Some teenagers recently awoke not far behind the sun to get to school and stayed late through after-school activities that pushed their day toward night.
But there they were later that night Wednesday, not at home relaxing from such a hectic day, but at Skokie’s The Sandwich Club. It was worth it to connect to their Judaism in a way that the National Conference of Synagogue Youth makes possible.
This weekly gathering at the kosher restaurant is only one of the programs sponsored by the ambitious Midwest NCSY, whose regional chapter is located in Skokie.
NCSY Midwest bills itself as “a multi-faceted Jewish Youth group” open to all Jewish youth regardless of background and affiliation.
The organization offers social and educational programming in hundreds of communities across the United States and Canada. The Skokie chapter, which covers Chicago and nearby suburbs, is the largest chapter geographically in the United States.
“NCSY is a leader in bringing unaffiliated youth an awareness of what Judaism is all about,” its leaders say.”For Jewish teenagers, NCSY is a relaxed, fun environment to learn about their own heritage.”
The restaurant was packed with about 30 spirited teenagers — some from public schools like District 219 and others from private Jewish schools like Ida Crown Jewish Academy.
“NCSY is very big into informal education,” said Rabbi Moshe Isenberg, the interim director of Midwest NCSY. “It combines education with social programming. We always like to have a component of education in all of our activities.”
But that education is never formal and rigid.
The weekly Sandwich Club program, called MIE Torah High and funded with the help of Associated Talmud Torahs, is a perfect example. Students come for a short but always relevant discussion, have dinner with their friends and then leave usually in a little bit over an hour.
Sometimes those discussions are led by outside speakers, other times by Isenberg or Skokie chapter NCSY advisers Levi Zeffren or Soshana Friedman.
“Teenagers are the busiest people I know,” Zeffren said. “Their schedules are always busy, but they make time to come here, which shows that it’s important to them.”
“You don’t have to sit in classroom for hours to pick up important Jewish concepts,” Isenberg said. “There’s a social aspect of getting together in this kind of environment, having a brief 15 or 20 minutes of a good concept being taught, and then having dinner. But these guys will go home and remember it.”
During a recent gathering, outside speaker David Strulowitz talked to students about how everything is not what it appears to be.
“The problem is that we have a tendency to pre-judge on a surface level and then we move on,” he told the teenagers.
The conversation progressed to examples about the meaning of miracles and Hanukkah and life in Jerusalem.
“Is Jerusalem holy because the temple was built there or was the temple built there because Jerusalem is holy?” Strulowitz asked.
The answer is that Jerusalem is holy, he said, which is why the temple was built there.
“That’s not generally the way people in the world look at it, but it’s the way we look at it. It’s not arbitrary. Jerusalem is the holy epicenter of the universe. There’s an intrinsic holiness to that place.”
Niles West High School student Emma Lazar joined the local NCSY her sophomore year.
“A lot of my friends did this, and it was really rewarding for them,” she said. “I don’t go to a Jewish high school so it’s a way to stay connected in a way I don’t get in school. This is a very unique experience.”
What makes it a unique experience is that it welcomes all Jewish teenagers no matter how religious. Some go to private school, others go to public school.
“About half of the kids are (Jewish School) kids anyway so they’re already getting half a day of Jewish education,” Zeffren said. “For others, this is their only Jewish education. We’re finding a balance by doing more than Jewish education here. We’re doing inspiration.”
Niles North student David Neuman also joined NCSY to stay connected to Judaism.
“It the connection that’s so important to me,” he said.
For Skokie’s Shana Rosenberg, 16, who attends Ida Crown Jewish Academy, she’s already well connected to her religion. The weekly Sandwich Club visit is not the only NCSY program she attends — she also goes to another weekly program that provides more one-on-one learning opportunities. And she receives daily Jewish education at her school.
“I just love it,” she said about NCSY. “I don’t even think of it as an organization. It’s kind of become a big part of my life. I’m so inspired by everything. I learn with different advisers. I integrate the things I’ve learned into my everyday life.”
NCSY is always reaching out, looking at new programs. It recently began the Jewish Family Experience in Deerfield, which provides Hebrew education for both adults and children. There are NCSY regional gatherings and other activities, as well as summer programs that have helped send teenagers to Israel.
Friedman believes the program works so well because it provides teenagers with adult mentors who are not teachers or parents. They are able to form a special connection, a consistent bond that sustains itself every week. Friedman herself was a student leader in the Skokie chapter as a teenager and now she has become an adult leader.
Leadership is a big goal of the program.
“That’s what we want to see,” Isenberg said. “NCSY is connecting, empowering and inspiring Jewish teenagers. They become responsible adults who stay connected to their Jewish heritage. That’s our mission. That’s what we want to see happen to more teenagers.”