The argument can be made that the most essential program of any shul’s youth department is a strong and consistent teen minyan. It is during the all-important teen years that some young men can lose interest in attending synagogue. This, in turn, can have a spiraling effect. There are a myriad of possible reasons for this attendance change: lack of motivation/inspiration, not understanding the importance of being part of a minyan, and laziness. Many teenage boys dislike attending the main minyan in shul, where services will routinely run anywhere from 130 to 170 minutes—an unbearable amount of time to sit in synagogue for many youths (and for many adults as well). This is why a strong teen minyan is crucial; it not only establishes the next generation of chazzanim and baalei kriah, it also helps ensure that our sons will become minyan-goers by giving them a positive shul experience.
I’ve been the youth director of Congregation Etz Chaim in Livingston for five years now, and if I was asked what I thought our youth department’s biggest accomplishment was in that time, it would have to be the creation and continuation of a teen minyan. Our teen minyan has become such a success we even have it on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (with no tefillah omissions). But the most amazing thing is this: At no point over the past five years did we have more than 15 teenage boys who were “regulars” at the minyan... and the 15 of them being at shul on the same Shabbat rarely happened; teenagers tend to have very busy lives, especially on the weekend. So how did we do it? Well, listed below are tried and true methods to starting and maintaining a regular teen minyan.
Timing is Everything
Massive revelation: Teenagers like to sleep. A lot. We start our teen minyan at 9:45. I suggest starting no earlier than 9:30. Odds are, many of them won’t come until 10 anyways and you might be wasting time waiting for a minyan. If you start later and they come closer to when minyan starts, they will hopefully remain to the end and get a real sense of staying in a minyan. Try to get them in the habit of saying Shema as soon as they wake up, to make the zman.
Grab Them By The Stomach
If it’s delicious, they will come. Our Kiddush consists of only three items: a meltaway cake, drinks, and an absolutely spectacular cholent. And that’s all you need. I never made a cholent before I became youth director. My first few attempts were legendary… and not in a good way. But over time it got better and better, up to a point where a boy actually said, “If we have cholent like this every week, I’ll be here.” Now, should kids be coming to shul just for a cholent? No. Is it a positive means of facilitating their growth by getting them in the building? Absolutely. If you have a delicious Kiddush you will have stronger attendance.
Davening is Not A Race…
…but you better not go too slowly. In a recent webinar, the OU stated that the ideal length of a teen minyan should be 60 minutes. This can be done by starting at Baruch She’amar, cutting mi shebeirachs, and making sure services run efficiently (e.g. taking out the Torah in three minutes instead of 10). In our minyan we start at Brachot, skip most of the Karbanot, do say all the Israel-related mi shebeirachs, but skip anim zemirot. We move quickly, but we aren’t sprinting. Our average minyan takes between 70-75 minutes, with nearly all attendees staying beginning to the end. This time does not include…
Our speech is given during the Kiddush. This is just another method of making our services more efficient. We are fortunate to have a large oval-shaped table in our teen beit midrash. Our speech is given at the head of the table while the kids sit and enjoy the food. Some teen minyans have a rotation of kids giving the dvar Torah. This can be a positive element, but more often than not will be less than engaging, and might not be taken with the utmost seriousness. Do the congregants make the speech in the main minyan? No. The adult running the minyan (and there needs to be one) should make the speech or bring in an interesting guest speaker. We aim to have one guest speaker per month.
Be Andy Dufresne
Make like the main character of “The Shawshank Redemption” and start a library. We have a very diverse group at our minyan, including twenty five percent who attend public school. Some kids have stronger davening skills than others. We stress to all our teens that they should just come to minyan, and if for whatever reason they don’t want to pray then they should use their time constructively and read one of the great Jewish books in our teen library. This has been such a success that we’re still missing a large number of books taken home by captivated teens who wanted to read more. The important thing here is that even though not all of the borrowed books have been returned to shul (though eventually I’m sure they will), the kids who borrowed them did.
Ringers for the Reading
A key factor in having a teen minyan is for the kids to learn how to be competent leaders of the service and readers of the Torah. But finding boys to lain each week might be your biggest challenge. We currently have less than ten boys that are willing and able to lain for the minyan. So we do need outside help sometimes. One suggestion is finding out the bar mitzvah parsha of every male in the shul. This will help cover a large portion of the reading—don’t be afraid to push a reluctant adult into doing it. After all, it’s only the Teen Minyan. Also, college kids on break might take on large aliyahs. In addition, you can try to have the main minyan baal korei come to the teen minyan for the later aliyahs. This may be enticing for him as he can then partake in the Kiddush; it certainly works in our shul.
Feel free to contact me for other ideas or with questions: [email protected]
By Yoni Glatt