The Young Israel of East Brunswick (YIEB) began 5783 with new youth directors, Shaina and Tzvi Berke. The recently married couple made their home in East Brunswick, where they also now serve as directors of the Central New Jersey chapters of NCSY.
Following a whirlwind of programming for the young people of the area encompassing Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, the Berkes are looking forward to settling into a more stable routine which also includes their work as full-time students. Shaina, majoring in psychology at Touro University, noted how “the community is so friendly and gave us such a warm reception.” Tzvi described their first weeks on the job as “chaos, but a good chaos,” with programming for all ages of youth that included Sukkah decorating, making Aleinu mats, an NCSY bonfire and a Sukkah hop.
Rabbi Joshua Hess of YIEB said that he is “happy and thrilled that they are part of the team; they bring so much energy to the community. Their ability to connect with all ages so quickly and easily is a huge blessing.” Rebetzin Naava Hess noted how quickly they “dived in with fantastic programming where the kids are engaged and involved. We look forward to all they will bring.”
With the couple’s longtime involvement working with youth at summer camps and with NCSY—as members and advisers—it seemed a natural progression to ask Regional Director Rabbi Aryeh Wielgus if he knew of any positions available in the area after their marriage over the summer. Rabbi Wielgus knew of the NCSY position and the YIEB youth director position. While there is some overlap between the two positions, the opportunities for synergistic programming and activities make for a win-win for all involved. Shaina noted that “it was an offer we couldn’t refuse; we are doing things we love.”
While both jobs are “officially” part-time positions, the couple is very busy when the work is combined with their commutes to New York for education. Tzvi, studying architecture at NYIT, noted, “We’re both extroverts who love to be busy, so this works well for us.”
They seek to provide youth of all ages with meaningful experiences. Shaina covers the younger groups (ages 2-3, 4-5 and 5-7) where they then transition to the Junior Minyan that Tzvi handles. Weekly, approximately 30 to 40 children would be part of the youth program, with the Berkes seeing nearly double that amount when they had a magician to entertain during the lengthy Hakafot. “Maybe the magician made kids appear,” Tzvi said, “I had no idea there were so many kids and parents, and other adults also joined in.”
In addition to the East Brunswick NCSY chapters in East Brunswick and Highland Park/Edison, the Berkes also run Jewish student union clubs at local public schools. Shaina and Tzvi maintain an “open-house” policy where teens are welcome to hang out and exchange ideas and thoughts—without TV or phone screens. A recent teen program saw 12 teens participate, when far fewer were expected. The Berkes agree that the teens must feel comfortable and like to come or they would have stayed away. Shaina said that she always cooks enough for an army, so there is always a meal or dessert ready for any drop-ins. Tzvi added that he is hoping to plan an NCSY-style shabbaton to get more teens involved and incorporate more middle-school involvement in activities.
“Sometimes the lines get blurred,” said Tzvi. “Is it a shul program? An NCSY event? What distinct ages?” The result is that the overlap and line-blurring is unimportant as long as events are well attended and people have a good time.
Rabbi Aryeh Wielgus, New Jersey NCSY regional director, has no doubt that Shaina and Tzvi will have a tremendous impact. They are an “incredibly amazing couple who serve as role models that youth and other advisers look up to for inspiration and will bring these skills and passion for Yiddishkeit to their new community.”
Joelle Yavin, chair of YIEB’s youth committee, has been “so excited about the quantity and quality of programs the Berkes have scheduled for all ages. The programs have been fun and are filled with great Jewish content. The establishment of Chesed Cheshvan incorporates elementary and middle school students in preparing meals for the East Brunswick Police Department on Thanksgiving.”
The Berkes bring a wealth of experience and background to their positions. Shaina, originally from Teaneck, has had an interest in food science and explores her hobby by looking at different flavorings and spices in the food she serves to guests. Tzvi, a Long Island/Five Towns native, has a surprising desire to open a pawn shop that would allow him to get to know and interact with clients and explore the backgrounds, stories and history of the pieces brought in. Seems like a perfect fit for someone looking to identify and polish the hidden gems inside each person he interacts with.
As to the importance the Berkes themselves place on teen and youth programming—Did we mention that Shaina and Tzvi met while on an NCSY summer program??