Michael Feldstein

Teens, Rabbis, and Shuls: Connecting the Dots

When I was 12 years old, like most of the young boys in our Orthodox community, I began practicing leining my parsha for my bar mitzvah.  I also was taught how to lead the Shabbat mussaf service.  As I recall, I did a pretty good job.

Shortly after that, the gabbai at our shul asked me to lein one aliyah in the main sanctuary.  I was flattered.  After that, I was asked to lein one aliyah every couple of months … or occasionally lead the mussaf service for the congregation.  I was blessed with a pleasant voice, and I enjoyed the challenge of learning to lein a new aliyah and leading the services.  It made me feel like a grownup, and it helped me to build much self-confidence.

Today 12-year-old boys also begin preparing for their bar mitzvah by learning to lein a parsha and lead the Shabbat services.  But there is a difference.  It seems that after they become a bar mitzvah, they rarely are asked to lein or daven from the amud.  Why not?

Part of the problem is that once these youngsters enter high school, their schedules are maxed out.  Between long hours at school, homework, and a myriad of extracurricular activities, many teens simply don’t have the time to prepare an aliyah, even if they are capable and have the necessary skills to do it.  In fact, I’ve noticed that many teens don’t even bother coming to shul these days, preferring to use Shabbat morning to catch up on their sleep.

But there’s another side to the problem, and that is the question of what kind of incentives are being provided to teens to attend services on Shabbat and toparticipate in the minyan.  I’ve written before about the teen minyan – and why I think it’s so important to the religious growth and development of our youngsters.  If there is a critical mass of teens in a community, I believe that a teen minyan is the best way to keep our teens connected.

However, that should not preclude our gabbaim to ask some of the more skilled post-bar mitzvah boys from leining and leading services at the main minyan, too.  It seems that the shuls I attend rarely if ever ask our teens to participate in the minyan by leading the services or leining from the Torah.  When I’m away and visiting other shuls, I’ve noticed the same thing.

Forty-two years ago, when we joined the Young Israel of Stamford, I noticed a beautiful thing – two of the older teens were given the responsibility of being gabbaim for the shul!  They took their jobs very seriously and did a wonderful job.  What a great way to get our teens more involved in the services.  Unfortunately, when they went off to college, there was no one to replace them – and the practice quickly became obsolete.  I’d love to see capable teens be taught to become gabbais once again.

Occasionally I teach some of the youngsters in our community how to lein or lead services for their bar mitzvah.  A couple of them were excellent for their bar mitzvah.  There is no reason why they could not be asked to regularly daven from the amud or lein from the Torah.  I think they would be receptive to the idea and would gain an enormous amount of satisfaction and self-confidence by participating in the minyan in this way.  All it takes is the gabbai to ask them a week or two in advance.

I’ve also decided to take the lead on a project that I think will better prepare these youngsters for leading services when they get older.  Our rabbi will allow pre-bar mitzvah boys to lead Kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday night.  I am currently teaching two young boys – a 10-year-old and an 11-year-old – the Kabbalat Shabbat service.  I hope they will be ready to lead the Friday night service in a few weeks.  I know that it will give them the confidence to continue leading services when they get older and are past their bar mitzvah.

Motivating our kids to be involved in leading the services and leining from the Torah is difficult, but it’s part of a bigger challenge: the overall problem of getting our teens connected to our synagogues, at a time when they are searching and are most vulnerable to outside pressures and influences.  And I think this is where our local rabbis must step up.

When I was a teen, if you asked me about the spiritual leader of the shul to which my family belonged, I would refer to him as “my rabbi.”  I felt a connection to the rabbi … not that I was asking him halachic questions, but I felt he was an important part of my life.

Today, many of our teens feel disconnected from the spiritual leader of the shul which their families attend.  If you ask them about the rabbi of the shul, they’ll likely refer to him as “my parents’ rabbi” and not “my rabbi.”  I believe there are only a handful of pulpit rabbis that are making a concerted effort to really connect with our teens  — and that’s unfortunate, because we are losing many of them to Yiddishkeit, as they are being pulled away by other very powerful forces.

Even those teens who do remain frum often develop their most meaningful religious and spiritual connections with their teachers in Israel during their gap year.  I’ve gone to many weddings where the mesader kedushin is not the young man’s local rabbi, but a rosh yeshiva or a rebbe in Israel.  It shouldn’t be that way … our local pulpit rabbis need to do a better job connecting with teens in their community, so they feel like they are “my rabbi.”

I believe that many of our teens are ready for the challenge – but our communities need to be more proactive in getting them involved and making them feel part of the service.

About the Author
Michael Feldstein, who lives in Stamford, CT, is the author of "Meet Me in the Middle," a collection of essays on contemporary Jewish life. His articles and letters have appeared in The Jewish Link, The Jewish Week, The Forward, and The Jewish Press. He can be reached at
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