By Deborah Vietor
Rabbi Daniel Bortz has woven a patchwork quilt of love, education, spirituality, and a spirit of Tikkun Olam within the teenage Jewish community through JTEEN of San Diego. Based on three pillars of social events, education and community service, JTEEN has evolved into a program where being a Jewish teenager is cool.
Currently, Rabbi Dan reaches hundreds of teens each month through programs inspiring them to learn more about Judaism and participate in events countywide. JTEEN has become so successful that a friend of the Rabbi has recently utilized the JTEEN model and adapted it to form a branch of the program serving teens in Detroit, Mich.
Teens are attracted to the program through personal connection at events, through word of mouth, and via local schools and social media, especially Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook, where they are invited to events. JTEEN serves over 10 public and private schools around San Diego.
Some of the events Rabbi Dan has cultivated over the years include a teen trip with JUSTIFI to Costa Rica and Nicaragua, (justifinow.org/jteen), that is full of fun and adventure, offering service opportunities to assist the underserved. At JTEEN, the holidays are always celebrated in a unique way. On Purim, there’s the annual Raging for a Cause, where teens ride in a party bus around town to distribute food and gifts to the homeless throughout San Diego, connecting fun with giving. A leadership retreat to New York City allows teens to hear from inspiring leaders and entrepreneurs and interact with the local Jewish community. There is a Sukkot event where teens build the Sukkah and share the holiday. For those at the Coachella music festival in Indio, Rabbi Dan sets up a hospitality tent for Shabbat, with food, drink and shelter 24/7. Teens feel safe and welcome; able to take a break from the hot desert sun.
A surfing trip for fathers and sons on Martin Luther King weekend in Rosarito, Mexico, is planned for fun in the sun, surfing and riding ATV’s. It would be challenging to find another program like this existing in San Diego today.
“Love in a Box” is a new giving program where teens assemble personalized boxes for those in need. Students make boxes full of goodies at school and give them to fellow students to show them they care. Bigger boxes are made for the homeless, including toiletries and gifts delivered personally, instilling the concept that giving must be done with quality items and care. Teens have expressed a particular interest and joy in this activity.
The JTEEN Judaic Honors program is entering its fifth year and is held on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the San Diego Jewish Academy. This thought provoking program offers a warm and safe environment for teens countywide to discover their unique voice. They are able to debate issues important to them, building a foundation of values and skills to carry them through life.
“[In this class,] we talk about deeper subjects in life. It’s fun and something to look forward to during the week,” Atara Anbar, a sophomore at Torrey Pines High School says of the program.
Rabbi Dan shared that through JTEEN’s various programs, the Torah’s ancient teachings are utilized and applied to values, philosophy and morals of Judaism for 21st century teens, making for interesting debate and conversation where everyone feels valued. Subjects range from love and war to tattoos and alcohol, Jewish identity today and everything in between.
JTEEN is independently operated and relies completely on the generosity and support of the community to offer its programs. A banquet fundraiser is held at at the end of each year to recognize the program’s teen leaders and supporters.
“I listened to peer pressure and conformed a lot in high school,” Rabbi Bortz says. “Looking back, it was so stupid and sad. I try to impart to the teens that it’s cool to be yourself and to take pride in their identity, in who they are and to follow their dreams.”
As a child and teen, Rabbi Bortz attended both Jewish and public schools, and as a teenager never really felt a meaningful Jewish connection. He realizes that many youth feel this way and wants to offer this kind of a connection.
“Judaism is a vibrant thing, and it gives us direction and purpose in how to live life in a fun and meaningful way,” says Rabbi Bortz.
Bortz became more interested in Judaism ironically, while attending the well-known party school, University of California at Santa Barbara. Once he left, he studied in Israel at the Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies and then in New York for several years, where he became ordained as an orthodox Rabbi. He felt that during his teenage years he was lost and missed connecting with a mentor and programs in the community.
“I was definitely a teenager searching for a purpose,” says the Rabbi of his adolescence. “It was kind of a lost time in my life. That’s what I was hoping we could do, to help give a purpose and direction to the incredible passion and potential of youth.”
Nikki Saloner is a parent on the board with three children who have been involved in the JTEEN program over the years.
“[Rabbi Bortz] is a cool Rabbi, connects with the kids on Facebook, Instagram and is a soccer fan,” she says. “He gets to know the kids and really connects with them. I have known Rabbi Bortz for a long time and have really believed in him from the beginning, I am on the board of JTEEN and have seen how the program benefits my kids and others. He has personally made a huge impact with my children in Jewish learning and other Jewish children in the community.
With JTEEN, Saloner noted that the teens can be as involved as they want to with no mandatory commitment except for the classes once they sign up. She believes that Rabbi Bortz provides community service on a personal level and shares this with the teens.
Another parent, Darren Youngelson, said that he has always enjoyed seeing Jewish communities prosper and grow, and he sees that happening with the JTEEN program.
“We all need to play our part in finding ways to embrace, support and enhance the efforts of special people like Rabbi Bortz and the JTEEN organization,” he said. “Rabbi Bortz has played a meaningful part in his children’s lives that have been enriched in a comfortable, fun-filled environment.”
Shushu Crevoshay, a teen member of the program had this to say about working with Rabbi Bortz and JTEEN: “Since the year has begun, the La Jolla Jew Crew has done a number of community service projects that had very successful results on the La Jolla High School Campus. For example, we took part in the JTEEN “Love in a Box” project which really brought kindness to our campus. Within our club’s leadership board, we have also begun a Dvar Torah “circle”. Every club meeting, one club leader creates a small Dvar Torah about the week’s Parsha to share with the club members and relates it to our daily lives.”
“Through the help of Rabbi Bortz, JTEEN has given me and many other students the opportunity to bring Judaism into our day to day lives, which is sometimes difficult since we attend secular schools. It brings the Jewish students together on campus and gives us an identity.”
No matter who you are, teens, parents, and community members agree that Rabbi Bortz’s program has greatly enriched their lives and continues to help the community grow exponentially through Jewish values. JTEEN is really teaching and building the heroes of our Jewish future today.