In Response To Darkness, Jewish Teens Launch Chanukah Initiatives In Their Hometowns Across The Globe
Ahead of Chanukah, Oliver William, a 17-year-old Jewish senior at Miami Beach Senior High, was anxious. “My friends are scared to represent their Judaism at school,” he says. Considering the shocking surge in antisemitism since October 7, he understood their fear. “But I didn’t want to give in,” he says. “I wanted us to celebrate Chanukah proudly.”
As a teen leader at CTeen of Miami Beach, Oliver capitalized on a unique platform to bring his vision to life. CTeen International’s “Transform Chanukah” initiative, developed in partnership with the Shine A Light Foundation, allowed him, alongside a select group of teen leaders worldwide, to pitch his vision directly to donors in a format reminiscent of Shark Tank.
Inez Mundrian, Leadership Director of CTeen International at Merkos 302, coached forty Jewish teens from all backgrounds as they prepared to present their ideas. “Overwhelmingly, teens said they wanted to create a sense of community and unity for their Jewish peers at this time of hardship,” she says.
Oliver pitched participating philanthropists on his vision: invite Jewish high schoolers to a public Menorah lighting on Miami Beach’s bustling Lincoln Road mall, complete with a live DJ, sizzling latkes, mouthwatering doughnuts, and a graffiti wall. Sure enough, CTeen’s donors underwrote the program.
Rabbi Zev Katz, CTeen of Miami Beach’s director, watched as dozens of thrilled teens turned out for Oliver’s “Teens Unite for Israel” program on Chanukah’s first night. When the DJ powered down and the doughnuts were gone, the graffiti wall overflowed with proud messages of Jewish solidarity, and the menorah still beamed brightly.
Oliver William was one of forty teens who utilized CTeens’s new model of Jewish youth leadership to create meaningful Chanukah programming for their community. In Suffern, New York, Andrew Korman won a CTeen grant and invited his Jewish friends to take up brushes, paint buckets, and spray cans and join him in creating a Chanukah-themed mural on his CTeen chapter’s wall.
Meanwhile, teen leaders in Brooklyn Heights, New York, and Lake Worth, Florida, received CTeen grants to invite Jewish peers to ride a party bus to their local menorah lighting, and leaders-in-the-making as far afield as Mumbai, India, and Buenos Aires, Argentina, used CTeen’s program to host Chanukah-themed glow-in-the-dark parties.
Noa Horroch, a grade-11 student in Toronto, won the donors’ support with her plan to bring Chanukah light to senior citizens, decorating doughnuts and lighting menorahs with Jewish elders in assisted living facilities.
Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, chairman of CTeen International, says the “Transform Chanukah” initiative showcased the power of giving teens a platform to embrace Jewish leadership, especially pertinent in these challenging times. “We saw teens develop real leadership skills,” he says. “Whether they were presenting their vision to donors, engaging their peers, or thinking creatively about their community’s needs and how they might create a sense of Jewish community, these are leadership muscles that, once used, never fade.”
CTeen chapter directors like Rabbi Yitzi Hein of Rochester, New York, say handing programming responsibilities to teen leaders led to increased participation, greater enthusiasm, and lasting Jewish leadership skills. “We saw program participation more than triple,” he says. “We’re very excited to see the full impact unfold.”
Oliver William’s first taste of Jewish leadership and community activism has left him seeking more ways to create community for his peers, and it’s impacted how he envisions his future. “I aim to continue this throughout life, in college and wherever life takes me,” he says.