Jewish teens find comrades in New England retreat

LYNDONVILLE, Vt. — The adolescent dining table at the summer gathering of the Conference on Judaism in Rural New England is the goofy, high-energy spot you might expect.

As the boys gobble their Sunday lunch, the girls concentrate on giggling. Nobody shows the effects of a lack of sleep.

"Our neighbors in the dorm got mad at us because we were making noise at 2:30 a.m.," admits Ari Rubenstein of Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Yawning adults might feel better if they knew the seven kids ages 12-14 had been involved in a rare weekend of Jewish bonding and learning.

All live in small Jewish communities with few, if any, other Jewish kids at school.

"I've never had a Jewish kid in my class in my life," says Jake Makler of Hillsdale, N.Y. "Where I live it's zero."

Ellie Rowe Cole of Lyman, Maine, says the conference is "cool because you get to meet a bunch of people" — that is, more than one Jewish teen.

The CJRNE conference offers the teens a social and educational program that includes Midrash, or interpretive stories based on the Torah, making decorative Torah pointers and discussing the documentary film "Trembling Before G-d" about gays and lesbians in the Orthodox community

The level of Jewish learning varies among the teens, according to Shoshana Narva, one of the college students who leads the teen program. But she agrees with fellow counselor Sarah Blumental that "everyone's really positive about Judaism."

Martina Zobel of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., coordinator of children's and youth programming at the conference, says she and the other staff expose the teens "to a broader scope of Judaism than they experience in their communities. Whatever congregation they meet in is small, if there's a congregation at all. They get no exposure at home to different kinds of prayer, which they get to do here. They do Torah study together. The conference expands their understanding of what Judaism can be beyond traditional practice and exposes them to traditional practice.

And it's tasteful to them — because it's not in the Sunday school setting, because they're doing it in a peer group of their choice, because it's designed to be rich and sweet and Jewish."

Each spring, CJRNE holds a teen retreat at a summer camp. The event emphasizes creative Jewish experiences and just plain fun for the approximately 35 participants.

"We hike out into the woods. We carry a little Torah and have a service in a pine forest," says Judi Wisch, the former executive director of CJRNE. The facility also provides a ropes course and facilities for Jewish crafts.

At a recent retreat, some of the kids asked for a Saturday night dance rather than the planned talent show. Wisch says other kids thought a dance was inappropriate.

"There was a little conflict, but we turned it around and had a discussion," Wisch recalls. "In trying to support the idea of having a dance, what they said really struck me. They said: 'In my school, I'm the short one, I'm the fat one. Here I'm accepted. I can't dance at a dance at school. There's too much pressure, too much judgment. Here I feel accepted.' "

And that's the other reason to hold a teen retreat.

"For them to come together and talk about being the only Jew in their class, it's very helpful and supportive," Wisch says.