Whether parents are seeking to pass on their religious heritage to their children, or would simply like to provide opportunities for them to connect with other kids their age in a faith-based environment, youth groups can play a significant role in helping students build friendships, serve others and explore their faith. Here is a look at youth groups from two faiths.
The Orchard Church
Josh Newton, pastor of student ministries at The Orchard Church in Barrington, oversees about 60 students and their leaders in the middle school and high school youth groups. At a typical weekly meeting, students play games to get to know one another better, have a time of singing and bible teaching, and then end the evening with snacks, which Newton says is very important. "Kids love to hang out and eat food, so we make that a part of almost every gathering." Students are encouraged to read their bibles at home each day, and then at youth group they talk about how the bible applies to their lives.
The groups are geographically diverse, with students attending over a dozen suburban schools, so Newton says youth group is a great place for the kids to connect with one another, regroup and focus on their faith. "Kids are trying to figure out what they believe, if they believe. This is a place for students across the board, whether they are confident in their faith and have been coming to the church for a long time, or whether they are questioning and not sure what they believe. We welcome questions and make it a safe place for kids to explore -- we're here to help them on their journey."
Newton wants to help support parents as well and walk with them as they raise their kids in the faith. "One of the benefits of youth group is you get a multiplicity of voices speaking the same truths. We may say something in youth group that parents have said many times at home, and kids may hear it in a way that really impacts them."
Volunteering is an important aspect of youth group. The Orchard takes students on various service trips so kids can experience first hand how serving others is an important and rewarding part of life. In June, about 30 middle school students traveled to Minnesota to join a team of about 100 students from various churches for a service project. They worked with seniors and children, volunteered at food pantries, and did various projects requiring physical labor. And later this summer, 34 juniors and seniors will be traveling to Hungary to teach conversational English to about 80 middle school and high school students in Budapest.
Erik and Julie Bruchman of Long Grove have two kids in The Orchard middle school youth program. "Our kids have found a place to connect directly with their peers (instead of on their "iDevices"), make new friends and serve others. Youth group is a place where they can learn about the word of God and have fun with kids their age."
For Marc Sender, working as youth director at Congregation Beth Judea in Long Grove has brought him full circle, since he grew up attending the synagogue and was vice president of Beth Judea United Synagogue Youth (BJUSY) when he was in high school. Sender says their youth groups are incredibly open and welcoming and give students a place to feel at home. They have programs for various ages, and the high school group, BJUSY, is a chapter within the Chicagoland Region of United Synagogue Youth (CHUSY). For the 30-40 students who meet seven to eight times a month, BJUSY becomes a second home and family to them.
At weekly meetings students are able to connect with other Jewish teens, and members are given opportunities to develop leadership skills they can use in their future. Students serve on boards, learn to run meetings and manage teams. Once a month they plan and lead their own creative services, comparing different components of their traditional religious services with aspects of life outside the synagogue, making their faith relevant to them as teens.
Sender says that being creatively involved gives students a unique identity to personally connect with the synagogue and Judaism. "Instead of Beth Judea being the synagogue their families go to, it becomes their synagogue. They take ownership of it."
Cara Golberg, a 2014 graduate of Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, served as BJUSY President in 2012-2013, and then as membership/Kadima vice president on the executive board of CHUSY for 2013-2014. Joel Spiegel, also a 2014 graduate from Stevenson, served as BJUSY president for 2013-2014. Golberg, who is working as a day camp counselor during the summer, says the leadership skills she developed during her five years in youth group are skills she can apply anywhere in life. Spiegel agrees, stressing that balancing the intensive role of president with school, sports and outside activities has taught him time management skills that are serving him well as he juggles three jobs this summer, including an internship with the 10th Congressional District Democrats.
In terms of religious training, Golberg says that being a part of the youth group has helped her understand Judaism better. "Prayers that were written hundreds, even thousands of years ago -- we connect with them and see how they are relevant to our lives today."
Golberg's parents, Steve and Abby, have encouraged Cara and her older brother, Eric, (also formerly active in BJUSY), to have friendships both with those in and outside of their faith. And yet being involved in an organization within their faith has helped their children to live their lives with values, a commitment to community and a respect of others.
"Cara has learned how to stay connected to our faith and traditions as they pertain to her everyday life responsibilities at school and work. She has many non-Jewish friends who are also involved in their religion's youth groups, and we have noticed that they all have a mutual respect for one another and their different religious beliefs."
This fall, Golberg will attend Indiana University, and Spiegel will attend the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Both plan to continue being involved in religious organizations while at college.
• Do you know any families that have found success, or overcome challenges, as they incorporate faith into their parenting? Send ideas for this column to email@example.com.