By Deborah Melman | November 10, 2022
The Young Israel of East Brunswick (YIEB) started 5783 with new youth directors, Shaina and Tzvi Berke. The recently married couple call East Brunswick home, where they also serve as director of the Central New Jersey chapters of the NCSY.
After a flurry of youth programs in the area encompassing Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, the Berkes are eager to settle into a more stable routine that also includes their work as full-time college students. Shaina, a psychology student at Touro University, noted how “the community is so friendly and gave us such a warm welcome.” Tzvi described their first weeks on the job as “chaos, but good chaos,” with programming for all ages of youngsters that included Sukkah decorating, Aleinu rug-making, an NCSY bonfire, and jumping. Sukkah.
Rabbi Joshua Hess of YIEB said he was “happy and excited to have them on the team; they bring so much energy to the community. Their ability to connect with all ages so quickly and easily is a huge blessing. Rebetzin Naava Hess noted how quickly they “immersed themselves in fantastic programming where children are engaged and involved. We look forward to whatever they bring.
With the couple’s longtime involvement with youth at summer camps and with the NCSY — as members and advisors — it seemed natural to ask Regional Director Rabbi Aryeh Wielgus if he knew of any positions. available in the area after their marriage over the summer. Rabbi Wielgus was familiar with the NCSY position and the YIEB youth director position. Although there is some overlap between the two positions, the opportunities for synergistic programming and activities make it a win-win for everyone involved. Shaina noted that “it was an offer we couldn’t refuse; we do things we love.
While both jobs are “officially” part-time positions, the couple are very busy when work is combined with their trips to New York for education. Tzvi, who studies architecture at NYIT, noted, “We’re both extroverts who like to be busy, so this works out well for us.
They seek to provide young people of all ages with enriching experiences. Shaina covers the younger groups (2-3, 4-5, and 5-7) where they then move on to Junior Minyan which Tzvi manages. Each week, around 30-40 children were part of the youth program, with the Berkes seeing nearly double that amount when they had a magician to entertain during the long Hakafot. “Maybe the magician made children appear,” Tzvi said, “I didn’t know there were so many children and parents, and other adults also joined in.”
In addition to the East Brunswick NCSY chapters in East Brunswick and Highland Park/Edison, the Berkes also run Jewish student union clubs in local public schools. Shaina and Tzvi maintain an “open house” policy where teens are welcome to hang out and exchange ideas and thoughts, without television or phone screens. A recent teen program saw 12 teens participate, when many fewer were expected. The Berkes agree that teens need to feel comfortable and like coming, or they would have stayed away. Shaina said she always cooked enough for an army, so there was always a meal or dessert ready for any visit. Tzvi added that he hopes to plan an NCSY-style Shabbat to involve more teens and incorporate more middle school involvement into the activities.
“Sometimes the lines get blurry,” Tzvi said. “Is this a shul program? An NCSY event? What distinct ages? The result is that overlapping and blurring of lines is irrelevant as long as the events are well attended and people are having a good time.
Rabbi Aryeh Wielgus, New Jersey NCSY Regional Director, has no doubt that Shaina and Tzvi will have a huge impact. They are an “incredibly amazing couple who serve as role models that youth and other counselors look to for inspiration and who will bring those skills and passion for Yiddishkeit to their new community.”
Joelle Yavin, YIEB Youth Committee Chair, was “so excited about the quantity and quality of programming the Berkes have scheduled for all ages. The programs were fun and filled with great Jewish content. The Chesed Cheshvan facility integrates elementary and middle school students in preparing meals for the Eastern Brunswick Police Department on Thanksgiving.
The Berkes bring a wealth of experience and background to their positions. Shaina, originally from Teaneck, became interested in food science and is exploring her hobby by examining different flavors and spices in the food she serves to guests. Tzvi, a Long Island/Five Towns native, has a surprising desire to open a pawn shop that would allow her to get to know and interact with customers and explore the backgrounds, histories, and history of the pieces brought in. It seems like a perfect fit for someone looking to identify and polish the hidden gems inside everyone they interact with.
As for the importance the Berkes themselves place on teen and youth programs, did we mention that Shaina and Tzvi met at an NCSY summer program?