The teens sat scattered across the beach scratching mantras in the sand, saying silent prayers, or just staring out at the ocean lost in thought. There wasn’t a smartphone in sight. This was a typical morning at Sababa Surf Camp, a program designed as an outside the box way to connect teens more deeply to their sense of Jewish identity.

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Matthew Somekh catching a wave at Rockaway Beach as part of the Sababa Surf Camp.

Created by staff from the Forest Hills Jewish Center and Temple Israel of Great Neck, with support from UJA-Federation of New York, the camp brought teens to Rockaway Beach to learn how to surf and to use the sport’s passionate, meditative culture as a jumping-off point for exploring Jewish spirituality. Sababa Surf Camp is just one of several new teen summer programs launched this past summer through the New York Teen Initiative, a project funded by UJA-Federation and the Jim Joseph Foundation, and operated by the Jewish Education Project.

“By far, this is the most exciting program I’ve been involved with,” said Lynn Lancaster, the director of religious school at the Forest Hills Jewish Center. “I have never seen kids engaged in this way.”

“I’ve never done anything like this,” said Matthew Somekh, a 13-year-old from Great Neck who took part in the program. “We had a Shabbaton where we slept over. It was a lot of fun. We became like a family there.”

Somekh spoke about how, beyond the excitement of meeting new people and learning to surf, he appreciated the novel approach to different Jewish prayers. “On the beach we do Ma Tovu in a way that I’ve never done it before, where we look at everyone and everything [around us] and appreciate it. Every day we added a new prayer, but they’re all new interpretations that I haven’t seen before.”

Creating Space for Self-Discovery

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Rachel Vick, a participant in Sababa Surf Camp from Forest Hills.

Other reflections prompted the teens to think about ideas like body awareness and positivity, the beauty of creation around them, and the qualities they like about themselves as well as things they’d like to improve.

“I think [offering] spiritual practice for teens is unique,” said Danny Mishkin, director of the Waxman Hebrew High School and youth engagement at Temple Israel of Great Neck. “This is one of the only programs I know of that really puts self-discovery at the forefront, not to mention pure joy and fun.”

Teens are under more pressure now than ever, especially around academic performance and college applications; in fact many teen programs are seen in part as résumé builders on the road to college. That’s part of why the surf camp started by introducing the idea of sababa, an Israeli slang word for “cool,” interpreted in its broader sense to mean “no worries.” It provided a framework for the teens to talk about how to let go of anxieties and fears that might otherwise overrun them.

“Me and my friends are all going into our senior year of high school so everything is stressful,” said Rachel Vick, a 17-year-old from Forest Hills who participated in Sababa. Surf camp offered a reprieve from all that. “This was kind of about being able to connect with your Jewish spirituality and your inner self; to be Jewish, and pray, and feel connected.”

“Teens are trying to figure out who they are, and how they fit in, and where they’re going, and why they want to go there,” Lancaster said. “What we teach allows them to explore that and to explore themselves.”