By Melanie Gruenwald and Ellen Irie
For many Jewish families, the bar or bat mitzvah is a child’s transition to Jewish “adulthood” and, unfortunately, the end of their active involvement in Jewish life. The jarring statistic is that less than 20 percent of Jewish teens remain involved in Jewish life post-bar or bat mitzvah.
In response, many in the Jewish organizational world are re-focusing efforts on those critical, formative teen years. What more can we do to create connection and meaning for Jewish teens, both now and as they move into adulthood? The answers to this question should reflect the major engagement opportunity that the teen years actually present.
During these years, as identities are forming, young people want to explore, to question, and to learn. Organizations such as Moving Traditions, for example, have set a high priority on Jewish teens by presenting field-tested programs, such as Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing, and Shevet Achim: the Brotherhood. These programs engage teens in conversations about ‘who am I’ and ‘who am I becoming’ as they navigate their adolescent years with Jewish context, peers, and mentors. Through these and many other substantive Jewish opportunities, teens become more connected to themselves, to each other and to the Jewish community.
Thankfully, more and more of these programs are part of the Jewish teen landscape because of the innovative philanthropic experiment known as the Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative. National and local funders in ten communities are working together to develop and support new teen initiatives that draw on the collective strength of local organizations. And, for the first time, we can point to an evaluation about one of the local community initiatives – in this instance, the Denver-Boulder initiative – to understand some of the tangible outcomes on local teens, as well as the broader successes and challenges.
When launched in July 2014 with local funds from Rose Community Foundation and other donors and national funds from the Jim Joseph Foundation, the Denver-Boulder Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Initiative was an ambitious endeavor that looked to maximize the collective efforts of five local agencies. Moving Traditions and Jewish Student Connection were looking to scale their efforts in the community; jHub, Boulder Jewish Teen Initiative and PresenTense Colorado were all new.
The Year 1 local evaluation report (prepared by Informing Change, released November 2015) draws on a survey of teens and parents, and interviews with professionals and community leaders, to present a comprehensive picture of the engagement initiative so far. By increasing professional collaborative opportunities, and investing in agencies that support strong adult mentors and role models for teens, the Jewish communities in Denver and Boulder are making progress to engage local Jewish teens in Jewish life and learning. We are excited to share a few key insights and lessons below:
Local Impact on Jewish Teens
“[To me, being Jewish means] a sense of community and belonging – a guide, more or less, to life.” – BJTI Teen
The findings for local teens are promising, while also prompting us to ask, “what more can we do?” The positives are that several hundred teens engaged in the Initiative’s programs in the first year. Overwhelmingly, Jewish teens are involved with the five grantees because they want to spend time with Jewish peers and because the offerings sound fun. The data point to two key areas to address: 1) expanding the Initiative’s reach to teens not previously engaged in Jewish life, and 2) continuing to find creative ways to bring Jewish life to teens where and when it makes sense for them. Not surprisingly, the evaluation found that homework and other extracurricular activities are the leading factors limiting teens from participating in Jewish opportunities.
The Emergence of jHub
With its roots in what was formerly called the Jewish Youth Professional Council, jHub supports professional development and collaborative opportunities for teen youth professionals throughout the Denver and Boulder communities. Through the Initiative’s funding this now staffed collaborative professional network has expanded far beyond the five Initiative grantees to include 27 current member organizations.
jHub offers these members a structure to share knowledge and data, draw on each other’s organizational strengths, build exciting new partnerships, and bring more Jewish teens together. Any challenges that arise can be confronted as a cohesive community with a sense of shared purpose. jHub also offers its members professional development and educational grant opportunities.
The evaluation shows that Jewish youth professionals now experience a more supportive peer network through jHub, contributing to increased job satisfaction. jHub professionals feel more connected to one another and the missions of their respective organizations. Moreover, they are interested in ongoing learning and growth, specifically to support them as they move through their careers.
“Through jHub, I have a greater understanding that we should let teens know about other programs and activities. And if I do this, others will do the same for me when I have an event….” – jHub member
A New Level of Collaboration
The Initiative’s five grantees report a great commitment to collaboration, rather than competition, for teen education and engagement in the area because of their work together in the Initiative. With the understanding that each organization is different and offers unique opportunities for teens with varied interests and personalities, the organizations work together to promote and support one another.
Each grantee organization models a structure where adults serve as mentors and role models for teens, while also emphasizing opportunities for teen leadership. The organizations focus primarily on a relational, rather than a programmatic, model, of Jewish engagement. Building on the approach in synagogue life outlined in Dr. Ron Wolfson’s book, Relational Judaism, the grantees are shaping the next generation of Jewish adults by facilitating relationships with adult mentors and empowering teens through different modalities of Jewish engagement.
Beyond the Initiative
On the ground, we also see that the Initiative’s mere presence brings a positive energy and attention to quality programming for Jewish teens outside of grantee programs. Parents of Jewish teens involved with Moving Traditions and BJTI report more individuals in the community dedicated to supporting Jewish teen engagement. Grantee professionals are raising communal awareness through meetings and one-on-one conversations with Jewish organizations and parents. This first year has been an important period of foundation-building and community awareness-raising.
Lessons Learned Year 1
As the evaluation notes, the Initiative’s first year was not without challenges. As a result, we learned valuable lessons that can inform future initiatives, particularly those in the similar teen education and engagement space. First, start-up took longer than anticipated. Bringing together this many partners for an entirely new approach to teen outreach and education necessitates significant planning and coordination before even one program is ready to officially launch. Second, we cannot minimize the challenge of recruiting uninvolved teens. Simply, it is very difficult. Reaching them alone is a major accomplishment. Persuading them to actually engage and to give something a shot is a true success story – and not easy. And third, there are limits to setting up shared data-systems. In fact, it may be unrealistic to build a single technology tool and database for all organizations to utilize and access. Yet, we realize that this is not the only way to share and aggregate data. Finding the most useful, effective, and efficient tool, however, will require a more nuanced solution. We believe this to be attainable, but appreciate that it will require additional time and collaboration among multiple stakeholders to come up with systems that work for all involved.
We are counting on the Denver-Boulder Jewish Teen Initiative to succeed. In our community, 25% of teens have a bar or bat mitzvah; only 16% attend post bar/bat mitzvah programs sponsored by or connected to the congregations, synagogues, and other Jewish institutions providing bar/bat mitzvahs. So this is a crucial conversation we are having and a deeply important initiative we are implementing. We have to get it right.
And we believe the evaluation shows that we are making the right initial steps – and that other communities can too. By working with grantees such as Moving Traditions, Jewish Student Connection, Boulder Jewish Teen Initiative, jHub, and PresenTense Colorado, the Initiative reflects an investment in communal collaboration and new models of engagement. There are more and better opportunities for teens to find Jewish experiences relevant to their interests and needs and that can lead to ongoing engagement in Jewish life. As a result, teens build relationships with adult mentors and continue their own conversations about their development as young Jewish adults.
We look forward to sharing more as we learn more. To be sure, there are more successes and challenges to come. But this first look at the early, local results of the national-local Funder Collaborative, suggest that this is an exciting moment for all who care about Jewish teens.
Melanie Gruenwald is the Colorado Director for Moving Traditions. Ellen Irie is President and CEO of Informing Change.
 Kidron, Y. and Cohen, S.M. (2015) Jewish Teen Population Estimates: Denver/ Boulder Metro Area.
Cross-posted on The Jim Joseph Foundation blog