By Phil Liff-Grieff
I have just returned to LA from a brief visit to Baltimore (think 60 degree difference in ambient temperature) after participating in the national Jewish Teen Summit, a 24-hour convening of practitioners, lay leaders, funders and teens to explore how we can think differently about Jewish teen education and engagement. Sponsored by the Jim Joseph Foundation, the Maimonides Fund, the Marcus Foundation, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff Awards Committee, this intense gathering brought together 350 stakeholders to listen to a range of provocative speakers and think together about what this work might look like if we were to truly innovate how we reach teens.
This gathering took place within the context of the BBYO International Convention, a slightly larger gathering of over 2,400 teens representing BBYO groups in 27 countries. Teens from across North America mingled with teens from Uruguay and Denmark, Cuba and Georgia (yes, the other Georgia) as they learned together, celebrated together and went from one inspiring community experience to another. And, oh yes, one social experience to another; all framed by the theme of the convention – It Starts With Us. The back of the convention T-shirts announced this theme as banners throughout the convention center restated this trope – “Leadership Starts With Us,” “Social Justice Starts With Us,” “Learning Starts With Us” and on and on, to encompass Israel, Philanthropy, Jewish Unity, Fun, Creativity, Innovation… all these things, the convention proposed, start with the teens.
With this as a backdrop, participants in the Teen Summit heard from speakers who stressed the different ways our paradigm of doing “teen work” has to change. Whether we were talking about social media or focusing on our intended outcomes, the atmosphere was clearly one that forced us to shift our perspective. I couldn’t have been happier.
Too often, when we talk about increasing engagement of teens, I find us using the language of “how do we get them to … (fill in the blank).” How do we get them to join youth groups, participate in Jewish life, continue to study, stay involved after Bar or Bat Mitzvah, etc. This approach, which is pervasive in Jewish life, presents community involvement and Jewish living as a product that we are trying to sell. Our focus, so often, is on doing a better job of convincing teens that they want this product.
The teen summit was predicated on a different mindset. Every session included teens sitting at the table; sharing their opinions and their viewpoint. Every speaker, from David Brooks to danah boyd to Brian Reich reaffirmed that we can no longer focus on Jewish life as our goal; we must focus on healthy teens as our intended outcome. Judaism and Jewish life, in effect must be our strategy and not our final goal. If we don’t do that, then our product (Judaism and Jewish involvement) will not be relevant to today’s teen.
Just as the BBYO International Convention loudly proclaimed “It Starts With Us,” so too, the Teen Summit declared categorically that teen engagement and teen education must start with teens. We must put aside the language of “How do we get them to…” and embrace new language of “How do we help them grow and develop as human beings.” Selling Jewish life to teens has to be replaced by a vision of co-creating Jewish life with teens, providing them a place at the table and literally placing them at the center of our work. How do we think differently about teen education and teen engagement? It truly starts with them.
Phil Liff-Grieff is the Associate Director of BJE: Builders of Jewish Education in Los Angeles and adjunct faculty at Hebrew Union College-JIR in LA.