This article was produced as part of JTA’s Teen Journalism Fellowship, a program that works with Jewish teens around the world to report on issues that affect their lives.
MIAMI (JTA) —After spending her early childhood in Venezuela, it was not always easy for Gabriella Koenig to feel connected to the Jewish community she grew up around in Miami.
“When I moved from Venezuela, I had to leave behind the whole community and my friends. Living in a new place, it was difficult to meet and connect with other Latin Jewish friends. That is until I found La Casa,” said Koenig, 14. “La Casa has allowed me to connect with other Latin Jewish teenagers and has inspired me to learn Torah and grow to a higher spiritual level.”
La Casa is the first Latino chapter of the Orthodox youth group National Conference of Synagogue Youth in the United States. The person responsible for building this community for Koeing and other Latino Jews in Miami is Lea Bekhar.
When Bekhar moved to Miami from Panama at the age of 29 to start working for NCSY, she had one goal in mind: to make a home for the large population of Latin American Jewish teenagers in the Miami-Dade area through La Casa.
“There were no classes for teens, everything available in the area was for young professionals — 20 and up,” Bekhar said. She noticed that the few programs that were available for teens were often tailored for those who did not keep Shabbat, having meetings every Saturday. With this in mind she began running her own events for all teens.
Each Thursday after school, La Casa hosts events mean to be both community-building and educational. The meetings include a meal, religious education and an activity — which ranges from movies to discussions to games — to end the night. There isn’t a physical building; instead, each week a teenager from the group opens their home for the gathering.
Although aimed towards the Latino audience, La Casa is open for all teenagers seeking religious studies, guidance and community. And while the staff and institution is Orthodox, the organization serves Jewish kids from many backgrounds. About 40% of individuals in attendance don’t observe Shabbat or keep kosher and about 1% are not Latino, according to La Casa membership data.
“The slogan is ‘a home for your soul.’ It’s a place where they know there is no judgment, they could ask all the questions and they could find a community of like-minded people that they’re going to feel safe to open up,” Bekhar, 31, said.
Her goals for La Casa stem from her own teenage experience in Panama.
“When I was a teenager, I found that the one thing that kept me grounded was that aspect of faith,” Bekhar said. “And that’s what I want [here]. I want them to thrive for meaning in their life and to find a Jewish family, outside of their nuclear family.”
After teaching Judaic studies at the high school level in Panama for two years and through her previous work in NCSY, Bekhar learned to recognize an engaged community in which members are eager to attend and participate in events and programs. Yet, upon her arrival to the Miami-Dade area she saw first-hand the lack of opportunities for engagement, specifically for Latino teens. The Jewish Latino teens she met that were part of other religious groups didn’t seem to actually enjoy the youth community. La Casa marked a shift in engagement and provided an opportunity which teenagers were excited to participate in, she said.
“I never thought I would see so many kids go to an optional, after-school shiur [Torah lesson] on a Thursday night. Bringing all of us together, from both religious and non-religious backgrounds, La Casa provided us an opportunity to bond and still enjoy some words of Torah,” one teen participant, Jaime Mizrahi, said. “I look forward to the La Casa events throughout the week to be able to enjoy myself with my friends while still learning. In fact, even when I have already studied Torah throughout the day, I still go to La Casa because it is a nice environment to be in.”
Creating an engaged community did not come easy, and Bekhar had to do much research before beginning her mission.
“Every community is different. This is a community of Latin Jews, so it was important to recognize the community in Miami as Latino and treat it as such,” Bekhar said. In one of her first updates to her bosses prior to the September kickoff event, Bekhar recognized that the Latino population mostly lives in the Aventura and Bal Harbor area, and “they are divided into communities according to where they came from.” Some differences she noticed were that “Argentinians are less open about religion” while “Mexicans and Colombians are more open but aren’t part of the same community.”
Bekhar was able to use this knowledge to better target her audience.
“I have had to really mold the program to my audience. Many of the kids who regularly attend are second generation Latinos, so although their parents relate to their Latin origin, many of the kids not so much,” said Bekhar. “The Latin group is very different to their American counterparts culturally. Parents want them to connect not only to their religion, but to their Latin roots.”
Bekhar also incorporated program ideas from the Latin communities in Chile and Argentina.
“Programming made for American teens tends to have a very educational base, ours is more rooted in community,” Bekhar said. “The content is always very morally oriented and is centered on character development.”
One of the biggest hurdles for her was distrust from parents in the community. New and unknown, she had to create “an open relationship with all [the] mothers” in order for them to “feel comfortable voicing any concern.” Her approach worked.
“Since meeting Lea and becoming familiar with La Casa I’ve been impressed with her incredible personality and her ability to connect not only with young people, but with people of all ages. She’s a kind and empathetic young woman who will change the future of many Jewish souls,” said Anat Garzo, a mother to a La Casa teen and former board member of the Jewish Community Services Latin Committee.
Despite troubles she faced at first, Bekhar persevered and in the six months she’s been building La Casa, she grew participation to 120 teens.
One of those teens is Sofia Wengrowsky, a second-generation Mexican teenager. She recognizes the influence La Casa has on all aspects of her life.
“La Casa has allowed me to grow as an individual and has given me the opportunity to open a door to other young teenagers who are looking to grow in Judaism,” Wengrowsky, 17, said. “I leave every activity being able to learn something of impact.”