Chana: I grew up in London, spent my gap year in Midreshet Harova in Jerusalem and studied Chemistry at the University of Leeds. For the last two years I worked for Bnei Akiva, coordinating Israel programmes and managing educational activities. As well as being a youth director, I’m also taking part in Mind the Gap, an online programme run by Yeshivot Maharat and Chovevei Torah. In my spare time, I create paper cutting art and I recently completed a ketubah for my friends’ wedding.
Youth leadership is something I’ve been involved with and passionate about since I was in school, and I cultivated this during my time with Bnei Akiva. Working with young people as my job is something I find deeply fulfilling.
Kobi: I grew up in London (with a few years as a baby in Jerusalem), spent a year in Yeshiva, and am currently in my final year studying Politics and Parliamentary Studies in University of Leeds. Last year I was on placement working for two MPs in London. Politics and learning Torah are my twin passions, but I think they come from the same place – a sense of responsibility for creating a fairer, more just society.
As a teenager, my personal and religious development owed a lot to Jewish youth-led spaces – the minyan in my school, the youth service in shul, Bnei Akiva camps – where I was encouraged to engage with Judaism on my terms and empowered to be a leader. Those are the spaces and experiences I hope to replicate as a youth director.
Both: We met in Leeds when we overlapped as students and bonded over a shared love of hiking, food and learning Torah. We also share an aversion to meat and a passion for Orthodox feminism. We got married a year ago in Israel, and we hope to make Aliyah in a few years’ time to a small community in the Galil or the Negev.
How did you connect with Yeshurun?
We were in Yeshurun for a Bnei Akiva Shabbaton in February and spent an incredible Shabbat getting to know this warm, welcoming community. We loved it so much that on our drive back to London we half-jokingly thought about moving there. Four months later Rabbi Greg Bank got in touch to ask if we’d be interested in joining Yeshurun as youth directors. We thought about the idea seriously this time, and we knew it was the right place for us.
Yeshurun is such a great shul to be a part of – it has an incredible generosity and warmth and a real buzz of activity. Rabbi Greg and his wife Hannah wowed us with their vision of investing in youth and families to ensure the community grows and thrives. The area also just got planning permission for an eruv, which we hope will attract other religious couples and families to this vibrant, open-minded community.
How have you adapted your work to the challenges of 2020?
We’re really proud of what we’ve achieved so far. We’ve delivered family packs for Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot and Mitzvah Day, organised a children’s service and our first youth minyan, started programmes for boys and girls coming up to their Bnei Mitzvah and have been doing weekly one-on-one virtual chavrutot. We’ve also had a busy Zoom schedule with arts and crafts for kids, a Thursday learning night programme for teenagers called Mishmar (with delicious kosher takeaway dinners), an online escape room and a virtual hummus-making demonstration. For Chanukah, we invited the youth to design their own doughnuts, delivered in time to light candles together over Zoom and hear from a hospital clown in Israel.
The pandemic has definitely presented its challenges – we’ve been in some form of lockdown the whole time we’ve been here and haven’t had the opportunity to meet many members of the community in person yet. Our home is waiting to welcome people in as soon as we’re allowed to!
Can you give us a sneak peek into the fun in store for Yeshurun kids and teens in 2021?
We’ve already started working on a new series of events with guest speakers, including a virtual tour of Israel and an event learning about Ethiopian Jewry. We’re also hoping to start a programme learning Jewish texts with primary school-aged children and looking at exploring creative ways to reach out to those we haven’t met yet and to attract new families to join the shul, while growing the programmes we’ve already established.
We’re really looking forward to being able to hold regular in-person events. We love hosting Shabbat meals and hopefully, this summer, we’ll be able to host a weekly Friday night oneg. We’re also planning to restart a youth minyan on Shabbat mornings, including the key ingredient: Kiddush!
Why is it so important for a community to have a strong Jewish youth programme?
We want shul to be an exciting and meaningful place for the community’s youth. Too often, religious spaces are built around the needs of their older members, and then people are surprised if young people find Judaism boring, frustrating or intimidating. We’re lucky that Yeshurun isn’t like that, and really cares about empowering kids and teens to be a part of the community. In order to keep teens coming to shul after their Bnei Mitzvah, it needs to be a space that they are comfortable in, where they have friends and where they can meaningfully engage with their Judaism.
That’s what we’re working on: creating a religious environment that is built around young people. That means creating a youth minyan where prayer is done a bit differently. It means teaching Jewish texts that engage with issues today’s youth care about – like the climate crisis and fighting racism. It means making shul a fun social experience, with loads of delicious food!