Jonathan Muskat

Our Synagogue Teen Council

A few weeks ago, our shul sponsored a teen barbecue which featured hot dogs, hamburgers, wings and some socializing.  It was an ordinary barbecue, with an extraordinary agenda.  What we accomplished at that barbecue will, God willing, be the start of something special and it is something about which I am so excited.  In the 10+ years since our growth initiative was launched, we have attracted many young families and have reinvigorated our youth program.  Now, for the first time in many years, we will have a critical mass of approximately 20 high school students in our community in the coming year.

At the barbecue, I shared with these teens my vision of a teen council.  I asked them what they thought a teen council should be, and what they’d list as their goals as future council members.  We spoke about the role that a student council can play in a community, and what benefits it can provide for its individual members.  Using an NCSY chapter board as a model to which many of us could relate, I explained that we could do the same thing in a shul community setting.  The teens were excited, and many presented suggestions for future programs.  But my response to them was that before we discuss the particulars of programming, we need to ask a more basic question.  That is, why have a teen council at all?

As we barbecued and brainstormed, I introduced the teens to the concept made famous by Simon Sinek, entitled, “Start with Why.”  Sinek argued that the secret to creating strong companies and movements is for the leadership to clearly communicate to the public why their companies or movements should exist.  Not what they do or how they do it, but why they do it.  If we can clearly articulate our message, that’s when we achieve buy-in.

In fact, I think that there is precedent in the Torah for the concept that Simon Sinek articulated. The wise son asks us, “Mah ha’edot v’hachukim v’hamishpatim asher tzivah Hashem Elokeinu etchem,” or “what are the testimonies, and the statutes, and the ordinances, which Hashem your God has commanded you.”  The wise son asks a “what” question.  However, our answer in the Torah is “Avadim hayinu l’Pharaoh b’Mitzrayim vayotzi’einu Hashem mi’Mitzrayim b’yad chazakah,” or “we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and Hashem brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.”  Our answer is a “why” answer.  The wise son asked what are we doing, but the Torah understands that the most meaningful response is not simply to explain the “what,” but we must explain the “why,” namely, why are we performing all of these strange rituals? We capture a person’s soul when he or she understands our mission, our raison d’etre.

I posed the following question to our teens:  What do you think the mission of our teen council should be?  Is the goal to coordinate teen social programming?  To create a sense of community?  To have special teen Shabbat programming?  To address emunah issues with which teens so often grapple?  To develop a passion for Medinat Yisrael?  To give Jewish teens in Oceanside who may not be so observant a taste of Torah?  Only after we develop a mission statement can we create objectives to support our mission and programs and activities to support our objectives.

I told the teens at the barbecue that they are pioneers.  Because next year we will have 20 Oceanside high schoolers.  The following year we will have 30 and the year after that 40 or maybe 50 and we will continue to grow.  Our high schoolers now have the opportunity to create the structure and shape the future of our teen community for years to come.  Baruch Hashem, a group of young men and women has already volunteered to be part of this council, to discuss, to debate and to become young leaders in our community.  I am very excited about this development.  I am very excited about this new stage of real, meaningful growth in this segment of our community, and I expect great things from the youth in Oceanside.  Stay tuned!

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.