BBYO and Synagogues

The post-B’nai Mitzvah drop off is staggering, so let’s work together to reverse this trend.

by Adam Tennen

I’ve had the quintessential pluralistic Jewish experience. I grew up in NFTY, worked for USY, currently belong to a conservative synagogue and now work for BBYO. I’m part of the global Jewish people, but I’m a Jew without a label – and I’m not unique in my perspective on Jewish identity. The recent Pew study only reinforces this seemingly growing trend of those simply calling themselves Jews.

I’m a staunch supporter of synagogue life and affiliation because I believe it is fundamentally the best way to be part of a spiritual community. For my family, our synagogue has been a place where we’ve found friendship, support, comfort, acceptance and respect. You can’t really put a price tag on this stuff. Simply stated, it’s an extension of our Jewish home.

I firmly believe and support the notion of synagogue membership. Yet, finding the right synagogue is like buying a car. It needs to feel just right. Anyone who has been through this search process knows that it’s a monumental task. People hop from one place to the next, sometimes for years, until they find a community they can truly call home. Generally speaking, more and more Jews are not necessarily subscribing to the practices and institutions they grew up with – and that’s okay.

So, the communal strategy here is choice, right? Let’s offer a menu of opportunities for Jews to find their Jewish home. The declining participation in organized Jewish life, particularly synagogues, is a high level takeaway from the Pew study and only further underscores the need for us to continue this approach, which is slowly taking shape around the country. But, if we’re going to truly walk the walk when it comes to offering a playlist of Jewish connections, it needs to start with our teens.

If you are a synagogue lay leader, clergy or staff member, I implore you to take a look at the number of post-B’nai Mitzvah teens who remain involved in formal or informal Jewish experiences within your institution. Chances are your market penetration is low and may be continuing to decline. You may have a quality program, but it is only capturing a fraction of your teens. There is a lot of talk and blame going around for this condition, but no one is talking about offering multiple options for teens to find their fit in this complex Jewish world. Instead, most synagogues hand their B’nai Mitzvah teens a free membership to their youth group, and then scratch their heads as to why so many don’t take advantage of it. We would never take such an approach with young adults, college students or new families who move to our community. Teens need options too! One size does not fit all, and this most certainly rings true with millennials.

More than ever before, BBYO is working closely with synagogues as partners to engage their teen constituents. We’re not a threat to the existing youth group infrastructure. Synagogues that promote both BBYO and their own program are seeing an increase in overall teen engagement. We’re bringing programming into synagogue buildings, participating in Shabbat services, working with clergy and co-sponsoring events. Our approach is to work together to reach the same end goal. We want to make this a win-win for both BBYO and the synagogue and, most importantly, the teens.

We’re also working with synagogues where no youth group program exists. In these situations, we can easily start a synagogue based chapter at no cost to the synagogue. Through this kind of partnership, teens are able to “plug in” to regional and national conventions, community service, leadership development opportunities and summer immersive experiences around the world.

A successful youth movement experience is about creating a Jewish space where teens can build their character, confidence, lifelong friendships and find their Jewish community. Teens want to be a part of something bigger than themselves, have a chance to develop leadership skills and make a difference in the world.

Let’s stop talking about turf, territory and stealing kids. The post-B’nai Mitzvah drop off is staggering, so let’s work together to reverse this trend. Open every door for teens to explore Jewish life. We’re ready when you are.

Adam Tennen is the Director of Field Operations for BBYO’s Mid-Atlantic Hub. He lives in Rockville, MD.