by Daniel S. Horwitz
Former Jewish youth organization participants are significantly more likely than those who did not participate in youth organizations to marry someone Jewish, have close Jewish friends, belong to a synagogue, find being Jewish very important, and have an attachment to Israel.[i] These findings remain even when controlled for individual involvement with other Jewish experiences, such as Hebrew school or Jewish day school attendance, and growing up in a strong Jewish environment.[ii] The two largest Jewish youth organizations nationally are the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization (“BBYO”), and the North American Federation of Temple Youth (“NFTY”).
The major distinction between these two youth organizations is in their affiliation statuses. BBYO describes itself as an independent, pluralistic Jewish teen movement, with a mission of “more Jewish teens; more meaningful Jewish experiences.”[iii] NFTY is affiliated directly with the Union of Reform Judaism, and “strives to provide meaningful and engaging youth experiences for teens.”[iv] The two organizations often overlap in their programmatic offerings and in their constituencies. It is thus worth examining whether there is room (or a need) for both to exist in the future.
Competing in the Marketplace
The overwhelming majority of BBYO’s participants come from Reform, Conservative, or unaffiliated backgrounds. By virtue of what are inevitably overlapping constituencies due to BBYO’s pluralistic outlook, NFTY has often struggled in regions of the country that have a strong BBYO presence:
“It is hard to evaluate our program. For several years, some teenagers of the congregation have participated in community-sponsored BBYO programs.”[v]
“Our Temple Youth Group continues to have low membership and recruitment difficulties. There is a strong BBYO presence in our community and many of our teens participate in BBYO instead.”[vi]
“We are having difficulties with our youth group – too many school activities in addition to a very strong BBYO presence makes it hard to get our kids involved in the teen youth group.”[vii]
If there is a strong BBYO presence in a particular community, is there a need for a local NFTY chapter? Given the time, effort, energy, and dollars that go into recruitment, planning programs, paying a youth advisor, etc., are the returns on investment measurably worthwhile?
The Role of the Synagogue
Studies have shown that over half of the 67% of teens who want to better connect to religion want an unconventional way of doing so.[viii ] For example, despite being affiliated with the Reform Movement, NFTY participants ranked “studying Torah and Jewish sacred texts” as the content of Judaic learning sessions they found the least interesting.[ix] The sessions receiving the highest scores included tikkun olam, social action, leadership, Jews and pop culture, and Jewish values.[x] NFTY participants are not particularly successful at making prayer, study, and God valued components of their Jewish lives.[xi] Interestingly, these are the findings for the subject organization that is affiliated with a denomination!
By virtue of being pluralistic and non-affiliated, it is unsurprising that BBYO participants are far less likely to spend time in synagogue / temple buildings than their NFTY counterparts while in their teens. Interestingly, despite not spending time in synagogue / temple as a result of youth organization activities, a BBYO alumni survey showed that BBYO alumni join temples at a relatively static clip of 59% as adults, regardless of their level of involvement within the organization as teens; a clip significantly greater than that of the general population.[xii] This can likely be attributed to research suggesting that while Jewish teens generally gravitate to programs less centered on religious aspects of Judaism, designating themselves as “culturally Jewish,” those that are culturally engaged often are then more inclined to engage with activities that are “religiously Jewish” later on.[xiii]
If BBYO participants are joining temples at a percentage significantly higher than that of the general Jewish population despite not being affiliated with the Reform Movement or being based out of a synagogue / temple’s building, and both organizations are emphasizing engaging in Jewish life culturally rather than religiously to meet the desires of their constituencies, what is it that NFTY offers Jewish teens that BBYO does not?
There is clearly value for Reform temples in having NFTY teen participants feeling comfortable and “at home” inside their congregations, as many do,[xiv] as such sentiments might result in the participants later joining Reform congregations as adults – and potentially the temple they grew up in – thus ensuring the continuity of the movement and its institutions. NFTY participants are likely to find their congregations as places where throughout their lifetime they “can safely seek support for their well being.”[xv] This is a reality that cannot be understated, and it is largely due to the role of congregational adults in influencing the teens.
Teens “who feel many adults care about them tend to have the highest levels of development and fewest interpersonal relationship challenges.”[xvi] Additionally, for some teens, one of the benefits of participating in a youth organization is the potential to increase the number of adults who care about them.[xvii] NFTY teens often find adult Jewish role models within their congregations who befriend and inspire them, and as a result, the teens feel they are part of a community where adults know who they are and care about them.[xviii] One such adult who often has a significant role is the designated youth advisor (who often is a full-time employee).[xix] While BBYO has volunteer chapter advisors who “serve as positive Jewish role models by sharing observations with the youth, exploring challenges and seeking solutions with (not for) the teens,”[xx] the BBYO organizational structure is not one in which the teens are exposed to or form relationships regularly with adults. As a result, it would be a stretch to argue that BBYO teens, by virtue of their experience in BBYO, have a significant number of Jewish adults taking an interest in and caring about them; at least not to the extent their NFTY counterparts do. It is thus apparent that NFTY, by virtue of its congregational setting, has something valuable to offer its participants that BBYO does not.
Jewish youth organization involvement, whether pluralistic or Reform Movement affiliated, is inherently positive in terms of the lasting impacts on a teen’s Jewish identity and communal engagement. While BBYO and NFTY are similar in terms of the backgrounds of the teens that comprise their respective memberships, and the tendencies of those teens to prefer “culture” oriented programs and activities to “religious” programming, NFTY structurally provides the opportunity for its teens to engage with congregational adults in a manner positive to the growth and development of the teens, and gives them a physical space where they feel at home and comfortable. As a result, despite the concerns expressed by some Reform temples across the country, there is inherent value in temples having NFTY chapters and engaging their teens in congregational life.
While there are valid arguments for consolidation, I’m more inclined to advocate developing partnerships (see, e.g., Adam Tennen’s 12/9/13 eJP article). If it is indeed true that 59% of BBYO teens go on to join synagogues as adults, it would seem logical that the overwhelming majority of those individuals will join Reform temples in the future (I’d love to find some formal data on this, as it could help break down the culture of competition). I am admittedly curious as to whether having a BBYO chapter based in a temple building could help provide the adult attention and sense of comfort that this paper considers the primary reasons for temples to not abandon NFTY. Are there existing examples of pluralistic organizations being successfully housed in denominational facilities? In the meantime, rather than viewing the two organizations as competing for the same bodies, a fundamental shift (which in some ways has already begun to take place)[xxi] needs to occur in order to provide opportunities for the two organizations to work together.
Rabbi Daniel S. Horwitz, a BBYO alumnus, is the former Rabbi and Director of Immersive Learning for Moishe House currently exploring his next professional adventure.
i Cohen, Steven M., and Kotler-Berkowitz, Laurence. The Impact of Childhood Jewish Education on Adults’ Jewish Identity, UJC Report Series on the NJPS, Report 3, July 2004.
v Ben-Avie, Michael, and Goodman, Roberta Louis. Learning About Youth Development From the NFTY Survey: An Interpretative Essay, p.22, 2007.
vi Id. at 23. vii Id. at 24.
viii The Jewish Community’s Guide to Understanding Teens; Provided by BBYO, Inc., p.4 (December 2008).
ix Ben-Avie and Goodman, note 5 supra, at 14. x Id.
xi Id. at 26.
xii The Impact of BBYO: Highlights of Alumni Survey; BBYO Alumni Survey conducted by TRU, 2008.
Available at: http://bbyo.org/assets/downloads/Alumni_Impact_Study.pdf
xiii Whitehead-Bust, Michael (Partner, Foxhall Consulting). Current Trends in Jewish Teen Participation with Out-of-School Activities: A Survey and Analysis of Relevant Research. Prepared for Rose Community Foundation (February 2010). Accessible at: http://www.rcfdenver.org/reports/CurrentTrendsinJewishTeenParticipation0210.pdf
xiv Ben-Avie and Goodman, note 5 supra, at 25. xv Id. at 26
xvi Id. at 4.
xvii Id. at 5.
xviii Id. at 25-26.
xxi See, for example: http://www.timesofisrael.com/nfty-bbyo-teens-gather-for-inter-camp-maccabiah-games/ http://www.jewishaz.com/community/no-longer-rivals/article_b5f0ebf6-e8c8-5352-9b05- 32d68cc2d9a2.html?mode=jqm http://blogs.rj.org/rac/2012/04/04/nfty-partners-with-bbyo-to-combat-bullying/