Rabbi Yarden Blumstein listens intently, supports fully
and connects spiritually to local youth.
Whether at his full-time job as teen director at Friendship Circle of Michigan or leading his minyan class at Frankel Jewish Academy or on the phone with a concerned parent or troubled teen, Rabbi Yarden Blumstein, 34, can be found listening intently, with patience and full presence of mind and spirit.
There is nothing formal about him. He’s a magnet for teens, who find him easy to talk to about their deepest issues and playful enough to beat at foosball in the Friendship Circle volunteer lounge. While he is an ordained rabbi, to the teens and everyone else who knows him, he is just Yarden.
Originally from Palo Alto, Calif., Yarden’s family moved to Baltimore when he was in fifth grade. The family belonged to a Chabad shul in Palo Alto, and his experiences there catalyzed his own journey into the Chabad movement, which has taken him to many different settings and communities throughout the country and world. He says the Chabad movement called to him because of its teachings that everyone is born with inherent value and its emphasis on loving and helping those around you.
“Yarden cares so deeply about others and making them happy. He’s one of those best friends you can always call, no matter how long it’s been since you’ve last talked, and you know he’ll be ready to listen.”
Yarden attended a yeshivah in Pittsburgh for high school and found himself debating between pursuing mechanical engineering or stepping into a clergical position. Ultimately, his passion for helping others in a more hands-on way won out, and he decided to enroll in an undergraduate Talmudic program in Los Angeles.
“From there,” he said, “I knew a rabbinic position spoke to me, but I also knew I wouldn’t use that position in the traditional sense. I wasn’t sure exactly what it would look like, whether it would involve working with youth or college kids or teens, but I knew it would involve helping others.”
He spent the next three years attaining a master’s degree in rabbinics in New York. Part of his program involved an internship working with teens in a yeshivah setting, educating and providing spiritual guidance.
“Through this work, I found myself having a skillset of being able to listen to teens and to help teens communicate with those around them,” Yarden said. When Friendship Circle of Michigan, headquartered in West Bloomfield, reached out to him looking for an “informal teen community educator,” Yarden and his wife, Bayla, decided to make the move.
“Nine years and six children later, we’re still here,” he said.
Being There For Teens
Friendship Circle has about 500 teen volunteers who provide friendship to children and young adults with special needs each year Yarden says the organization believes the teens benefit from the experience as much as those who participate in Friendship Circle’s many programs.
“Teens are in a continuous system, under constant pressures that ultimately don’t take them to where they want to go,” Yarden said. “Giving teens free space and time away from social media and these constant pressures is so important. We need to allow teens to fail and fall down and know that they can fail.”
Yarden creates a framework for failure as a healthy part of life through UMatter, an organization of Friendship Circle that creates awareness surrounding teen mental health and empowers teens to support one another in school and elsewhere.
He sees spirituality as instrumental to enabling teens to lead lives of purpose.
“Giving real spirituality to today’s teens is a game-changer,” he said. “At the end of the day, teens are fighting with deep, core issues and are at the lowest spiritual place in their lives. While spirituality may not look like the obvious tool, it’s building a real system of support.”
He combines spirituality with support systems by inviting teens into his home for Shabbat dinners. Throughout this past year, Yarden and Bayla hosted more than 1,000 teens on Friday nights.
“My family sees teens as an integral part of who they are, and my kids say it’s not Shabbat without teens at our table,” he said. “I think it’s really cool how a life passion of mine can be so important to my family as well.”
He credits Bayla for keeping the family balanced and creating a welcoming home, complete with delicious Shabbat dinners she prepares with love and impressive culinary skill.
While his family has embraced his passion for helping teens, Yarden feels that working with teens has helped him become a better parent.
“I’ve learned to accept my kids for who they are rather than who I want them to be. I try to give attention to my children that is undivided and focus on what they’re actually saying rather than what I want to hear,” he said.
Rabbi Levi Shemtov, executive director of Friendship Circle, says the rapport Yarden has been able to establish with teens has greatly enhanced the mission of the organization.
“One of the great things about Yarden with teens is that he opens his home to them. He doesn’t have a boundary between his personal and professional life. Everyone feels they are part of his family,” Shemtov said, “and he’s always looking to grow and advance his knowledge so he can become better at what he does.”
When a spate of local teen suicides brought the growing crisis to the forefront, Yarden attended a suicide intervention workshop sponsored by a Canadian-based program called ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training). He then brought the program home, facilitating workshops for local teens and adults interested in learning practical intervention skills and developing a community-wide support network. Several teens report having used the techniques they learned to help friends contemplating suicide get help, and Yarden is often the first call from a parent or friend of a teen in crisis.
In his efforts to make spirituality accessible to teens, Yarden leads a senior prayer discussion class at FJA.
“We take a concept from prayer, and my daily challenge is to get teens to leave the room feeling the concept is applicable to their lives today,” he said.
Jodi Backalar, an alumna of FJA now in college, recalls Yarden’s minyan as a seminal part of her high school experience.
“He wanted to grow with us rather than just teach us a lesson,” she said. “When his class ended, he was interested in continuing a relationship with his students, in seeing their progress throughout high school and beyond.”
Yarden has a unique ability to connect with and maintain close relationships with many different teens.
“I really don’t know what it is that allows me to connect well with teens. People say it’s because I’m present with them. Maybe it’s just because I spend so much time with teens,” he said. “I look at it as a gift I have, and the question is how can I use that gift to help people on their journeys.”
Later this year, Yarden plans to launch a series of support groups where teens can share their challenges in a safe and supportive environment. The topics will include any issues the participants are struggling with, including such weighty topics as suicide, depression and anxiety.
Sammy Schwartz, a recent graduate of Farber Hebrew Day School in Southfield, says Yarden helped her on her journey. She met him at The Shul, adjacent to Friendship Circle, where her family belongs.
Having spent part of the summer in a psychiatric hospital, Sammy said, “I couldn’t help but tell the truth when he asked me what I did over the summer.”
So began a close friendship that included meeting weekly to talk.
“He’s taught me a lot about how to live a life worth living,” Schwartz said. She was especially touched when Yarden visited her when she was again in a psychiatric hospital. “Visiting hours had ended for the day, but he was able to get in because he was a clergy member. We talked, and he helped me a lot. The fact that he visited me after hours is a testament to the person that he is.”
Lily Grier Special to the Jewish News | Photos by Rudy Thomas
Rabbi Yarden Blumstein also is a member of the Youth Mental Health Workgroup at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, which launched a youth mental health initiative called “We Need To Talk” (jhelpdetroit.org/weneedtotalk). To learn more about UMatter or to reach Yarden,
email email@example.com or call Friendship Circle at (248) 788-7878 ext. 208.