Can today’s secular Jewish teens still relate to Judaism through Shabbat dinners, discussions over Talmudic texts and even the occasional retelling of a story by the Chasidic master B’aal Shem Tov? Rabbi Elya Silfen, director of Teens for The Rohr Jewish Learning Institute, locally located in the Bais Chabad Torah Center in West Bloomfield, certainly thinks so.
With his mission of “confidence through education,” Silfen recently launched a new nonprofit, JTeen, and it has attracted 200 teens and counting from Birmingham to Walled Lake.
Through a series of home-hosted Shabbat dinners, Silfen started the program in 2015 to connect Jewish kids with little to no home Jewish practice. It has grown into a project where, through their Facebook group JTeens of Detroit, youth share their thoughts and insights of their expanding Jewish identities. For more information, visit detroitjews.com, where you can also meet the “Jewish teens of Detroit,” who share their thoughts on Judaism.
The Shabbat encounters have spurned other ideas and projects. As of late, JTeen launched a teen entrepreneurship track where local Jewish business owners will be invited to share their success stories through lectures and possible mentorship programs.
One teen involved in the project is Michelle Shvimer, 17, a senior at Walled Lake Northern High School who is searching for a “tighter grasp” of her Jewish culture. Invited by a friend to try out a JTeen Shabbat dinner, the BBYO member and Tamarack camper said that JTeen is something every Jewish teen in the area should try out.
“JTeen creates a platform for me and for all other Jewish teens in the Metro Detroit area to get down with G-o-d,” Shvimer said. “After taking part in several of JTeen’s Shabbat dinners, I have gotten a good sense of what JTeen offers for its participants. The atmosphere is warm, the food is delicious, the hosts are welcoming and the conversation is lively.”
The teens also volunteered in community service projects. Last October, they created stuffed Torahs to distribute to Jewish children in need through Yad Ezra during the holiday of Simchat Torah.
In addition to engaging the students through the joy of celebrating Shabbat over a home-cooked meal, the group is creating a YouTube video series of their round-table discussions on Jewish topics and current issues affecting Jewish youth.
Silfen, 29, a native of Chapel Hill, N.C., can relate to the teens through his own experiences of growing up secular as the only Jewish kid in his high school and searching for deeper connections to his faith.
“In high school, I took pride in being the only Jew in my circle of friends, and was never ridiculed for it,” Silfen recalled. “My parents were cool and open to me doing new things provided they were constructive.”
As a teen, Silfen took advantage of the Jewish resources at the University of North Carolina and attended Shabbat dinners before heading out to parties “with the popular kids”’ on Friday nights. With no prior visits to Israel, he spent his senior year at a yeshiva in Jerusalem where he received credits for college. The year in Israel inspired him to become a rabbi. His passion for Jewish teaching has not slowed.
Silfen stresses that his goal is not to make the teens religious or affiliate with one branch of Judaism over the other. He is also not trying to duplicate the social aspects of other existing Jewish youth groups; instead, he wishes to provide traditional Jewish education that will create confident Jewish college students who will continue to seek out Jewish and Israel activities when they get to campus.