Oakland conference will focus on teen involvement

Recognizing a precipitous drop in Judaic involvement by teens after their b'nai mitzvah ceremonies, a national delegation of Jewish educators, lay leaders and professionals will gather for a conference in Oakland this week.

A collaborative effort of New York's Jewish Education Service of North America and the S.F-based Bureau of Jewish Education, the conference is expected to draw a diverse group of close to 150 people from 31 different communities nationwide who work with teens.

Titled "Kol HaNa'ar: A Forum for Community Professionals and Volunteers Working With Jewish Youth," it will be held Sunday through Wednesday at Oakland Marriott at City Center, 1001 Broadway.

Although teen-based conferences have been organized by JESNA before, this is the first time one has been held on the West Coast.

"We wanted to serve all those states that can't always make it to East Coast conferences," said Ronit Drobey, the San Francisco logistical coordinator for the conference. Drobey, Ti-ke-a program coordinator and the director of Jewish youth educator professional development at the BJE, described this national pull as being particularly timely.

"With all the modern issues we're facing today, having a community really helps a teen to deal with their angst," said Drobey, referring to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as a prime example. "We'd like that to be the Jewish community."

The S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation first made this a top priority in 1996, when it formed a task force to address the issue of serving teens.

"It became clear," explained Drobey, "that there was an entire population we weren't reaching." With the formation of the task force came "a mushrooming of teen education. We began to identify teens as our major push in the community."

This interest in teens comes mostly from the community's desire to ensure Jewish continuity. The Jewish programs offered to teens in the Bay Area "provide the tools, background, roots and ways to feel more secure in this tumultuous time of adolescence. Having a strong Jewish identity can contribute to their development into happy, thoughtful, centered adults," said Drobey.

The Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, home to the Center for Jewish Living and Learning's nationally renowned teen program East Bay Midrashot, which combines social and learning opportunities for post-confirmation teens, is a prime example.

Because of the success of this and other programs, the East Bay federation has managed to keep an 80 percent involvement rate of Jewish teens after their b'nai mitzvah. This is leaps and bounds above the norm, according to Ryan Baur, the East Bay's team leader for the conference and co-director of teen services for the CJLL.

The upcoming conference will allow representatives of teen initiatives locally and nationwide to share their successes as well as their failures. Speakers will include Brandeis University Professor Joe Reimers, local demographer Gary Tobin and the director of grants at the JCF's Jewish Community Endowment Fund, Mark Reisbaum.

Aside from the activities on Monday, intended for anyone who is interested in supporting Jewish youth work, the conference is not open to the greater public. For information, call the Bureau of Jewish Education at (415) 751-6983.

The workshops and planning sessions will be led by experts in the field of teen initiatives, such as educators, researchers, funders and managers. Topics will include community planning, finding financial resources, recruitment of youth professionals and the turf issues of rival organizations.

"It's a chance for us to pool all our resources," said Drobey. "Not only will we learn together, but we'll learn from each other."

One hot-button issue on the agenda is Israel and the quandary of sending teens there during the current intifada.

"This is an issue that almost every teen program is facing, and it's really changing the face of how we do things," said Drobey. "For most of us, Israel has always played a major part in community-based youth initiatives; now many are feeling scared for their safety. Everyone has a Plan B."

Aside from large, conference-wide sessions, the six to eight individuals from each delegation will also have time to work as a team and address their own community's issues. These participants will represent a variety of organizations that serve teens, including JCCs, federations and schools.

"Otherwise these conferences are too much of a singular experience," explained Nechama Tamler, director of the Jewish Community Federation's teen initiative project at the BJE. "There's no way to tie in what you've learned when you actually go home and go back to work."

Local delegations include an East Bay group with representatives from Alameda and Contra Costa counties, and a West Bay delegation made up of participants from San Francisco, the Peninsula, and Marin and Sonoma counties. It is also possible that participants from the region served by the Jewish Federation of Greater San Jose will attend, according to Tamler.

Tamler hopes the teamwork will enable communities to establish a collaborative environment, which will ultimately enhance teen initiatives.

"At the end of the day it doesn't matter whether teens go to my teen program or your teen program. It's not about fighting for this kid or that," she said. "The end game is really to reach as many kids as possible. We ought to be working together on that."