BBYO and Synagogues

The post-B’nai Mitzvah drop off is staggering, so let’s work together to reverse this trend.

by Adam Tennen

I’ve had the quintessential pluralistic Jewish experience. I grew up in NFTY, worked for USY, currently belong to a conservative synagogue and now work for BBYO. I’m part of the global Jewish people, but I’m a Jew without a label – and I’m not unique in my perspective on Jewish identity. The recent Pew study only reinforces this seemingly growing trend of those simply calling themselves Jews.

I’m a staunch supporter of synagogue life and affiliation because I believe it is fundamentally the best way to be part of a spiritual community. For my family, our synagogue has been a place where we’ve found friendship, support, comfort, acceptance and respect. You can’t really put a price tag on this stuff. Simply stated, it’s an extension of our Jewish home.

I firmly believe and support the notion of synagogue membership. Yet, finding the right synagogue is like buying a car. It needs to feel just right. Anyone who has been through this search process knows that it’s a monumental task. People hop from one place to the next, sometimes for years, until they find a community they can truly call home. Generally speaking, more and more Jews are not necessarily subscribing to the practices and institutions they grew up with – and that’s okay.

So, the communal strategy here is choice, right? Let’s offer a menu of opportunities for Jews to find their Jewish home. The declining participation in organized Jewish life, particularly synagogues, is a high level takeaway from the Pew study and only further underscores the need for us to continue this approach, which is slowly taking shape around the country. But, if we’re going to truly walk the walk when it comes to offering a playlist of Jewish connections, it needs to start with our teens.

If you are a synagogue lay leader, clergy or staff member, I implore you to take a look at the number of post-B’nai Mitzvah teens who remain involved in formal or informal Jewish experiences within your institution. Chances are your market penetration is low and may be continuing to decline. You may have a quality program, but it is only capturing a fraction of your teens. There is a lot of talk and blame going around for this condition, but no one is talking about offering multiple options for teens to find their fit in this complex Jewish world. Instead, most synagogues hand their B’nai Mitzvah teens a free membership to their youth group, and then scratch their heads as to why so many don’t take advantage of it. We would never take such an approach with young adults, college students or new families who move to our community. Teens need options too! One size does not fit all, and this most certainly rings true with millennials.

More than ever before, BBYO is working closely with synagogues as partners to engage their teen constituents. We’re not a threat to the existing youth group infrastructure. Synagogues that promote both BBYO and their own program are seeing an increase in overall teen engagement. We’re bringing programming into synagogue buildings, participating in Shabbat services, working with clergy and co-sponsoring events. Our approach is to work together to reach the same end goal. We want to make this a win-win for both BBYO and the synagogue and, most importantly, the teens.

We’re also working with synagogues where no youth group program exists. In these situations, we can easily start a synagogue based chapter at no cost to the synagogue. Through this kind of partnership, teens are able to “plug in” to regional and national conventions, community service, leadership development opportunities and summer immersive experiences around the world.

A successful youth movement experience is about creating a Jewish space where teens can build their character, confidence, lifelong friendships and find their Jewish community. Teens want to be a part of something bigger than themselves, have a chance to develop leadership skills and make a difference in the world.

Let’s stop talking about turf, territory and stealing kids. The post-B’nai Mitzvah drop off is staggering, so let’s work together to reverse this trend. Open every door for teens to explore Jewish life. We’re ready when you are.

Adam Tennen is the Director of Field Operations for BBYO’s Mid-Atlantic Hub. He lives in Rockville, MD.

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  1. sherriee s. says

    I had to laugh at your description of “shopping” for a synagogue that feels like an extension of “home” – wouldn’t it be nice to have that luxury! After living in 2 major metropolitan cities, we moved to a small midwestern town, pop. 700,000. There are 3 synagogues, 1 for each denomination, and 1 Chabad. When we walked into the Reform congregation upon moving here, we were prepared with lots of quesitons – but were quickly told, “we’re the only game in town”. We chose to become members anyway – if only so that our kids could become a BarMitzvah. They are now happily ensconced in leadership positions at the JCC BBYO and have no contact with the synagogue we tried so desperately to make our home.

  2. says

    Nice article Adam. I created and run a summer program for Jewish teens called Etgar 36 ( and wrote a similar one a few months ago talking about the need to break down the territorial walls between all the organizations that serve Jewish teens. I think the Jewish future will be best served when we allow our teens access to the vast marketplace of Jewish opportunities available to them.
    I am thrilled to hear that BBYO is looking to move in that vein as well. I hope others follow BBYO’s lead in all of us working together to serve as many Jewish teens as possible.
    I will be in Washington DC in February and hope that we can meet up. I would love to help BBYO connect with the alumni of my program and let your members know about my summer program.

  3. says

    Sherriee S. , it is most disappointing and unfortunate that your experience with your local synagogue turned out the way it did. It is an experience I believe all too many of us can relate to and is one that deserves much serious discussion as it should not be a laughing matter. I think it is great that your children are enjoying their BBYO participation and it seems clear that this helps to fill a void, but I think that misses the point of this piece or at least the point I took away from it. I thought Adam was trying to make clear that BBYO does not replace or compete with a healthy relationship with a synagogue. Instead, it can work in partnership to complement and enrich that relationship and the same can be said of the synagogue with respect to BBYO. It is not clear how BBYO while helping to establish life-long friendships will lead to a strong life-long adult Jewish experience in isolation if there is nothing else there to complement it.

  4. says

    JP, thanks for responding to Sherriee and for reinforcing how BBYO can be an effective partner. To address your question at the end, one of the important findings we’ve collected in surveying BBYO alumni for our BBYO Impact Study ( is that relationships formed in BBYO are powerful and lasting. They don’t need the bounds of a singular organization to keep them together or facilitate Jewish activity. BBYO alumni are leading anywhere and everywhere, are connecting to other alumni throughout their lives and creating Jewish community. Among the most critical and telling findings from the study is the clear impact that BBYO has had on how young Jewish adults feel about being Jewish. On the most basic Jewish identity question of “how important is being Jewish in your life,” the BBYO effect cannot be clearer—67% of BBYO alumni say it is very important while 42% of
    non-alumni Jews say it is very important.

  5. sherriee s. says

    I am glad my comments sparked some intelligent discussion. I did understand the point of the piece. I agree it would be great to have all Jewish teen groups work in concert with each other. I merely wanted to illustrate the reality of many Jews in mid-to-small size towns. You would think that with a population of 150 or so high school age teens, the synagogues, youth groups and Federation would be able to come together and join forces – but that is not the case nor in other similair cities in which my family and friends live and work. We rely on the BBYO program to bring together Jewish teens form nearby Midwestern cities – these kids frequently end up at university together and yes, their friendships are cemented, long lasting and have a lasting impact in the future. All I can think to add is, imgaine how much more could be gained if these organizations joined forces? The sky is the limit!

  6. says

    First, let me start with saying I do support BBYO and think that it existence and the function it performs strengthens the Jewish community at large. I have been encouraging my own children to get involved, so far to no avail, but maybe and hopefully that will change.

    I would be careful when reporting statistics and drawing conclusions “On the most basic Jewish identity question of how important is being Jewish in your life, the BBYO effect cannot be clearer—67% of BBYO alumni say it is very important while 42% of non-alumni Jews say it is very important”. I don’t fault your enthusiasm, but to state those statistics as being a BBYO effect is confusing correlation with causation. Many have been doing the same thing as they respond to the recent Pew study. What was the response rate of those that took the BBYO survey? Do you really think that those that did not respond to the survey have as high of opinion of /strong connection to BBYO and of Judaism as those that did? I may be wrong but I would gather that those that no longer find their Judaism or their previous BBYO involvement important are more likely to find such a survey not important enough to respond to. Did the analysis separate variables such as size/significance of the Jewish community within the larger community or how about those BBYO alumni who are currently affiliated with a synagogue versus BBYO alumni who are not? It would be interesting to know how strong a Jewish identity do the children of BBYO alumni of failed congregational relationships and who do not affiliate themselves as adults as in perhaps the case of Sheriee’s children (or perhaps my own) possess. Perhaps that analysis was done and I just have not seen it, but without that kind of analysis, I would question the validity of any claim about the effect of BBYO involvement. I see BBYO as a supplement to involved affiliation and not a replacement to it.

    However, leaving all that aside, I think we all overwhelmingly agree that all Jewish institutions should be working together for the benefit of our teens in trying to provide them a strong sense of Jewish identity and community with the objectives that they would want to be involved and that passing Judaism down to the next generation becomes a high priority for them. So in the case of BBYO and the congregations, how does that become a reality? It is definitely not in our area. The congregational leadership definitely sees BBYO as competition if not a threat. And can you blame them when our local BBYO schedules a social activity like laser tag to compete with any observance of Shabbat and attendance to Shabbat services? On the other side, BBYO advisors feel the attitude of the congregations and say it is not even worth trying to even coordinate schedules (perhaps the bare minimum of not working against one another). When I brought up this conflict, the BBYO advisor responded to me ” our teens have options, but they must prioritize their affiliation “. I expect this when balancing non-Jewish life with Jewish life. I don’t expect this at the teen level with different Jewish institutions competing for their time and attention. It is one thing to not work together for a common goal; it is much more disappointing to see no effort to try not to work against one another. So we agree that this should not be the case but how do we move beyond that and actually take steps to get there?

  7. A Post Bnai Mitzvah Teen says

    Excellent article – yet you failed to mention the single biggest differentiator of BBYO as an option… the youth leadership.
    Every Jewish youth group, in my eyes, offers something different. When I went into the halls of NFTY, at least in my area, I was offered a purely social experience. When I walked into the halls of USY, at least in my area, I was offered a very educational experience. But when I walked into the halls of BBYO, and this is universal, I was offered a chance to lead.

    BBYO, as far as I know, is the only youth group that is entirely youth-led.

    When I was in 8th grade, after a few months of coming to meetings, I was already encouraged to plan events. The sense of empowerment I had from the older members and the advisers, and the amount of effort they went through to make sure that I felt like what I was doing was important, was what made me feel like BBYO was right for me, like it was my “home”. You’d think there’d be some level of risk involved, but knowing that people took a “risk” on me if I made a mistake while planning programs felt like I was valued.

    Ultimately, teens want to feel valued. More often than not, BBYO is the first place they’ve ever been told that they’re trusted rather than to be controlled (ala school, tough Jewish parents, etc). Jewish engagement is great, but sometimes it feels secondary as an effect. Every youth group has “Jewish engagement”. Every youth group brings a Jewish social circle and creates a Jewish community. But the reason why I joined BBYO and the reason why 60 of my brothers are in my chapter and the reason why I’ve been recruiting, programming, and giving so much back to the movement is because of the teen leadership element. Because the teens are the real leaders.

    The less we mention that as BBYO lay leaders, the more we de-emphasize when trying to create buy-in, the more likely that we’ll just blend into the pack. Every other youth group has something to offer, and this is what we have to offer.

  8. says

    A Post Bnai Mitzvah Teen,
    It is great that BBYO is offering you such a tremendous leadership experience and that you are so committed to the movement. In addressing Adams point, that BBYO and congregations should be working together, I would ask does your congregation have a non-BBYO youth group and do you participate in its programming? I would also be curious does your BBYO chaper schedule its programming at dates/times that conflict with your (or other local) congregation’s youth group’s programming or conflict with religious school, shabbat services or other congregational programming open to teens? I think that the lack of such conflict is a minimal first step in achieving Adam’s vision of having synagogues and BBYO working together to serve teenagers instead of having them compete for teenagers’ attention and commitment.

  9. says

    Just one more follow-up. How do you suggest changing a competitive relationship to a mutually beneficial one where your positive vision can be realized?
    1. “BBYO is working closely with synagogues as partners to engage their teen constituents.”
    2. ” We’re not a threat to the existing youth group infrastructure.”
    3. “We’re bringing programming into synagogue buildings,”
    4. ” Participating in Shabbat services”
    5. ” Working with clergy”
    6. “co-sponsoring events”
    These are definitely six attributes of a positive healthy relationship.
    I am still new to all this, but thus far I have yet to see any of that vision and what I do hear from both sides is that neither seems to think it is possible/beneficial to work together. So how do you get there? Does BBYO have some simple guidelines to facilitate the development of such a positive relationship replacing perhaps relationships that are at best indifferent and at worst negative?