Ten years ago, I was asked to chaperone a trip for the first annual Shabbaton. Little did I know how life-changing that experience would be for me. I’ve had countless memories and met so many people from all over the world. That first Shabbaton only brought 3 boys and 1 girl, yet the bonds have been lifelong. Over the past month alone, I attended the college graduation of one and ate lunch with another.
The following year, our size tripled. Again, so many memories and connections. During Shabbos, two boys from New Jersey approached me and asked many questions. They had me share stories and before I knew it, there was a crowd of about 20 teens and rabbis surrounding me, listening to me speak. When I was done, one told me that I was more inspirational than all the other speakers he’d heard all weekend. Even after the Shabbaton, the 2 boys kept in touch and they turned to me for college advice and as I’m writing this right now, it is the 27th birthday of one of them and he is married with a child and now has become a CTeen Shabbaton chaperone himself. Just before the Havdallah service in Times Square that year, we went to Tower Records and one of the teens had me listen to a song. About an hour later, the keynote speaker from the night before held a private concert for us in Times Square. The crowd repeatedly chanted, “Sing Your Song!” When he started singing, I turned to the teen and said, “Wow, he sounds just like the singer you played for me earlier!” He replied, “That’s because it IS him!” I was in shock.
Our group has grown over the years to the point where our chapter won Chapter of the Year and several of our teens won Male or Female Leader of the Year. Several of our teens and myself were featured in the CTeen Anthem video, which you may watch on YouTube. Being approached in Crown Heights by a stranger yelling, “You’re the one in the video!” may be the apex of my popularity.
It has been such an honor being part of this experience all these years. The relationships that have been fostered with our teens and those from other chapters continue to grow. The mitzvot that our teens have taken on, from wrapping tefillin to wearing a kippah at school, or simply saying Modeh Ani in the morning or the Shema at night is inspiring. While they grow in their Jewish roots, I often question whether I’m getting more out of these events than even them. I’ve heard so many motivational speakers and incorporated their teachings into my own lessons and counseling sessions.
This year, I took on a new role as the CTeen Director. I am the only non-Rabbi in the world running a CTeen chapter. Our chapter may be smaller in numbers than in the past but it is more intimate and everyone feels a closeness with each other. I am proud of our Leadership Board, who take on the responsibility of proposing activities, creating flyers and RSVP forms, and recruiting new members and getting them to attend events. We have had many events like Bubbles and BBQ, Cooking for the Needy, Cupcake Wars, bowling and just simply hanging out with each other playing games. We’ve celebrated holidays like Sukkot with a Sukkah Hop, Friendsgiving, and Chanukah by assisting the Friendship Circle with their Latkes and Karaoke Night in addition to our private dinner the following week. However, the highlight of the fall for me was our Regional Shabbaton in New Jersey in which I cried happy and proud tears at least 7 times in a matter of hours. I watched one boy get called to the Torah for the first time for his bar mitzvah and a girl share her personal Jewish journey during a Teen Talk with all 250 teens attending from 5 different states.
We are now getting ready for this year’s International Shabbaton. I’m excited to see what this year has in store. There’s still time to register and share in this most inspirational and moving weekend. If you know of a Jewish teen who may be interested in joining CTeen or attending the Shabbaton, have them reach out to me, Rabbi Sacks or one of our CTeen Leaders for more information.
-Ken (CTeen Director)