By Asher Katz
In 1939, Zev Jabotinsky, a prominent Zionist leader, found himself in a debate against a young Menachem Begin at the Beitar National Conference. The details of their argument are much less important than the impressive and surprising outcome of the Beitar convention, where the movement’s leader was voted out in favor of a young and unknown youth movement representative. This turn of events serves as a paradigmatic example of the fundamental tenets of teen leadership: ownership of their ideology, a strong passion for standing up to authority, and adapting the old ways to exist in a modern world. Ownership and passion are core elements that can lead directly to a solid and proud Jewish identity, a goal many Jewish educators strive to fulfill.
When we decided to start a youth movement at the Moise Safra Center on New York City’s upper east side, we asked ourselves this question: “How can we influence youth and help them build a strong Jewish identity?” We quickly realized that asking how we can influence them keeps them passive, dependent, and feeding off our passion rather than their own. When we instead ask: “How can youth influence us?” we shift the responsibility to them, giving them an opportunity to express their unique self through their Jewish identity. This change enables them—who are always on a journey to find themselves and form a unique, separate identity from the one they present at school or elsewhere—to feel a sense of ownership and to act based on their own passion.
In our youth movement, Me’ever, which means “above and beyond” in Hebrew, we have not invented anything new. Although Judaism and Zionism are steeped in an old-school, pedagogic history, we encourage our teens to change, create, and adapt these movements into their modern environment, and we strive to implement the pillars and structures of informal Jewish education into a format that works for them.
Me’ever starts with a leadership program for 9th graders that covers basic leadership skills and the fundamentals of starting and running teams and programming. We immediately put that learning into action with monthly hack-a-thons, where our young leaders must create and implement solutions for various problems facing their communities.
Our staff guides and mentors participants throughout the entire process and ensures they have all the necessary tools to be successful. This vital component of the program enables our teens to take full ownership of their initiatives and have confidence in their achievements, while we always make it clear that they have a support system and a constant source of help and guidance if needed.
Upon completing this first stage of the program, our teens are awarded various leadership positions within the movement. Our goal is for them to be so independent that “they will have to fire me by the end.” Leadership positions can include:
- Serving on committees
- Starting their own nonprofit initiatives
- Becoming counselors who lead activities in the youth movement for 3rd-8th graders
Although participants’ Me’ever journeys truly begin as 3rd graders in our youth movement, we intentionally position the program as the last stage of our overall youth movement to emphasize the importance of youth-led activities and the vital role Me’ever plays in developing teen leaders. Our primary youth movement activity is a weekly Shabbat program for kids that includes fun, interactive, and hands-on activities that focus on Jewish and Zionist topics. Although this is a special and necessary outlet for our younger participants, it is also an opportunity for our counselors to learn, have an impact as leaders on the students, and share their passion for Jewish life. When they are doing the teaching, the lessons resonate so profoundly with them that they connect to their Jewish values and history on an even deeper level than when they’re not teaching.
In 1901, a group of Jewish teenagers started their own newspaper and asked Theodor Herzl to contribute a piece of writing. This was his response:
I once called Zionism an ideal that has no end. And I really think that Zionism will not cease to be an ideal, even after we obtain the Land of Israel. Because in Zionism, as I understand it, there is not only the aspiration to acquire a land that is secure in the judgment in favor of our unfortunate people, but also the aspiration for moral and spiritual improvement.
In all its activities, Me’ever strives to live by Herzl’s words—ensuring our teens know there is always more work to be done to achieve moral and spiritual improvement, and it is their job to act to influence those around them. The passion and knowledge our teens gain through their Me’ever experience is the key to building a strong Jewish and Zionist identity that will continue as a source of inspiration for future generations of Jewish leaders.
Asher Katz is a youth movement director at the Moise Safra Center in New York City.