A Place to Connect, Express Yourself, and Hang with Your Teen Crew

Contra Costa Midrasha (CCM) is a Walnut Creek-based Federation partner that engages teens in Jewish life through communal activities, cultural exchanges, educational experiences, and whatever form of fun they can come up with. And its Executive Director, Devra Aarons, has a wonderfully inspiring philosophy when it comes to the young people in her purview: “When a teen asks me for something, and there’s a chance I can do it, the plan is to always answer yes.” Of course, the execution of that plan seems like a herculean task, given the circumstances we’re currently living through. But thankfully, Devra doesn’t have time to consider any alternative answers. She’s too busy doing the impossible.

One of CCM’s impossibilities transformed into reality has been their retention of so many teenagers throughout the pandemic, despite their temporary migration to online programming. And an obvious question that arises is, why do the kids keep coming back? What’s the secret ingredient?

CCM is offering some of the most engaging online opportunities for activity-starved teens to “get social while social distancing.”

Speaking of secret ingredients, one of their most popular events has been their monthly “celebrity chef cooking experiences,” including their “Fall-Tastic Food Series” where acclaimed chefs from all over the world shared their time, expertise, and, of course, recipes. Over the summer, a $12,000 Federation Teen Initiative COVID-19 Summer Program grant made it possible for Food Network star chef Jet Tila to teach kids how to make pineapple fried rice. Other tutorials included eggrolls from scratch by Chef Menachem Mendel Davis (Zooming from Baltimore), Sephardic hand pies from Chef Helene Jawhara Piner (Zooming from France), and root-veggie latkes and pear-apple sauce from Chef Liz Alpern (Zooming from Brooklyn).

Left: Chef Jet Tila cuts a pineapple for his Pineapple Fried Rice
Top: Chef Liz Alpern teaching teens to make root veggie latkes from scratch
Bottom: Chef Helene Jawhara Piner making Sephardic Meat Pies


From yoga classes to “Jewish Dungeons and Dragons” to an intimate Q&A with Dear Evan Hansen star Zachary Noah Pizer, the programmatic innovation has been truly inspiring.

Much as the teens flock to the culinary programming, the folks at CCM have come up with so much more. But, according to Devra, it’s not the underlying reason why the teens keep coming. Nor is it their successful Israel program which sends Midrasha teens to Israel and reciprocally hosts teenage Israelis when they come to the Bay Area. And it’s not their high-spirited teen retreats. More than all of that, the Contra Costa Midrasha addresses a powerful need for connection. “I think 90% of what we do is about relationship building,” Devra said. And indeed, there is an authentic intimacy and connectedness in the CCM community that doesn’t happen just because it’s fun. They bond because the teens are empowered to express their identities and their Jewish values in ways that are personally meaningful.

Nowhere is that more evident than in their Hamsa Fund which “provides Jewish teens from all over the East Bay with the opportunity to learn how to fundraise and run their own philanthropic foundations and get hands-on experience addressing problems they see in their community.” The program, which is almost entirely teen run and collaborates closely with the Federation’s Jewish Teen Foundation, culminates in a grant allocation ceremony where teens give out grants to the particular nonprofit organizations whose work aligns with the Jewish values that are fostered every week at CCM.

“Sometimes, I feel like we're tucked away in our little pocket of the Bay Area. And we're this well-kept secret,” joked Devra.

Well, that secret is out—with teens throughout the Bay Area participating.

Student Ari Riak with his completed pineapple fried rice inside a pineapple

In addition to the Teen summer grant, CCM also received an $11,000 East Bay Impact Grant and an $8,000 East Bay Teen Program Grant, totaling $31,000 in grants in 2020.

For more information or to get involved, check out CCM’s website or email Devra directly.

Categories: Teens, Community, Grantees


January 20, 2021


Jon Moskin