A Snapshot of How Legacy Organizations and Innovative Startups Can Work Together to Create Powerful Jewish Teen Engagement

By Rachel Fine and Jeffrey Lasday

[This is the fifth in a weekly series of posts from a coalition of institutions across the continent devoted to nurturing the emerging transformation of congregational and part-time Jewish education. The series is curated by the Leadership Commons at the William Davidson Graduate School of Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.]

Our Challenge and Working Hypothesis

A few years ago, we recognized that, like many communities in North America, metropolitan Detroit was suffering from a significant dropout rate of teens from Jewish life. Following their bar/bat mitzvah, over 50 percent of Jewish teens stopped participating in organized Jewish activities. This reflected a national trend. According to the 2010 BBYO Impact study, commissioned by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, it is estimated that around 75 percent of teenage Jews celebrate their bar or bat mitzvah; yet, by the time these individuals reach their last two years of high school, at best about half continue to be involved in Jewish life.

To better meet this and other challenges of Jewish education in the 21st century, the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit’s Hermelin Davidson Center for Congregation Excellence convened a brainstorming retreat that focused on developing new and innovative experiential Jewish education strategies. One of the novel ideas that grew out of this retreat was PeerCorps. PeerCorps was created in order to:

  1. Provide more meaningful bar/bat mitzvah volunteer ”mitzvah project” experiences
  2. Reduce the post bar/bat mitzvah drop-off rate in Jewish life
  3. Create deep service-learning relationships with urban Detroit for suburban Jewish teens and their families

Our working hypothesis was that if we could provide accessible high school peer role models for pre b’nei-mitzvah teens and empower them through deeply meaningful volunteer opportunities laced with hands-on experiential Jewish learning, we would be able to better engage them in Jewish life. So far, it’s worked.

What Exactly Is PeerCorps?

Now in its fourth year, PeerCorps is a program of Repair the World, an innovative national Jewish nonprofit that seeks to make meaningful service a defining element of American Jewish life. In Detroit, Repair the World sponsors PeerCorps in partnership with the Jewish Federation, congregations, youth groups, and urban social service nonprofit organizations.

PeerCorps is a year-long mentorship program dedicated to building strong relationships between Jewish teenagers (mentors), b’nei mitzvah students (mentees), and their families, in partnership with community-based nonprofits in Detroit. PeerCorps offers a unique b’nei mitzvah experience that excites, engages, and empowers b’nei mitzvah students on their journey to becoming Jewish adults. Our goal is for PeerCorps participants to grow up with a strong relationship to the diverse metro Detroit community and with a commitment to tzedek (justice). PeerCorps also aims to strengthen the congregational and day school communities’ access to meaningful service work for middle and high schoolers.

At the same time, PeerCorps offers purposeful and mutually beneficial work to our partner organizations / service partners in Detroit, such as the Clark Park Coalition, Bethel Community Transformation Center, Voices for Earth Justice, Mission: City, and Ile Pko Community Garden as well as our Jewish institutions, including Giving Gardens at Yad Ezra.

So What Is PeerCorps’s Secret Sauce?

On reflection, we found that the following 10 intrinsic program components contribute to PeerCorps’s success:

1. Clearly Defined Roles

Partnerships between innovative start-ups and legacy organizations were built over time. Organizational roles are clearly understood and defined, and outcomes are mutually beneficial to all players. Repair the World provides program supervision, coordination, and implementation. Federation provides funding, consultation, and political support. Congregations recruit students and encourage student participation as part of their b’nei mitzvah orientations to parents. Urban and Jewish nonprofits provide meaningful volunteer opportunities.

2. Powerful Peer Role Models

PeerCorps provides an intentionally layered peer leadership structure that includes paid staff and post-college Repair the World fellows, along with high school students who serve in the roles of mentor leaders, mentors, and interns. From middle school pre-b’nei mitzvah students through paid adult staff, all are provided with an inspiring peer mentor/leader/supervisor to look up to and learn from.

3. Relationships

The peer role model structure enables the building of close relationships and a sense of belonging to an inspiring community. Families are also invited to special events and encouraged to volunteer and find opportunities to connect with their children’s service projects.

4. Enthusiasm Breeds Enthusiasm

Staff, mentors, and interns are selected for their enthusiasm and energy for the program and ability to connect with teens.

5. Authentic Meaningful Service Experiences

Participants feel that their work is important and makes a difference in people’s lives.

6. The Right Mix of Volunteering, Jewish Learning, Reflection, and Community Building = Fun

Originating from one’s own congregation, teens are provided with a blended, experiential, hands-on volunteer and learning experience. The program includes meaningful volunteer work surrounded by learning informed through the use of Jewish texts that focus on Jewish values. Learning includes opportunities for framing and reflection, and teens come back, want more, and bring their friends.

7. Use of Technology

A wide range of social media apps and technology are used to maintain communication with participants, staff, parents, and service sites. Using text messaging and apps for group texting enables smooth communication.

8. Removing the Transportation Barrier

For many teens, simply getting to an event can be a challenge. PeerCorps staff pick up teens in the suburbs in vans owned by the organization.

9. Training

High school mentors and interns participate in a week long Gesher (bridge) week where they receive training in how to be peer role models, learn about the volunteer sites, and study Jewish texts that support their volunteer work.

10. Empowerment

Participants are empowered to take action and make a difference. The more active you are in the program, the more responsibility you are able to take on.

Surprises Along the Way

Graduates Dont Want to Leave

When 6th and 7th grade mentees were finished with their program, they were ready for more, and didn’t want to wait until they were juniors when they could come back as mentors. Due to this demand, Kesher (connection) was created to keep 8th-10th graders engaged in PeerCorps.

In addition, we discovered that the high school-aged mentors also wanted to continue in the program. To meet this need we created expanded internships and mentor leader positions for those teens in their second and third years of PeerCorps leadership.

Realizing Our True Target Audience

In the beginning, we thought that the high school mentors would be active teens who already held leadership positions in the Jewish community. What we found instead is that PeerCorps is the primary or only point of engagement in Jewish life for many of the teens we attract.

The past two generations have the notion that becoming b’nei mitzvot has signaled the end of Jewish learning, and of our youth’s connection to our congregations. The statistic cited at the beginning of this article reflects this. However, through the success of PeerCorps’s first three years, we have discovered evidence that through the right mix of engagement, learning, and authentic opportunities to give back and grow, our youth will remain closely connected to Jewish life. It is clear that our participants are passionate about expressing their Judaism and working within their communities. This evidence provides promise and potential to help all of us change the trend.

Rachel Fine is the teen engagement associate for Repair the World where she serves as the PeerCorps program lead.

Jeffrey Lasday is the senior director of community development at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.