1980'S Youth Group Leadership Leads to Lifetime of Jewish Connection, Synagogue Service for Members of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel

Top Quote Former Teen Leaders in Jersey Federation of Temple Youth Reconnect 30 Years Later at South Orange Reform Temple, Now Serve Together on Board of Trustees. End Quote
  • Newark, NJ (1888PressRelease) December 11, 2013 - Back in 1980, four teenagers from different New Jersey towns could never have guessed where their synagogue youth group leadership experiences would lead them. As adults, they were all drawn to Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel (TSTI), a Reform synagogue in South Orange, N.J. where today they have reconnected and serve together on the synagogue board.

    As high school students, Andrea (Weissman) Bergman, Shari (Danzig) Stein, Bill Strugger and Sue (Dreier) Wishnow met at statewide conclaves and weekend events sponsored by the New Jersey branch (JFTY) of the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY). Now called NFTY-GER (Garden Empire Region), the organization offers Reform Jewish high school students an opportunity to learn, worship and create lifelong friendships within a youth-led environment.

    The four students, who lived in Montclair, Old Bridge, Ewing Township and Warren respectively, held leadership positions in JFTY or their individual synagogue youth groups and attended several conclaves during their high school years. Although they did not stay in touch in the ensuing years, those formative experiences of Jewish engagement laid the foundation for their continued service and ultimately led each of them to TSTI-drawn by the inclusiveness, sense of community and social action initiatives that so moved them in their youth.

    Wishnow, who now lives in Short Hills, was attracted to TSTI's warm but vibrant attitude and broad cross-section of people. "Our style of worship brings me back to the collegial feeling of our weekend and summer conclaves," she said. TSTI's thriving Hebrew school and youth group were also draws for her and her family. "I wanted those bonding opportunities for my children because of my own experiences." She has served on TSTI's board of trustees for six years and the executive board for four years in a number of roles, and is currently the vice president of community and communication.

    Strugger, a resident of Maplewood, draws a straight line between the group's experiences 33 years ago and their current involvement in Jewish communal life. "The opportunity to hold leadership positions, the social aspects and meeting so many other Jewish kids from around the state definitely sparked something in us," he said.

    Citing the recent Pew Research Study about the changing attitudes about Jewish identity among American Jews, Strugger added, "I think having a strong youth group experience like ours leads to a deeper connection to Judaism as an adult." A member of TSTI since 2004, he answered the call to give back to the community last year. "There are so many ways to get involved at TSTI-social, educational, religious-and so many people doing great work in the wider community. When I was asked to join the board I thought, this is a good opportunity."

    Bergman, who stayed active in a number of ways after her youth group experience, said, "My Jewish roots were always a part of my life and I gravitated to my youth group friends for my social life." The Millburn resident has served on the TSTI board of trustees on and off for five years and was president of its Women's Connection group for two years. She administers the local PJ LibraryŽ, a national initiative that sends families free monthly age-appropriate Jewish children's books, through the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life and The Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.

    Stein, who also lives in Millburn, is a relative newcomer to the TSTI board, but she served on the temple's religious school board and on the Women's Connection board for several years. She said her community service today is a direct outgrowth of her youth group experiences.

    "I've had a strong passion for temple involvement since my first JFTY conclave in 1979, and the spirit of community has carried over into my service at TSTI." Stein has felt connected to Jewish prayer and the spiritual feeling provided by synagogue attendance her whole life. She and her husband joined TSTI in the late 1990's, attracted, like Wishnow, by the temple's clergy and members.

    Wishnow noted that TSTI's affiliation with the Reform movement benefits the congregation in many ways, one of which is its vital youth group. "Having a large movement behind us with such a strong youth group component allows us to offer an experience like my friends and I enjoyed years ago in new ways to new generations. From the melodies to the friendships to the community service-for me, there is a piece of JFTY at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel."

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