries in the country were focusing on teenagers. Today 70 do, reaching over 2,500 teens, a number which includes a group in Israel who have recently made Aliyah and group of French-speaking Jewish teens in Belgium.

Even though 17-year-old Tom Cohen Coudar goes to a Jewish school in Paris, he never really connected with the messages of the lessons until he started going to CTeen in his neighborhood.

“At CTeen I love being able to hang out with my Jewish friends, but I also really enjoy the classes and debates about Judaism.” He found it easy to talk to the rabbi about anything and everything related to religion and the Jewish community and says he utilizes the opportunity to ask questions and explore issues about Jewish life with his rabbi.

“The international network connecting Jewish teens in France with their peers in the country and around the world is a very attractive element of the program,” explains Mottal. “They are excited to be a part of a big movement and want to be involved in a Jewish organization that inspires them to take pride in their identity,” particularly now, with the wave of anti-Semitism in France, which severely affects Jewish teens in their day to day life. Indeed, two CTeen members’ parents were in the kosher supermarket during the infamous anti-Semitic terrorist attack last year that sparked the #JeSuisJuif movement. (The parents were unharmed).

Generation of Now

Young Jewish professionals in their 20s and 30s, out of university but not quite settled, were systematically having a hard time finding their footing in communities oriented towards families or university students. Rabbi Yosef Wilhelm, who co-directs Chabad Jewish Professionals of the Upper East Side says that the trend towards later marriages has contributed to this challenge. With statistics showing the current average marital age as the oldest ever, young singles now represent the largest demographic in the United States today. “Thirty years ago there wasn’t a real need for special programming for young adults, since most quickly transitioned into the family unit,” explains the rabbi. With the single age bracket larger than ever, cultural trends have created a newfound need.

When Rabbi Yosef and Devorah Wilhelm pioneered Chabad Jewish Professionals of the Upper East Side six years ago, they were heeding the call of thousands of young Jewish Manhattanites looking for a place to call home.

“In your early 20s and 30s you have no formal setting to connect with your Judaism,” says Devorah. “You are busy in your career and don’t have a family yet. You are not at your childhood home and synagogue or even in a college setting where there are frameworks to follow. We found a real desire among this age group to connect and belong, and once we offered programming, they responded to it.”

That warmth and loving care, a rarity in the urban jungle of Manhattan, was what drew Stella Binkevich to the Wilhelms in the first place. Binkevich, a senior manager at an insurance and technology company, grew up “as secular as secular can be.” She first discovered the power of a Jewish community in university but couldn’t find a support system that could guide her on her spiritual journey. Once she moved to the Big Apple, the 29-year-old says she “found a support system through Chabad Young Professionals.” 

“In the huge landscape of Jewish activities in Manhattan, you are very easily pigeonholed. Chabad isn’t that. You kind of just are, and you can feel that you have a support structure here no matter where in the journey you are.”  

Like many CJP leaders around the world, the Wilhelms often use social events like “Holy Hour, Happy Hour” and “BLT: Bagels, Lox and Tefillin” as a way to draw young professionals in. “Socialization is one of the pillars of this age group. Many seek out a Jewish event to meet other Jews for dating purposes or simply friendship,” says Devorah.

“But once they are there, many realize that they not only want to be a part of a Jewish social circle - they want a genuine, meaningful Jewish experience. That’s when they join our classes.”

The results so far? More than 4,000 young single Jews from across NYC—a good half of the 8,000 Jewish singles who call the Upper East Side home, are now engaging with Chabad, an experience that can inform many of their choices as they move on in life, says Devorah.

No less important, says Rabbi Wilhelm, is that young adults represent a community that is vital to the future of Judaism. “They are the generation of now,” he says emphatically. “As educated professionals, they will have great influence within their respective communities. Investing in their Jewish experience so that they take ownership of their Jewish identity will make an important difference to the future of our people.”

List of new CTeen and CYP locations. 

Chabad Young
Asia regional
Chabad Young Austin, TX
Chabad Young Bangkok Thailand
Chabad Young Boston MA
Chabad Young Brisbane Australia*
Chabad Young Bucharest, Romania
Chabad Young Budapest, Hungary
Chabad Young Chabad of Downtown Cleveland
Chabad Young Charlotte NC
Chabad Young Colombia SC
Chabad Young Cyprus CA
Chabad Young Dallas, TX
Chabad Young Downtown Milwakee
Chabad Young Hoboken/South Hudson County NJ
Chabad Young Houston TX
Chabad Young Kansas city 
Chabad Young Los Angeles, CA
Chabad Young London England
Chabad Young Manchester, England
Chabad Young Metro West, NJ
Chabad Young Miami FL
Chabad Young Midtown NYC
Chabad Young New Haven, CT
Chabad Young Northeast LA, CA
Chabad Young Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, NY
Chabad Young Providence Rhode Island
Chabad Young Regional AZ
Chabad Young San Antonio, TX
Chabad Young Tampa Florida
Chabad Young UES NYC
Chabad Young UWS NYC
Chabad Young Vienna, Austria
CTEEN Beach Cities, CA
CTEEN Boca Raton FL
CTEEN Brisbane Australia*
CTEEN Buenos Aires, Argentina
CTEEN Buenos Aires, Argentina
CTEEN Capetown, South Africa
CTEEN Dix Hills, NY
CTEEN Flagstaff AZ
CTEEN Franklin Lakes, NJ
CTEEN Great Neck NY
CTEEN Hunterdon NJ
CTEEN Kensington Brooklyn NY
CTEEN Laguna, CA
CTEEN Leeds England
CTEEN Lehigh Valley PA
CTEEN manchester england
CTEEN Munich, Germany*
CTEEN Myrtle Beach, SC
CTEEN Northbrook IL
CTEEN Orlando, Florida
CTEEN Paris, France
CTEEN Poway CA
CTEEN Providence, RI
CTEEN Queens, NY
CTEEN Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
CTEEN Romania
CTEEN Salt Lake, UT
CTEEN San Antonio, TX
CTEEN Santa Monica, CA
CTEEN Skokie IL
CTEEN South Metro Denver, CO
CTEEN Stockholmn, Sweden
CTEEN Tarzana, California
CTEEN Toronto Ontario
CTEEN Upper west side, NY
CTEEN West Lake, California
CTEEN Westchester, NY
CTEEN Cleveland, OH

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