Rethinking Our Communal Approach to Jewish Teen Education

[eJP note: The Jim Joseph Foundation’s recently released report, Effective Strategies for Educating and Engaging Jewish Teens, examines and compares the work of twenty-one respected programs serving young people both inside and outside the Jewish world. The study was developed to help inform the Jewish community’s collective thinking about community-based Jewish learning experiences offered to teens.

In a series for eJewishPhilanthropy, a variety of stakeholders – including funders, practitioners, teen education experts and teens – will offer their perspectives on the findings in this research report, advancing a conversation about ways to dramatically expand and strengthen community-based Jewish teen education and engagement.]

Rethinking Our Communal Approach to Jewish Teen Education

by Josh Miller

Jewish teens seeking to explore their Judaism and connect with Jewish peers have a menu of program options from which to choose. Nationwide, tens of thousands of teens enroll in Jewish high schools, take classes on Jewish topics, participate in youth groups, attend Jewish camps, travel to Israel, and sign up for a range of other ongoing and immersive programs. Research demonstrates that these experiences significantly influence participants and lead to further involvement in Jewish life. On the surface, the narrative is one of success and – for funders investing in the future of Jewish life – is heartening. We are compelled to support these opportunities for Jewish teens to ensure that they remain strong and accessible.

But the reality is that another side of this story exists. Of the 320,000 high-school aged Jewish teens in this country, roughly 80 percent do not opt into any of these meaningful Jewish experiences. If we listen to these teens, the message they are sending is clear – the current offerings are simply not compelling enough to win the competition for their time.

At the Jim Joseph Foundation, where the commitment is to ever-increasing numbers of young Jews engaging in ongoing Jewish learning, we seek to provide engaging, relevant educational experiences for all Jewish teens: those who currently opt in and those who currently do not. Which forces the question: how can we reconceptualize our approach to Jewish teen education to dramatically broaden its appeal to teens?

It was this very question that led our Foundation to invest in an 18-month research process that ultimately produced the newly released report entitled Effective Strategies for Educating and Engaging Jewish Teens: What Jewish Communities Can Learn from Programs That Work.

Conducted by research consultants at BTW informing change and Rosov Consulting LLC, this report identifies strategies that are prevalent among some of the most successful programs serving young people today. With the guidance of a research advisory group that included national funders, local funders, Jewish teen education experts and Jewish teens, the researchers identified twenty-one respected programs from inside and outside the Jewish world to examine and compare. The goal: extract key learnings from the achievements of these exemplars to inform funders, community leaders and practitioners about what works with today’s young people.

As a national funder, the Jim Joseph Foundation is committed to taking a leadership role in coordinating and sharing learning with our funding colleagues, identifying opportunities for co-investing in their efforts, and helping to fuel a national conversation about the importance of Jewish teen education and engagement.

We believe that the findings from this report provide rich fodder for communal discussions on a re-examination of current approaches to Jewish education for teens. For us, reading about exceptional programs that attract today’s young people sheds light on innovative approaches that merit adaptation and sparks ideas for a range of new potential interventions.

But how do we determine which ideas have greatest merit for communal investment? With the goal of long-term, enduring solutions, we believe that our work must be crafted around the needs of local communities and developed through partnerships forged with the local funders, communal leaders and practitioners who know their communities best.

As part of the broader conversation, a series of blog posts over the coming weeks will offer reactions to this report from a range of perspectives.

We hope that as you review the report you will find opportunities to add your own voice to the conversation, helping our communities to design, develop and support the most effective strategies to educate and engage a new generation of Jewish teens.

Josh Miller is a Senior Program Officer for the Jim Joseph Foundation, which seeks to foster compelling, effective Jewish learning experiences for young Jews in the United States.

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  1. Eitan Gutin says

    Thank you to the Jim Joseph foundation for both funding so many worthwhile programs but also taking the time to research what practices are effective so that others can learn from so many programs’ successes.

    I have not had a chance to read the entire report yet but there is one statement about how programs were chosen that is in error:
    “Since this report is intended for readers who have a strong
    familiarity with the more established and traditional models of
    Jewish teen education and engagement, programs such as denominationally-based youth programs were excluded.”

    Based on my own experiences in both formal and informal Jewish educational environments I would like to argue that while many Jewish educators, rabbis, professionals, and lay leaders know of the EXISTENCE of such programs those who have never worked on those programs, participated in them, or served as lay leaders for them know very little about how they work. I would strongly encourage the JJF to revisit its choice not to study these programs as I believe there are many best practices that could be learned from them.

  2. says

    This is a useful review of a number of different programs. “Effective strategies” is a very important goal. But absent in the report is conceptualization of what “effective” might mean, much less hard nosed criteria of how to measure it. Apparently, programs that do have substantial evaluations were excluded from the scan. Puzzling. We won’t get very far unless the programs brought to our attention have serious evaluation studies and the results summarized professionally in a meta analysis of those evaluations. Otherwise we are left with hype in which success and effectiveness are defined by the eye of the beholder. The Jewish community deserves better.

  3. says

    As a teen provider included in this study (and one that has been robustly evaluated by an independent research team), we are grateful for the objective research looking at teen engagement. In particular, we value the relevance of learning lessons from non-Jewish organizations in the field. The success of teen engagement models, particularly in the Christian communities, offers us much to learn from and this report is the first time – that we are aware of – that these organizations are seen as a resource for our own learning and evolution.

    In our experience with the foundation, we have found them to be extremely methodical, strategic and thoughtful when it comes to grant-making. Theories of change, logic models and in-depth analysis of the real education taking place (with a focus precisely on education, and not hype) are standard procedure. This type of grant-making sets the bar very high for organizations, and setting this standard is something JJF should be commended for. We applaud the Jim Joseph Foundation for thinking beyond our Jewish box to strengthen all of us within it.

  4. says

    Thanks to Eitan Gutin, Professor Kadushin and Brad Sugar for taking the time to review this research report and to offer comments and encouragement. The points above address important questions that we confronted in the development of the plan for this research. Who should be our core audiences? What kind of findings will be most useful to them?

    Following the guidance of our research advisory group we chose national funders, regional funders, and organizational leaders as the primary audiences for the research report. We made this choice believing that these stakeholders would be key partners for our Foundation in helping develop new approaches to community-based teen education. With this audience in mind, we focused on a research design that would highlight innovative, adaptable programs that are successfully attracting today’s teens. The intent was to help funders and organizational leaders think beyond familiar models as they consider ways to invest their resources and attention. We view the study as a starting point for this important conversation.

    While there are certainly other effective models that could have merited inclusion in this study, we are pleased with the diversity of the programs that were ultimately selected by the research team. It is encouraging to know that nearly all of these programs engage in some form of ongoing evaluation and many have conducted robust independent evaluations similar to what Brad Sugar describes above.

    While this research report provides new insights into what works with today’s teens, there still much more work to be done. As Professor Kadushin points out, the field is in need of new studies that explore the long term Jewish learning outcomes associated with different kinds of experiences. It is our hope that this research will be a fundamental piece of the Foundation’s efforts to co-invest in new models for teen education during the coming years.

    We look forward to continuing to read and respond to the posts and comments in this blog series and for the opportunity to incorporate the community’s collective insights into our evolving plans.