Who The Folk?! Liza Henry

Liza Henry is in her third year at Mount Zion in St. Paul, where she is taking on a position on increased importance to the Jewish community: engaging Jewish youth. Originally from Wheeling, Ill., (where she went to the same high school as Temple of Aaron’s Adam Bender), she is tasked with keep the teens involved and, well, engaged, in both their Jewish community and the community at-large. So Who the folk is Liza Henry?

How long have you been at Mount Zion?

I’ve been the Youth Engagement Director for three years, but I started at Mount Zion in 2008 when I was in college at the U. I was not active in Minnesota Hillel; I went to a few things but also started at Mount Zion at the same time. That was a good place for me to be actively Jewish.

What made Mount Zion that for you?

When I first got there, I found the community is just a wonderful place. Parents and families, and people aren’t directly connected with the religious school. It’s a very warm community. I grew up at North Shore Congregation Israel, which is very large; this is much smaller. I remember going to High Holiday services and saw teens reading Torah. It blew my mind. The community is active and cares a lot about youth and social justice. The teen programming has always been really phenomenal.

Why is social justice work important?

I’ve always been a person who has had compassion and empathy. Social justice work has always meant a lot to me, and at Mt. Zion, it’s incorporated into a lot of what they do. The people in the community are also people who care about social justice work. I’ve been to more Jewish Community Action events lately and seeing Mount Zion people there. It’s great to work with a teen and see that teen’s parents doing social justice work. It comes full circle. It’s cool to see that woven throughout the community.

What’s the biggest challenge of keeping teens engaged?

One of the biggest challenges is them balancing what’s going on at Mount Zion and their lives. We have to meet the teens where they are and create programs that help with leadership, and creating spaces in which the teens are comfortable and feel safe to be themselves and develop into people they want to be.

What’s the biggest trend in youth engagement?

More of a focus on social justice. When I was a teen and involved in NFTY, we did a lot of social action, but we’re seeing more real justice work and digging into the issues. In reform movement especially, we’re looking at how do improve communities and help people who aren’t like us. It’s so, so valuable. As a teen I wanted to do that. Now, we’re helping the teens build those skills. Not that volunteering and tying blankets isn’t important. It’s even more important that can dig down into those issues and fix problems from the roots.

You’re seeing it discussed at different level from when you were involved?

I think so. You’re Seeing across the Reform movement that people are digging heals in. The [Religious Action Center] in Washington, D.C., has done great work. It’s into the communities in a wonderful way. NFTY Mitzvah Corps is expanding and the programming is really great to help kids connect with the communities they are going into and learning about the challenges they face from the people living there. From what I’m seeing, this is something the teens want. If we continue this path, it will lift up youth engagement and help them feel connected to the Jewish community and the larger community.

Are you seeing more positions like yours?

Definitely. More and more congregations are investing in a full time youth-engagement professional. I think it’s invaluable. What we see nationwide in general in the Jewish world, we see a drop off after b’nai mitzvah. The more time and effort and money we put into engaging post b’nai-mitzvah age, the more involvement we’ll see amongst youth as they enter into young adulthood. The teen time is when they are building relationships in a different way. They are more likely to stay disconnected when they leave.

Favorite Jewish food?

Matzah ball soup. It’s just a good classic. It’s what I eat when I’m sick. It’s what I want during Passover. It’s the introduction to every Jewish meal. It’s so Jewish. My husband who’s not Jewish loves it.

Favorite Jewish holiday?

Passover. Maybe it’s the SJ thing, but it’s a great moment to talk about freedom and rights and be grateful for the privileges we have, and recognize the struggle of our ancestors. It’s the holiday that truly brings our family together. Host a sushi seder. There’s wasabi, which is Japanese horseradish. I make rice and quinoa. And we utilize sushi to go through the seder. This year will be the fourth year.

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