A Hub in a Network: A National Incubator for Community-Based Jewish Teen Education Initiatives

by David Bryfman

In a recent eJewishPhilanthropy blog post, “A New Experiment in National-Local Funder Collaboration”, Josh Miller of the Jim Joseph Foundation made reference to an investment in “a National Incubator for Community-Based Jewish Teen Education Initiatives to support the work of the local operators and facilitate ongoing learning and collaboration.”

This prompts some inevitable questions: What is this national incubator? Where will be it housed? Why is it such a significant investment in the overall strategy to engage more Jewish teens in Jewish life? What have we learned from the early stages of this work?

The Jim Joseph Foundation astutely determined that significant advancements in Jewish teen engagement occur locally (i.e. community by community). And it is true that every community has its idiosyncrasies. One community has a higher affiliation rate, another has a higher rate of inter-marriage, one has a greater tradition of collaboration, while another has more significant turf issues.

The Jim Joseph Foundation also understands that each community does not have all of the answers themselves. At the end of the day, each community has fundamental similar challenges in engaging their post Bar and Bat mitzvah population – many of which are outlined in the study conducted by the Foundation that led to the roll out of this initiative. Therefore, while in this approach communities would operate independently from each other, there needs to be a network in place so they can learn from each other. The national incubator ensures that although operating separately, no one is working in isolation. The national incubator has a bird’s-eye view looking at the issues of Jewish teen engagement from a macro-perspective.

With ongoing debate about the viability of national Jewish organizations in North American Jewish life, the Jim Joseph Foundation has made a modest investment to ensure cross-community support and learning (one key function of a national intermediary). Yet, it intentionally has not invested in building a new independent national nonprofit, opting instead to partner with an existing organization that has the appropriate expertise to operate the incubator.

The Jewish Education Project (formerly the Board of Jewish Education in New York), a beneficiary of UJA-Federation of NY, has been operating in the teen space for several years and we are excited to now be managing this incubator. We are proud that the Foundation selected us as a partner for this important project, and the opportunity it is providing us to build upon the existing work of our teen department to educate and engage Jewish teens. Our teen team looks forward to introducing these communities to some of the experts who have already helped our NY partners push the envelope on their thinking through partnerships with organizations like Systematic Inventive Thinking, Idea Connection System, Upstart, and the Disney Institute. While maintaining its commitment to working locally to engage Jewish youth, The Jewish Education Project is honored to accept this challenge to think and act globally (or at least nationally), serving an audience beyond New York City, in this and other initiatives.

In just a few months, amongst several other findings, the National Incubator for Community-Based Jewish Teen Education Initiatives is already learning that:

  • Communities believe that having a national voice at their local planning table brings valuable expertise and perspective, and helps to motivate their local stakeholders.
  • While each community is quite different and has its own idiosyncrasies, there are overarching themes around challenges they face that are clearly national trends, providing real opportunities for shared learning and collaboration. In all cases local funders are interested in serving the needs of all Jewish teens, but existing communal offerings are reaching a smaller than desired percentage (and declining).
  • Previously “siloed” local organizations show an interest in working together, but need support and guidance on how to rethink their strategies as they attempt to work as a collective.
  • Jewish youth professionals crave more professional development opportunities and exhibit a commitment to their chosen profession longer than their agencies are often able to support their career trajectories.
  • There is an overwhelming commitment to further empower Jewish teens to create and develop engagement opportunities for their peers. This does not contradict the desire of teens to have positive adult role models in their lives who they perceive as being potential mentors and guides during their adolescent years.

For some communities we have provided advice and consulting to help develop their strategies to engage their target populations. In other communities we have served as facilitators of community-wide conversations, and at times have inserted our voice without the restrictions that local leaders often feel. Lately we have begun connecting communities to one another and to other previously unknown resources. Overall, the National Incubator serves as a hub in a network that consolidates information, shares learnings and ensures that unnecessary duplication and replication are being avoided.

I have been involved in Jewish teen engagement for the better part of two decades. There are many great individuals and organizations who have, and who continue to work in this space. Many of them will continue to be valued partners and essential nodes of this network. As recently exhibited by the large NFTY contingent attending BBYO convention, there is an increasing realization that we, the entire North American Jewish community, are all in this together.

The precipitous dropout of Jewish youth from Jewish life post the age of Bar and Bat mitzvah is indeed a wicked problem. It has embedded within it many complexities that have made it difficult to solve and has no single silver bullet solution. The involvement of the Jim Joseph Foundation, the various communities, and now this newly launched national teen incubator signify the greatest investment to date to confront this reality head on. No one doubts that there will be challenges to confront and hurdles to overcome. But no one involved in this initiative expects anything less. To misquote Rabbi Tarfon, The day is short, the work is great, the workers are certainly not lazy, the reward is certainly great*.

*In the original text from Pirkei Avoth (2:20) Rabbi Tarfon said: “The day is short, the work is great, the workers are lazy, the reward is great.”

Dr. David Bryfman is the Chief Learning Officer and the Director of the National Incubator for Community-Based Jewish Teen Education Initiatives at The Jewish Education Project.