Some may believe today’s teens are out of touch with faith, but two teenagers active with their local congregation are proving that stereotype is just a stereotype.
Congregation Tehillah, at 4450 Fieldston Road, says it is the first synagogue in Riverdale to have not one, but two high school students sit on its board of directors. Jasmine Hyman and Julian Reich joined the board a year ago, and while Tehillah wasn’t necessarily recruiting teens to join its directors, Hyman and Reich say the congregation welcomed their participation with open arms.
“I feel like Tehillah has a general atmosphere of respect for everyone’s voices,” Hyman said, “so you can contribute, regardless of your age.
“As a young person in Tehillah and on the board, I feel like my thoughts and contributions are respected as much as someone older than me”
Hyman is graduating from the Institute of Collaborative Education near the East Village, with plans to attend Bennington College in the fall. Growing up in an interfaith household, Hyman decided to join the congregation at 11, citing an attempt to better connect with her grandparents and culture.
Reich is a little younger, getting ready for his senior year at the High School of American Studies. Unlike Hyman, Reich was born into Tehillah, but took the unusual step of refusing his bar mitzvah at 13, saying at the time he did not “feel Jewish,” but rather resented that aspect of his identity.
However, serving as an assistant teacher in Hebrew school classes made a difference for Reich, and he finally followed through with the religious rite of passage at 15.
“What I didn’t really appreciate as a student, I really noticed as a teacher,” Reich said. “It got me much more involved with what Tehillah does.
“It really felt right because I had come to the meaning that was going to work for me.”
Both of Reich’s parents served on the board, and after Tehillah’s annual membership meeting last year, Reich joked he “could do that” — that is, serve on the board as well.
At the meeting, Reich asked if he could join, prompting Hyman to ask as well. This caught board members by surprise. But after discussing the possibility amongst themselves, they officially offered the teens spots as youth members.
Rabbi Linda Shriner-Cahn, Congregation Tehillah’s spiritual leader, doesn’t want Hyman and Reich’s involvement to be a fluke occurrence. Instead, she wants to see young board members become the norm at Tehillah.
“We’re in the process of trying to analyze how we got to where we are,” Shriner-Cahn said.
The board manages everything from the congregation’s finances, to event planning, to spiritual education, to community outreach, among other initiatives. Hyman and Reich help Shriner-Cahn develop ideas for new projects and events within the community. In addition, Hyman runs Tehillah’s social media accounts.
“They changed the dynamic and brought a fresh vision,” the rabbi said.
Part of that vision has come in the form of a podcast, “Tehillah Talks.” The teens join Shriner-Cahn in recording a radio program-like production that’s then available to the entire world through the internet. It’s there Hyman, Reich and the rabbi discuss the impact their Jewish identity has on their lives.
“Whenever somebody tells me they really like ‘Tehillah Talks,’ I’m always like, ‘What?’” Reich said. “For me, it’s just my boring normal. It was something we were doing before we (started) recording it.”
Links to the podcast can be found on the synagogue’s website, CongregationTehillah.org.
Before they sit down to record an episode, the trio selects a topic, allowing time for Shriner-Cahn to prepare a Jewish textual connection. Outside of that, however, Reich describes the overall conversation as “very unscripted.”
Tehillah itself may benefit from what the teens have brought to the congregation, but for Hyman, that benefit is mutual.
“I’m excited to experience a new place, but I really like that I was able to do so much during my high school years because of Tehillah in terms of contributing to causes that I believed in,” she said. “When you have an organization or community working together, you can accomplish a lot more.”
Hyman is departing for Vermont, leaving Reich the lone teen voice on the board. But that won’t be for long as the board is currently seeking a young replacement.
“We’re trying to institutionalize having teens on the board so that it’s not just a one-shot event,” Shriner-Cahn said. “We’re really trying to think in those terms of handing over the baton.”
Reich has another year, but he already is aware of how much the board and Tehillah has impacted him.
“Tehillah is a community I really value,” he said. “In high school, I feel like the experiences I’ve had at Tehillah have enabled me to do so much more.”