20,000 Jewish Teens Take Annual Convention to a New Dimension

20,000 Jewish Teens Take Annual Convention to a New Dimension

By Karen Schwartz – Chabad.org

In a normal year, Zach Ollivierre, 17, would have been eager to travel cross-country from Mission Viejo, Calif., to Brooklyn, N.Y., and stand in front of thousands of his peers to talk about what’s important to him as a Jewish teen. But when he spoke to a much larger group than ever before, gathered together this year for the 12th annual CTeen Shabbaton, he did it sitting down from home and he did it by video.

From near and far, teens gathered online for ice-breakers, workshops, games and reunions. They watched performances and participated in a carefully crafted program that included motivation, faith, music and more. The weekend revolved around three main events with teens also given the opportunity to build their own avatars and “meet” peers from 12 different time zones in a virtual world set-up for the program.

The theme of the weekend was “UpLyft,” which focused on defeating loneliness in a Covid world. On Thursday night, several hours of programs took 1,300 teens from Jewish hip hop to learning about community. Some 20,000 viewers took part in a Saturday-night virtual trip back through six CTeen Times Square mega-events known as “Takeovers,” and a Sunday “Mega UpLyft event” featured teens from around the world, as well as live performances by the likes of musician and singers Benny Friedman and Nissim Black. It reached more than 5,000, according to statistics from the events’ organizers.

Ollivierre, who moved from Colorado to California and started at a new school during the pandemic, spoke to the teens about the community and camaraderie he’s found in CTeen, and the opportunity he has had to learn more about Judaism, in what he says is “the first time at all that I’ve been able to delve into my religion.”

“My message is to find meaning in a world that can feel superficial; you have to find something larger than yourself,” he says. “Finding connections in the pandemic, and how the community here and my CTeen group have helped me be part of something larger than myself and find connection, even when you have to stay six feet away from people.”

Las Vegas
Las Vegas

Community and Camaraderie

From the first Shabbat dinner he attended, he felt warmly welcomed by the other teens, says Ollivierre, who was also part of a CTeen music video that was screened at the Shabbaton. “It’s nice to meet like-minded people, and it’s really cool that everyone can still come together, even when we’re not technically together,” he says. “We still have a reason and a way to connect to each other, even though it’s just on computer screens.”

Sasha Rubinsky, a longtime CTeen member and leader, MC’d the Sunday mega event. “I live and breathe CTeen,” said Rubinsky, of Coachella, Calif. “The event is something that I look forward to all year. I was sad at first that it needed to go virtual, but the program was so interactive. Thousands of teens joined, including so many of my friends from around the world. It was amazing.”

This year’s virtual “UpLyft” weekend brought new teen participants from Rabbi Shlomo Nissim’s group in Panama. He’s brought CTeens to the conference every year for the past five years. This time, however, more teens than usual registered, eager to take part in the festivities.

“It builds a connection that stays,” he says. “They know they’re going to meet people, they’re going to have friends over there, and teens love that.”

He adds that he hopes the participants came away with the sense of being part of something larger. “They like meeting people from different cultures and finding out how it is to live in different places,” he says. “CTeen does a really good job.”

Virtual online rooms enabled teens to communicate and play.
Virtual online rooms enabled teens to communicate and play.

Channeling Youthful Energy Outward

In-person or virtually, CTeen’s focus is on channeling energy outward, explains Rabbi Mendy Kotlarsky, executive director of CTeen parent organization Merkos 302. “Our goal is to lift up another person. And then another and another. Until the whole world is uplifted.”

Teens in England planned ahead to stay up late to take part in the festivities, said Rabbi Sholom Cohen, head of CTeen in Manchester. Some 53 teens signed up for events, some of which ran until the wee hours of the morning local time. “We try to make CTeen a highlight in their lives,” he says of the experience of being part of the group. “Especially now that they’re in their homes, we’re bringing a lot of fun to them—the Shabbaton is another detail, another program we’re doing for them. It’s a general vibe we’re trying to create for the teens; it gives them something to do on a daily basis and something to look forward to.”

He adds that he hopes they came away from the weekend with “tremendous Jewish pride.”

“The silver lining of this year is that we can bring the pride directly into their homes—not just for the teens, but for their families as well,” he says. “We can have the whole family involved.”

For Shai Fichtelberg, a high school senior in Sonoma County, Calif., this will be her last CTeen Shabbaton as she moves towards her next adventures. “It feels like I have been in CTeen my whole life,” she related. “The memories, the friendships and the lessons I have gained have been and will be with me as I continue to grow and evolve.”

Teens enjoyed musical entertainment
Teens enjoyed musical entertainment
In Southern California the event was outdoors.
In Southern California the event was outdoors.
Hunterdon County, N.J.
Hunterdon County, N.J.
As much fun as this year's events were, everyone is looking forward to getting together in person again, without the masks.
As much fun as this year’s events were, everyone is looking forward to getting together in person again, without the masks.

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