What is the goal of a Shul Youth Program?
Realistically, every shul is different; some have a largely yeshiva-educated clientele, others a largely non-yeshiva clientele, and others a mix. Some have primarily very young children, while others have older children. Some have very little in the way of staff; others have a full complement of personnel, in addition to volunteer parents. All of these will affect the way the shul goes about meeting its Youth Programming needs.
Nonetheless, I believe that the overall goal of the program is a constant: To raise generations of Jewish children who feel comfortable and competent in a shul environment and in the Jewish community.
Here are several paths toward that end, recognizing that different paths are needed for different shuls:
For younger children:
Storytime sessions with the rabbi, as well as with other leading players from the shul and community.
A tour of the shul, including the bimah, the aron and the rabbi’s office, giving the kids something specific to do at each site, some measure of control of their environment, as they hear about what happens at each place.
For older children:
Training children in different parts of davening, including those which are somewhat esoteric. The schools will take care of daily davening, hopefully, but there’s a lot more they can learn, whether about Geshem and Tal or about the proper methods of Hagbah and Gelilah. (I’d leave it to the individual shul to decide whether that last is for girls as well, but my inclination is to teach them.)
Mainstreaming into formal davening – It’s hard to educate kids in a minyan setting, but if they are ever to feel comfortable in that environment, they must be given the chance to experience it. Bringing them in for specific parts of the davening, for which they have been trained, may help.
For early teens:
Youth programs that bring kids into partnership with adults – Volunteering at a kosher food pantry, working on maintenance projects at shul, helping coordinate a shul-wide social event, all of these introduce children to the mechanics of the Jewish community, as well as to some of the players. Specific adults should also be invited to participate in youth programs, toward the same end.
Giving the oldest kids a position on the shul Youth Committee, both for program planning and budget analysis.
As a former president of mine used to say, The children are the future of our shul. Most shuls are now sophisticated enough that they encourage the presence of children during davening, and they’ve stopped the shush parade (which should be directed more at the chatterbox parents anyway) – but the next step is to train the children so that when the time comes for them to take over, they are ready.