Public school teens spent an action-packed two weeks at the CTeen Xtreme summer program, scaling mountains and rafting rivers from Colorado to California, all while celebrating Shabbat and learning about Judaism.
Teenagers are a demographic largely affected by Covid, say researchers from John Hopkins University. An uptick in depression and anxiety in young adults has parents, educators and health officials increasingly concerned.
CTeen, the Chabad International Teen Network, has kept its focus on uplifting Jewish teenagers throughout this pandemic. But when their annual summer trips were forced to close in 2020, tens of teenagers were stuck at home (virtual programming did continue). This year, as Covid restrictions eased, the organization pledged to reopen the CTeen Xtreme camp.
“We knew that teenagers the world over needed a boost, both mentally and in their Judaism—our extensive network allowed us to see this first-hand. It was so important to make this trip work,” explained Rabbi Mendy Kotlarsky, Executive Director of Merkos 302 and Vice Chairman of CTeen International.
CTeen Xtreme is an action-packed two week summer program. Divided into two trips, boys and girls separately scale mountains and raft rivers. They begin in Denver, Colorado and end in Los Angeles, CA, hiking through the famous national parks of Colorado and Utah, all while celebrating Shabbat and learning about Judaism.
This year, eighty High School students participated. It was “miraculous,” shared Rabbi Nachman Rivkin, director of CTeen summer trips, considering that there was “crazy doubt leading up to the summer if we would operate”. Rabbi Rivkin has been directing CTeen’s summer programs since 2013, but this year’s challenges were the greatest he’d ever faced. Many attractions had restrictions. Additionally, teens and parents were not confident to sign up in advance: there was too much unknown.
But CTeen went ahead. They recruited Rabbi David Lazare to lead the boys’ trip and Rabbi Pesach and Esther Sperlin to run the girls’ division. “The trip was a ten,” exclaimed Rabbi Lazare who’s been working with Jewish public school students in a prominent Montreal suburb for the past twenty years, “honestly, it was wild, incredible. Everyone, campers and staff, grew physically, spiritually. I would say that the highlight was learning Torah at night, hearing each others’ questions, and connecting.”
His campers concur. “Before I went to CTeen I never would have imagined that I would learn about myself and my heritage so much—in a way that I enjoyed,” said Isaac Mazor, a 15-year-old from New Milford, NJ and a 9th grader at New Milford High School. Ryan Kroner, of Woodcliff Lake, NJ, a 9th grader at Pascack Hills High School took it a step further: “CTeen Xtreme showed me that Judaism has so much beauty in its religion. I’ve learned so much: like how to put on tefillin and tzitzit, and I got to experience a kosher Shabbat.”
Prior to the trip, Ryan (who attended with his twin brother Michael) had had limited contact with his local Chabad. But when Rabbi Yosef Orenstein went to visit the boys post-trip, they were fully on-board and incredibly enthusiastic about the connection. “Thank you CTeen Xtreme staff for your efforts in making this happen,” he said.
For CTeen HQ, this phenomenon is common. Shluchim often refer teenagers whose local connection hereafter grows stronger. “The teens return to their communities with a positive, new energy,” shared Rabbi Rivkin, “We’re always thrilled to hear about it and happy to work with shluchim to enhance that relationship post-trip.”
For Rabbi Sholom Raichik of Chabad of Upper Montgomery County in Gaithersburg, Maryland, this statement could not be more true. Two siblings, Esther and David Pustylnik, returned from this year’s respective trips, highly enthusiastic. Rabbi Raichik was thrilled, “We already spoke to them about CTeen for next year, getting other students involved, etc. You guys did a phenomenal job—it’s a great groundwork for us to work on. We can’t wait to run with it.”
David Pustylnik had in fact been so inspired by camp, that he pledged to put on tefillin daily. He was gifted a pair and his father, Stan, could not be more proud: “It was unbelievable to learn that David committed to put on tefillin and got such an incredible gift. Thank you so much!” he exclaimed.
His daughter, Esther Pustylnik, wasn’t too far behind. On Shabbat, she relayed her CTeen Xtreme experience to congregants in Rabbi Raichik’s synagogue. Although she was entirely separated from her brother David’s group, the two followed similar activities. In the girls’ division, trip leader Rabbi Sperlin taught intriguing classes each morning, reviewing the laws of Jewish life, in depth. “He would discuss marrying Jewish and in the second week, we visited a mikvah. It created an awareness,” said Esther Sperlin who co-hosted the trip with her husband.
As Lesley, mother of Dara Schwartzman from Princeton, NJ, relayed, “My daughter definitely learned a lot on the trip and feels more connected to her Judaism.”
But perhaps especially important in a Covid era, Esther also pointed out that the trip was a true bonding experience.“Most of the girls came alone, but by the end of the two weeks, they had become friends.” She credited the staff who “gave their heart and soul, connecting with each camper. The girls left with a feeling of longing, wanting to meet up again.”
For both boys and girls, the trip is powerful, even life-changing. One facet unique to CTeen is the visits to various Chabad houses along the way, and hearing the perspectives of local rabbis. It always wraps up with Rabbi Chaim Mentz in Bel Air, CA, who, as Esther Sperlin relayed, “uniquely related to the campers and today’s teenage culture.” He ‘farbrengs’, connects and leaves the teens with serious food for thought, ending the trip on a high and empowering each one as individuals.
In an era of disconnect and at a time when teenagers’ emotional well-being are an increasing concern, this year’s CTeen Xtreme trip broke all boundaries. Eighty teenagers were uplifted mentally, physically, and spiritually. CTeen looks forward to hosting even more teenagers for the summer of 2022, Registration is scheduled to open in a few weeks.
Photos by Levi Brod