By Adam Smith
In 2009, Jewish Teen Initiative – Boston (JTI), then known as the North Shore Teen Initiative (NSTI), launched in the 23 cities and towns just north of Boston as an innovative, first-of-its-kind program aimed at addressing the alarming trend of teens disconnecting from their Jewish faith and community after Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Now, a little more than eight years later, JTI has become a national model for Jewish teen engagement, with lessons learned being adapted in communities around the country. Created and launched in partnership, and with 100 percent grant funding from the Jim Joseph Foundation, JTI is now independent and building a path toward sustainability – with bumps, bruises and ultimately valuable lessons learned along the way.
Utilizing a combination of community organizing and design thinking, JTI has built a community framework that lowers the barriers for Jewish teens to stay engaged, or re-engage, with their tradition. By collaborating with synagogues, day schools, JCCs and other community agencies, JTI has created an ever-expanding menu of teen-centered, local, regional and national programs grounded in the many experiences that comprise Jewish life. It introduces teens to Jewish learning and leadership experiences that promote life-long commitment to Jewish values.
Here are a few highlights from JTI’s first eight years:
- Built relationships across Jewish agencies in 23 cities and towns on Boston’s North Shore while supporting existing programs, maximizing connections and increasing/diversifying program offerings for teens
- Engaged 900+ Jewish teens in meaningful Jewish growth and learning experiences. Many of these teens would not otherwise have been involved in Jewish life
- Partnered with 50+ organizations, strengthening connections between local Jewish agencies, synagogues, youth groups, day schools, JCCs etc.
- Offered 200+ program opportunities either in conjunction with community partners or alone – each customized to local needs
Today, JTI is expanding its reach at the request of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies and launching a new sub-region in the city’s western suburbs. Most recently, JTI has pioneered a partnership with Hillel International, to adapt its highly effective campus peer engagement program to be used with high school students. This fall will see close to 40 peer leaders connecting with nearly 1,000 Jewish teens throughout these two regions.
Challenges Moving Forward
JTI’s main test today is maintaining financial sustainability. For eight years, the Jim Joseph Foundation provided generous support, which diminished over time, including matching grants in the later years. This support helped lead JTI to a place where it can sustain and expand its work.
However, the transition away from the Foundation funding has been difficult.
“Becoming comfortably sustainable is the ultimate challenge facing this remarkable teen initiative. Recognition and appreciation of these teen experiences by parents, grandparents, community members, and others needs to lead to continued support at every level, especially if we are to continue to connect our teens to the meaning, importance and relevance of their Jewish heritage.”
Jerry Somers, JTI Founder and Board Member, and former Board member of the Jim Joseph Foundation
While we at JTI are in the midst of building our path towards sustainability, we can take an honest look back at two particularly valuable lessons learned, which hopefully can inform others who embark on similar efforts:
- Get Early Community Buy–In. While the Foundation’s seed money made JTI possible, it is now clear that launching with 100 percent funding negatively impacted community buy-in, making fundraising more difficult today. Many potential donors did not want to play second fiddle to the Foundation; some people want to have skin in the game right from the beginning. In hindsight, JTI would have benefited by bringing donors to the table from the outset.
- Invest in Fundraising. In retrospect, it would have been beneficial for JTI to use some of its early funding on philanthropy training. As the executive director since JTI’s inception, I was hired for my strengths in making connections and creating programming, along with a knowledge of Judaism. The organization would have greatly benefited if I had worked with a fundraising coach early on to build an expertise in this important area. However, with full funding, JTI had no urgent need to start professional fundraising. We were solely focused on establishing a model and path toward success. It wasn’t until year four that the JTI team started to think about fundraising.
In part because of these early “mistakes,” there have been some important developments more recently: More than half of my time now is spent on fundraising; The Foundation has connected JTI with large local funders, including Combined Jewish Philanthropies; and the Foundation also has also helped JTI pursue individual donors who have been positively impacted by the program, such as parents and grandparents of teens.
To date, we have raised 80% of our annual campaign goal and early indicators are that we are tracking to a place to be sustainable locally without the Foundation’s involvement. The ongoing discussion and challenge will focus on our ability to have a larger community impact without a national partner.
A Partnership that Led to Success
Today, as we fundraise, JTI continues to thrive and engage more Jewish teens. The Foundation played a large role in the success of the model, guiding our evolution and growth each year.
From day one, Foundation leaders provided direct input and involvement with JTI professionals and Board chairs. They helped with staffing models, evaluation processes, training, coaching, and brainstorming. They opened doors not just to funders, but to program partners and resources.
For our part, JTI has remained committed to innovation. In the eight years that we’ve existed, we’ve never stepped back. No two years have really been the same. While our overarching goal did not change, we were never constrained to maintain a specific approach if we could see it wasn’t working. We had a commitment to flexibility.
All of us with JTI have learned the importance of being responsive to our community – to always ask questions to learn what people want; to pilot, test, and have a risk-taking mentality. Over eight years, we have built deep and meaningful relationships with teens, families, and congregations in our community. While the road ahead is not without challenges, we are confident that JTI will continue to help support and create vibrant Jewish life for many.
Adam Smith is Executive Director of Jewish Teen Initiative – Boston.