Bucking the Trends: Teens Call for Collaboration and a Place at the Table

by Jacob Sorrells

For those of us who are deeply involved in the Jewish community, it seems at times that the issues and challenges we face are insurmountable. We make it our business to study the trends of engagement in Jewish life, and we commit ourselves to doing whatever it takes to continue building a bright future for the Jewish people. For me, the most striking and potentially threatening of all such trends is the fact that over 80% of Jewish teens have no relationship with a synagogue by the 12th grade and boys are disengaging at an even more alarming rate. But last month, when I attended the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial in Washington, DC, I found it hard to focus on any negative statistics. I was sitting in a room surrounded by 5,000 fellow Jewish leaders from around the world listening to a plan of action. The URJ shared its new Campaign for Youth Engagement, and it was inspiring, well thought out and strategic – exactly what our community needs.

Perhaps the most eye-opening part of the Biennial for me was not the alarming statistics about trends in Jewish life being cited, but the fact that my peers and I already knew them. My experience as an international teen leader in BBYO, the world largest pluralistic Jewish youth movement, has exposed me to the many, wide-ranging obstacles facing youth engagement today. It has inspired me to familiarize myself with our community’s challenges and to work alongside BBYO’s growing network of 33,000 other dedicated Jewish teens around the world to develop ways to address them. At the Biennial, my network of “peers” and fellow Jewish leaders expanded even farther, and I found comfort in knowing that the commitment to Jewish peoplehood that BBYO inspired within me was shared by everyone in attendance. Way to go, NFTY. We don’t have to address our challenges as individual entities. We find our passions for Judaism in different places, for different reasons, and under the auspices of different movements. But at the end of the day, issues like declining male engagement aren’t BBYO’s problem or NFTY’s problem alone. They are problems equally faced by our shared Jewish community, and ones that we will undoubtedly address with the greatest success by working together. And we are.

This past November, eight of my fellow teen leaders from BBYO invited the top leaders from the North American Jewish youth movements to come together for a weekend of sharing and community building, designed to solidify an ongoing effort to bring the agendas and priorities of all Jewish teens into alignment for the betterment of the Jewish people through a new teen-initiated, teen-driven, cross-communal committee called the Coalition for Jewish Teens (CJT). BBYO, NFTY and Young Judaea formulated plans to mobilize the Jewish teen population into a united force committed to combating major issues facing teens today – including poverty and homelessness, Israel education, and bullying. In the end it became clear to all of us that Jewish teens want to play a role in solving issues in the Jewish community. We don’t want to be bystanders, and we have the ability to put aside our differences in working together toward strengthening the community we will soon inherit.

I find inspiration and comfort in this kind of collaboration and through my own experience with the Aleph Zadik Aleph (AZA), BBYO’s fraternity that has involved tens of thousands of young men for the past 88 years. I could cite numerous statistics from studies that show AZA’s sustainable, lasting impact on young Jewish men; however, for me I only need to look as far as my own AZA experience to see the many ways in which AZA has affected the lives of me and my male peers. I have seen teenage boys who had never opened a siddur before learn to actually enjoy a Shabbat service; I have heard powerful speeches about the importance of supporting global Jewry; and I have spent lots of retreat nights, staying up until morning, discussing with my peers how we can recruit more boys into Jewish life. AZA has dedicated itself to inclusivity of all teens through its Stand UP for Each Other campaign, committed itself to good sportsmanship and healthy living through AZA Athletics, taken a stand to promote Israel advocacy through its Speak UP for Israel campaign, and created far-reaching personal connections with Jewish teens through BBYO affiliates in more than 20 countries around the world. Throughout all of these efforts, we are qualitatively growing our male ranks (and overall teen involvement) each year, bucking all communal trends.

The challenge of inspiring Jewish teens, boys and girls, to commit to Jewish life is only successfully addressed by strengthening initiatives like those in BBYO. And those put forth by my NFTY colleagues. And those endorsed by my peers in Young Judaea. And those championed by all of the many Jewish youth enterprises working hard to secure the Jewish community’s future. And those reaffirmed in the empowering messages delivered by the URJ at the Biennial. Because of BBYO, I have had the unique opportunity to see for myself the many people, organizations, and movements committed to Jewish engagement, and to appreciate the even greater power of combining these forces together. No matter how it starts or what it looks like for any one individual, getting involved is the key to changing the future. All I ask is that as your sons, daughters, and friends come into their teenage years, please encourage them to be a part of something Jewish. If you need a message to share, here is what you can tell them from me:

If you’re looking for a place to create change in the world, make lifelong friends that will relate to you like no one else, and allow you to be a part of something bigger, the Jewish community is the platform for you. Join BBYO. Check out NFTY. Explore Young Judaea. Hang with USY, NCSY or JSU. Do anything. Do many things. It doesn’t matter – as long as you join the Jewish people.

Jacob Sorrells, 18 from Rockville, Maryland, is currently serving as the Grand Aleph Shaliach (VP of Jewish Heritage, Community Service and Israel Education) of the Aleph Zadik Aleph on BBYO’s International Board and is a founding representative of the Coalition for Jewish Teens.