R-Jeneration: Teens share interest in religion, make friends through youth groups

It’s 7 p.m. Monday.

The retirement home is silent.

As you walk through the halls determining whether you entered the wrong building, you see a room filled with a group of teens seated in a circle of chairs facing inward.

It’s a room full of strangers to you.

As you walk in and brave the awkwardness of being the new kid, you take a seat.

It’s like the first day of high school all over again.

Looking around at this meeting of the Jewish youth group B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, known simply as BBYO, a common interest is evident between you and your peers. Everyone is here for the love of religion, here to make friends and to learn more about his or her faith.

According to research from the National Study on Youth and Religion, 80 percent of American teenagers between the ages of 13 to 17 classified themselves as religious individuals.

Green Valley senior Beau Gronert is a member of his local Christian youth group Young Life. In his case, Gronert believes that religious youth groups have made religion more attractive to teenagers.

"I do feel like I have learned a lot about my religion through my attendance of Young Life," he says. "We believe in, like, Jesus and stuff, but then we do have discussions on what we think certain passages mean. I think Young Life gives more of a cool outlook on Christianity to teens and high school students. Sunday church with the family isn’t as fun as sitting and playing games with your friends."

Many students have begun volunteering with their youth groups, which has become a main focus for teen organizations across the nation.

Bonanza junior Sebastian Freedman is a part of BBYO. In fact, he’s one of the vice presidents for the Las Vegas chapter. This year, Freedman’s local BBYO has teamed up with LiveStrong foundation to raise money for cancer treatment.

"In terms of volunteer work, we change our initiatives every year," Freedman says. "For example, last year we helped people who have been hit by the economic climate and have lost their homes by going to Three Square, an organization in Las Vegas that collects, sorts and packs food to be sent to homeless kitchens all over the city, and helped them with their operations. I thought (last year’s volunteer work) was very successful."

As an international organization, BBYO puts together youth groups in order to teach the vast Jewish population across the world.

"BBYO is a very complex organization," Freedman says. "The organization is split into boy and girl chapters that are completely youth lead, but adult supervised. The chapters conduct meetings, plan events, arrange fundraisers, incorporate Judaism, and strategize ways to grow as a chapter and overall grow long-lasting relationships during high school."

Although most of the local youth groups are Christian-based, Freedman believes that the work of BBYO is paving the way for better social acceptance of other religions.

"I’ve done discussions and events about different Jewish cultures and customs," he says. "We have even talked about how Jews in the world are still being oppressed for who they are. It’s really opened my eyes as a teenager."

With constant debate and media attention given to the relationship between the school system and religion, many teenagers are beginning to look to community youth groups where they are able to meet other students in an environment where the discussion of religion is allowed.

Nevada State High School junior Kaylin Yeung is part of her Catholic church’s youth group Life Teen. Next year, Yeung plans on being baptized a Catholic.

"I believe that Life Teen has helped me shape my opinion of current social issues," she says. "When the organization meets up, part of the meeting involves a discussion of teen topics and how our religion plays a role. During the discussions, we get to hear a whole bunch of different opinions from some of the members and it kind of gives you a different perspective on the topic, especially when you take into account how the religion is supposed to be."

Yeung agrees with Gronert in saying that religious youth groups have added an element of "fun" into religion and more traditional scenarios of church with the family.

"My attendance at Life Teen has helped make my religion more understandable," she says. "I don’t think that these groups separate teenagers. If anything, it helps teenagers meet a lot of cool, new people from different schools."

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