MILWAUKEE – Three area youth groups have been rebuilding in recent years, each one representing a major North American religious movement.
“MiTY, MUSY and NCSY are all in rebuilding phases,” said Tziporah Altman-Shafer, the Jewish education community planner for the Coalition for Jewish Learning of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, referring to local Reform, Conservative and Orthodox youth groups, respectively.
“All Jewish youth groups everywhere in the country go through up and down cycles,” she said. “All three of them are refocusing on their junior youth groups, focusing on activities for kids in middle school and building up their junior youth groups.”
Both CTeen of Chabad and BBYO are each bigger locally than MiTY, MUSY and NCSY, but don’t put as much emphasis on their middle school programming, Altman-Shafer said.
The MiTY group serves Reform Jewish youth in the Milwaukee area. It represents a partnership among three synagogues. Milwaukee Temple Youth, referred to as MiTY, brings together congregations Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun, Sinai and Shalom.
The youth group is part of the North American Federation for Temple Youth, a program for Reform Jewish teens across the continent.
Rabbi Toba Schaller, the director of lifelong learning at Congregation Emanu-El, said MiTY is a unique part of NFTY, because most synagogues have their own youth groups. Youth programs have existe
d for Reform youth in the area for years, but the current iteration of MiTY is entering its third year.
The Chronicle reported in 2016 that the three synagogues teamed up as education directors looked for better ways to engage the youth. Schaller said the synagogues wanted to offer their students more social opportunities outside of their synagogue communities.
“We know social interactions are important to our teens,” she said. “We wanted to give them a really robust network of other Reform teens to hang out with and spend time with and be a part of this. We thought whatever we do alone, we could do bigger and better together.”
MiTY serves students in 9th through 12th grade and a group called MiTY Junior serves middle school students.
Brian Avner, the director of youth education at Congregation Sinai, said MiTY works to help Milwaukee-area teens participate in NFTY’s larger events, and it also hosts its own activities in the community. Those events include social outings, social action activities and educational opportunities.
MiTY does not charge membership fees, but teens may be asked to pay a fee on a per-activity basis, such as for a trip to Great America.
Avner encouraged teens interested in participating in MiTY to come to one of the group’s monthly get-togethers to meet people in a small, low pressure environment.
“Then there’ll be some friendly faces when you come back to the next monthly meet-up or to one of the bigger regional events,” he said. “Those monthly meet-ups are a great place to get started in a safe and not overwhelming way.”
The Milwaukee chapter of United Synagogue Youth, referred to as MUSY, serves teens in the Conservative movement. Debbie Intravaia, the youth director at Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid, said she has been working in recent years to revitalize MUSY and grow its membership.
Intravaia said that when she started about six years ago, MUSY had three members and now has 11. She said she has been focusing on younger grades at the synagogue so that as the youth grow up, they develop an interest in participating in the program during their high school years.
Membership in MUSY costs $54 per year, some of which goes toward the USY region and some of which stays on the chapter level. Paid members can participate in events for free or at a reduced cost; non-member guests pay the actual price for events, Intravaia said.
Like MiTY, MUSY participates in larger, regional USY events but also hosts its own programs. Examples, Intravaia said, include snow tubing and an annual cooking competition modeled after the television show “Chopped.”
She said teens are developing an interest in leading MUSY, and her student board is growing. Some of the positions on the board include vice presidents for Israeli affairs, communications, programming and social action.
“It’s really exciting, because we built from the lower grades up,” she said.
As the group grows, Intravaia said she is adding new positions to MUSY’s student board, such as a religious education vice president.
“Exciting things are coming,” she said. “You just have to be patient and cultivate your garden when they’re young, and watch them bloom. Now we’re ready.”
NCSY, which was previously known as the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, is financed by the Orthodox Union and serves Jewish youth between 5th and 12th grades.
Rabbi Betzalel “Bryan” Karan is the newly appointed director of the city of Milwaukee’s NCSY chapter. He said the organization was previously active in the community, and he wants to rebuild the program and grow participation.
“We’re just getting things off the ground,” he said.
Similar to its counterparts in the Reform and Conservative movements, local NCSY participants partake in regional and national events, as well as local programs. An example, Karan said, is the regular Latte N’ Learning program that the local chapter hosts at the Bayshore Barnes & Noble.
Karan said by this time next year, he hopes to see between one and two dozen teens involved in each of the high school programs and its middle school complement, which serves 5th through 8th graders.
“Their involvement is going to spur an interest in staying Jewish and being proud of their heritage and learning more about their heritage and becoming future Jewish leaders,” Karan said.
He said the move to rebuild comes as community members expressed an interest in an NCSY presence, and the national organization has wanted to grow its activities in Milwaukee, too.
Although NCSY charges a fee for some of its events, Karan said the organization tries to include everyone regardless of their financial capacity and doesn’t turn kids away if they can’t pay.
“We certainly hope to be providing a much needed service for Milwaukee teens,” Karan said. “We feel that if Jewish kids are involved at a younger age, they are more likely to keep staying involved as they get older. We encourage them to do just about anything Jewish.”