By Samantha Vinokor-Meinrath
As a Jewish educator who works primarily with teenagers, there are some conversations that I’ve had more times than I can count: unique icebreakers, meaningful tikkun olam projects, best practices for talking about Israel. But at the top of the list is always the big question, the one that encompasses all the others, the source of endless debates and reflections: how can we engage teens with Judaism and the Jewish community?
For many teens, regardless of their early experiences with Jewish education, the bar or bat mitzvah experience is the culmination of their Jewish education, at least for the foreseeable future. There are plenty of minds working on solutions to the perceived exodus of the next generation, and while I have my own thoughts on the subject, I want to focus on what we are doing right now for those teens who do stay involved.
The Greater Washington community is home to a vibrant group of passionate, committed and involved teens. These self-motivated leaders seek out deeper Jewish knowledge and action, and serve as leaders among their peers. And so, in a time when there are more outlets for Jewish expression than ever before, and countless opportunities for interested individuals to find the community that speaks to them, we at The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington wondered: where are the spaces for diversely engaged Jewish teens to come together?
Recently, I had the opportunity to hear directly from several of these actively engaged Jewish teens. They volunteered to come together for FroYo with Federation, an informal opportunity to gather in an open environment to discuss Judaism and the Jewish community. The teens were asked to be reflective and critical; to share their personal stories, fond memories and frustrations. They came from a relatively broad spectrum – most are involved in one youth group or another or are passionate Jewish campers. Some are day school students, while others attend public or private secular schools, with their Jewish engagement taking place in the form of supplementary activities.
Given the diversity of their backgrounds, it made sense that the ideas put forward weren’t uniform. The conversation ranged from debates on the most exciting programs and the best times to meet, to their motivations for participating in teen programming. But one theme resounded for all: this was the first time that they had met peers who were actively involved in Jewish life in a way that was different from their own.
Before this event, each teen believed there were two categories of Jews: those involved in the same way they were (fellow USY-ers, BBYO-ers, Ramah-niks, etc.) or those who had dropped out and didn’t care about engaging with their Judaism in meaningful ways at all. Bringing them together for an informal conversation became an exercise in pluralism. The teens themselves were able to recognize the value of expanding their preexisting notions of who is part of their community, and to expand those definitions to include their newfound peers. These individuals have since built meaningful friendships with one another, and have taken advantage of the opportunities and spaces to connect with one another that The Jewish Federation is able to offer.
Beyond more casual gatherings like FroYo with Federation, we have developed teen engagement programming that adds value to our community by providing opportunities for teens to connect with one another beyond their silos. Through niche programs like Jteen Philanthropy, our teen giving circle, and the Margo & Yoram Cohen Israel Engagement Fellowship, a unique leadership opportunity meant to prepare teens to be educated voices for Israel that Federation presents in partnership with our Jewish Community Relations Council, we have found ways to empower teens to develop their own Jewish communities.
Each teen that comes to our programs finds us in a different way – through their synagogues, youth movements, schools, parents or friends. When we engage them, we expose them to the depth and breadth of our local Jewish community, and the opportunities available to them as leaders and game-changers.
We need to consider how to connect with our disengaged teens. But we also need to connect our active teens with one another, building bridges for them between the silos in which Jewish communal organizations tend to operate. In doing so, we lay the groundwork for a more inclusive, connected Jewish community. As Jewish professionals, it’s easy to fall into the trap of having tunnel vision and being single-minded in advancing our own institutional goals. Breaking down barriers between us is critical to our collective advancement, and I’m eager to continue this process with some of our most important constituents: the leaders of our next generation.
Samantha Vinokor-Meinrath is the Manager of Teen Engagement and Philanthropy for The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.