Helping Jewish teenagers grow through service
By urging them to give back, Leah Weiss aims to engage local youth
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
Leah Weiss loves to work with teens. Just 22 years old and a May 2011 graduate of the University of Maryland, she said she likes to share her “passion for Judaism and Jewish youth.”
“Teens are so curious about so many things and can go in so many directions,” she said. “There’s plenty of room for mentoring them closely, and since I’m so close to them in age, I can lead by example.”
As the Jewish service learning coordinator at the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, she’ll be trying to build on the impulse among teens — perhaps sparked by b’nei mitzva “mitzva projects” and school community service requirements — to deepen their involvement in social service.
She has already launched a new program, Destination: Jewish Service Learning, with a grant from the Cooperman Family Fund for the Jewish Future. It’s a kind of clearinghouse to help Jewish teens find ways to explore the world while doing community service and engaging in Jewish learning.
Destination provides grants of $500-$800 to help defray the costs of such experiences. (Jewish service learning programs, both in the states and abroad, can be steep — from $2,300 for the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization’s two-week IMPACT: Boston program to nearly $6,000 for the American Jewish World Service’s Summer in Ghana.)
Also in Weiss’s portfolio is a series of already operating local Jewish service learning programs, including the two-year Iris Teen Tzedaka Program for budding philanthropists; JServe, a national day of service for teens; and Mitzvot of MetroWest, a day for b’nei mitzva students to learn about local mitzva project opportunities. Another program, the Diller Teen Fellows, recruits high school juniors for leadership development activities focusing on Jewish identity, community service, and Israel.
“Teens are notoriously hard to engage, and they have to actually schedule in their free time,” she said in an interview in her office in the Partnership headquarters on the Aidekman campus in Whippany. “I love to engage them in conversations on topics that are relatable to them. I try to bring everything to their lives.”
Weiss grew up in Summit, where she attended Temple Sinai and graduated from Summit High School. She recently moved back home with her parents and together they now all belong to Congregation Beth Hatikvah, also in Summit.
She is the third person to hold the teen educator position at the Partnership, an agency of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ. Her predecessors are Michal Greenbaum, who is working toward a master’s degree in nonprofit management at The New School, and Adam Oded, who most recently served as director of Birthright Israel NEXT in Philadelphia.
Weiss, who began her new position in August, spent 15 summers at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Camp Harlam, an overnight camp in Kunkeltown, Pa., first as a camper and later on the waterfront staff. She credits the camp — together with the enormous and diverse Jewish population at her alma mater — with her interest in becoming a Jewish professional. She also spent her junior year at the University of Haifa, which deepened her connection to Israel.
Weiss hopes the teens she works with will regard her as a resource beyond the programs she runs. “If teens see you as someone relatable, close to a peer, they tend to be a lot more open,” she said.