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Teen program combines Torah and improv
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Teen program combines Torah and improv

Congregation Beth El offers new approach to High Holy Days

Imagine a mash-up of Saturday Night Live and a class in Bible study, and you have some idea what awaits teens at Congregation Beth El during the High Holy Days.

The Conservative synagogue in South Orange has invited stand-up comedienne, writer, and producer Julia Young to teach interactive workshops for the young members on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

According to the synagogue bulletin, she will teach them “the basics of improvisation (agreement, support, spontaneity) while also delving into the narrative of the Torah readings.”

The congregation’s religious leader, Rabbi Francine Roston, came up with the idea. “It’s usual to have the teens do work, or have a study group, or a rap session, but I wanted something more oriented to Torah and the high drama of High Holy Days, something that would engage them in a way that speaks to the dramatic in themselves,” she said.

To find the right approach, she turned to Storahtelling, a Jewish educational collective whose approach combines Bible study, theater, and interactive discussion. The group’s Shawn Shafner recommended her friend Young, who performs with New York City’s improvisational theater Chicago City Limits. Two other storytellers will entertain and educate the younger children.

Young, who grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., was involved with theater from early on. She attended Camp Young Judaea Midwest in Waupaca, Wis., for 13 summers, and became head drama specialist there. Living in Israel for a year after high school, she taught theater at community centers. As a student at the University of Michigan, she cofounded and directed an improv troupe, The Impro-fessionals.

“I’ve taught many workshops to Jewish youth groups and camps, and I was excited to bring my workshops to the congregation,” she told NJ Jewish News. “Growing up, I attended religious school three times a week and I didn’t love it. I didn’t connect with a lot of the material and wish it had been more creative.”

Years later she and Shafner worked at Camp Young Judaea, where they produced “Parsha Players,” a humorous sketch about the week’s Torah portion.

“We’d work on making the stories accessible and entertaining to kids,” she recalled. “I remember being bored and confused during services when I was a camper, and I didn’t want our campers to feel that way. Parsha Players got to be so popular that we started doing it three times a week, and kids would come up to us asking what would happen next.”

She said her goal with the Beth El workshops is “to make the teens feel comfortable with themselves and with each other so we can interpret the texts. Above all, I want to make the Torah texts and High Holy Day teachings fun to explore. Improv is all about saying ‘yes’ and allowing yourself to see mistakes as gifts without judging yourself.”

Young’s sessions at Beth El will take place on Sept. 5, 6, and 14, 12:30-1:30 p.m.

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