Teens Seek Something Greater than Themselves

by Matt Grossman

Thanks to their recent study on New York area Jewish teens, Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies has joined others in calling attention to the fact that teens are “dropping out” of Jewish life following the bar/bat mitzvah experience.

Len Saxe, in a recent article, suggests creating a teen service corps as a “big idea” to engage Jewish teens. Since incorporating BBYO’s Panim Institute into our programming two and half years ago, we have learned a lot about the role that service plays in the lives of young Jews. With participation growing through a panoply of experiences – community-based initiatives, service and advocacy seminars, two-week summer service learning programs, and service programs in Israel – it is clear that engaging in service not only gives teens a chance to make a difference in the world, it also gives them a chance to feel a part of something greater than themselves. This deep seated feeling has always been core to the BBYO experience and can elevate any effort aimed at engaging teens.

A service corps may be one idea to engage teens, but it’s not the only one. There are many ways in which young people can feel a part of something that transcends themselves. Playing on a sports team or performing in a play are just a few examples. The desire for that feeling is well illustrated by the immense popularity of the TV show Glee, in which a diverse collection of teens join together to express their joy and passion through performing in show choir competitions. The show captures the raw emotion of the teen years and the satisfaction and glory that they derive from being part of something that transcends them as individuals through self-expression and empowerment. I am not afraid to admit that I love that show!

The good news is that the Jewish community offers many opportunities for young people to feel great about themselves by being a part of something greater than themselves. Youth group, summer camp and Israel travel all create this feeling in their own unique ways. Not coincidentally, BBYO’s offerings in each of these three areas have grown by leaps and bounds over the past five years. As young people seek relief from the pressures of teen life and search for personal meaning, we have found that some of the most tried and true experiences still enrich and inspire. However, they have to be done right.

From my perspective, here is how the Jewish community can and must raise the bar on teen engagement:

  • Bring together the things that teens love to do – have fun, meet new people, travel, perform, volunteer, serve, explore, learn – in packages that are collaborative in nature, devoid of institutional stigmas and bearing minimal adult fingerprints.
  • Use messaging that is organic, authentic, simple, clear and teen inspired.
  • Offer welcoming and relevant access points that span the human and digital realms.
  • Enable participants to move seamlessly through experiences while staying connected to a community of peers, whether they be traveling to Israel, participating in summer leadership programs, engaging in service projects, celebrating Shabbat, or just hanging out.
  • Ensure that the common threads connecting these experiences are the character of the people involved and the values that define the community.
  • Provide leadership from adults and teens themselves who are capable of shining a light on the participants while encouraging them to do great things.

In these ways, the community ultimately will become a movement and find a collective, greater purpose in the cause of strengthening the Jewish people, Israel and our world.

At least this is what has worked for BBYO.

There isn’t one “big idea” that is going to reverse the trend of disaffiliation after bar/bat mitzvah. We all need to hone in on those things that are working, as we incorporate new ideas, new strategies, new packaging and new energy to engaging teens. However, if we are going to reach substantially more Jewish teens, we are going to need some “big ideas” to generate the resources necessary for more professionals, educators, scholarships, marketing and technology.

Fortunately, some of our community’s leading foundations and philanthropists are answering this call. With their partnership, I am confident that BBYO and many others can establish a continuum of powerful experiences where teens realize that being a part of the Jewish people is the best way to be a part of – and contribute to – something greater than themselves.

Matt Grossman is executive director of BBYO, Inc., the world’s leading pluralistic Jewish youth movement.

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  1. Bradley Solmsen says

    Amen. As partners with you (at Brandeis) to build and grow Impact Boston we have seen the outcomes of this work first hand. We also see how we engage the previously unengaged (about 20% of our programs each summer) at Genesis at BIMA.

    You are absolutely right in the list you shared – I would add to it that I think teens today seek challenge as part of the mix. I think they want to be part of something that pushes them in some way and is not only feel good.

    We look forward to continuing to partner.

  2. Adam Weisberg says


    Yeshar koach on your piece.

    Amidst the other important points you make is the one about creating opportunities for teens to lead teens. This seems more and more central to the experiences teens are seeking. And it is one of the hallmarks of the program I currently am working with, the Diller Teen Fellows.

    One of the compelling questions it brings up is how we can most thoughtfully and effectively offer teens the tools they seek/require to be leaders to/of/amongst their peers. What do you think are the best models currently in use for helping teens develop their leadership abilities and skills? And what do you make of the suggestion that leadership may be learned but that it is very hard to teach?

    The idea and model of teens leading teens also raises the question of how prepared we are as paid professionals to let teens fail. Do we see value in offering guidance and counsel, but not jumping in to “save” a teen or a program even when we believe things are heading toward an outcome (for the individual teen, her or his peers, or the organization) other than what we would call success?

    I am eager to know what the success/failure limits are for in BBYO and other organizations with successful track records in teen engagement and leadership development.

    Thanks again for your piece and kol tuv.

  3. says

    you will not be surprised to hear from me that spiritual awakening is also a means to be aware of something greater than themselves as well as opening up a world of responsibility and cultivating their ‘spark’. You may want to look further at the Search Institute research in Minneapolis into ‘Adolescent Thriving’ in which spiritual growth is a factor.
    Michael Shire

  4. Matt Grossman says

    Thanks to all of you for your feedback.

    Michael – I checked out the Search Institute’s website and it has a lot of interesting products and resources. I appreciate the referral and will dig a little deeper when I have a free moment.

    Adam – Thanks so much for your questions about teen leadership/empowerment. Feel free to call me and we can discuss more off-line. In short, BBYO has had a lot of success with our leadership training approach based on “experiential democracy.” We use BBYO’s teen leadership and governance model as a way for teens to gain leadership skills (public speaking, organizing, communicating clearly, etc.) which they then put to use through the governing and program planning that they do on BBYO’s behalf. This approach has been around for over 80 years and still works remarkably well.

    Additionally, we have also worked Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens into our summer camp curriculum. We have only been doing it for a few years, but it seems to be working. Some of our staff have participated in Covey training as well so that they can develop their own skills as they facilitate the leadership training sessions.

    Your question about when we “let teens fail” is such a crucial concept in teen leadership development. We wrestle with and talk about it a lot. There are no easy answers, but usually when a teen planning process is unraveling, there is a moment when things can be saved and lessons learned. Sensing those moments and intervening appropriately is the art of working with teens.