Teens Tackle Hard Questions With Torah Bytes, En Route to Jewish Leadership

Torah Bytes

Sometimes the best way for adults to give life lessons to teenagers is simply to let them learn from each other.

That’s a core principle of USY and a founding tenet of its Torah Bytes program, a series of webinars that allows Jewish teens from across North America to discuss contemporary topics through the lens of Jewish texts and modern-day teenage values.

Spawned from occasional Google Hangout Torah discussions between a few friends in 2012, Torah Bytes now engages about 100 teens per semester. Free and open to all Jewish teens regardless of synagogue affiliation, it provides those who are genuinely curious about how to best live a Jewish life access to a broad array of perspectives, all while remaining within their peer group -- and on their own sofa. For many, it also forges deep friendships and a launching pad to leadership.

“The teens create their own topics, research their own source sheets and lead the discussion, teaching their friends,” said 17-year-old Sawyer Goldsmith, who participates in and helps run Torah Bytes as USY’s International Religion Education Vice President. “That’s what Judaism is about: learning and teaching from your peers.”

Program History

That idea wasn’t lost on Andy Weissfeld, one of the original discussion participants, who expanded on it by officially founding Torah Bytes after becoming Religion Education Vice President of the USY CRUSY Region in 2013. His thought, “Why only limit it to people from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Michigan when you can include everybody?”

The hour-long webinar sessions, held in the evenings during the school year, now draw an average of 20-30 teens from diverse geographies in the U.S. and Canada, an intimate-sized group that allows for a free exchange of thoughts, said Abby Kerbel, USCJ’s USY education manager. The result is that even when the discussions end, many kids stay online for what they call the afterparty, she said.

“The kid in California is talking to the kid in Omaha, is talking to the kid in Chicago, and they’re catching up on social media after it ends, so there’s a communal aspect to the program,” Kerbel said. “They talk to each other about what’s going on in their lives, or USY, or things like that. There’s a really lovely community that’s been created.”

Goldsmith agreed, pointing out that many of his best friends are those from around North America he met through the program.

Seriously Relevant

Afterparty aside, Torah Bytes conversations are indeed serious. With recent themes that included “The Jewish Perspective on Tattoos & Piercings” and “The Question Of Abortion: What Is a Life?,” nothing is off-limits, said Weissfeld, who is finishing a fellowship at Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Next year, he’ll attend rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary

“Even in its inception, we were talking about issues such as abortion, Israel, keeping Shabbat in the 21st century, discussions that aren’t easy to have,” Weissfeld said. “Partially, because we were kids who liked having those hard conversations. Hard conversations are usually more interesting than easy ones.”

From such topics, participants develop the ability to open up to opposing views, as Goldsmith learned during the discussion of abortion.

“I grew up in an area where most of the teens I encounter are pro choice, and it shocked me to see that there were people who didn’t agree with me,” Goldsmith said. “I’m still pro choice, but it changed my understanding of the different teens who come to these sessions.”

While their backgrounds and views are diverse, what Torah Bytes participants share -- or develop -- is a passion for leadership. A key element of the program is that it’s led by fellows, a dozen or more teens per year who are each responsible for putting together two sessions. That includes identifying topics and source materials such as Torah passages or other text, and recruiting participants. This process gives the fellows the experience and confidence to lead, said Weissfeld.

Leadership Pipeline

“I don’t know if it’s a surprise, but Torah Bytes has become a pipeline for future leaders in USY,” said Goldsmith. “We’re in our third cohort of fellows now, and in each cohort, about half have gone on to regional and international positions.”

These young Jewish leaders are key to helping spread the notion that Judaism is boundless.

“That’s what my work with USY is all about, creating these projects people can use online so it’s easier for them to access and create their Jewish lives outside of the synagogues,” said Goldsmith.

Torah Bytes participants such as Goldsmith dispel the notion that young people don’t take Judaism seriously, says Weissfeld.

“We have this perception that teenagers are apathetic towards religion or serious learning, but with this program I realized that it’s in fact the opposite,” he said. “The teens who come to Torah Bytes are very, very concerned with their Jewish identity, and very concerned with Judaism in a positive way.”


The first Torah Bytes session of the fall 2018 semester will be on Wednesday, September 26 at 9:15pm ET, on the topic "Understanding the Power of People in the Talmud". RSVP to the Facebook event.

Click here to learn more and find the full schedule of session dates and topics


Related Blog Posts