Building Upon Our Strengths

Eisner CampBy Louis Bordman, Debby Shriber and Emily Messinger

When it comes to youth engagement, we often think about what we don’t have. “We don’t have enough teens. We don’t have enough funding. We don’t have enough time. We don’t have enough staff.”

However, when the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) Eisner and Crane Lake Camps began to explore how to partner with congregations and families to engage more teens in a joyful Jewish life, we challenged ourselves to focus on an abundance mindset rather than maintaining a scarcity mentality. As such we have created a new year-round youth engagement initiative that starts with one of the camps’ greatest strengths: a committed, connected cohort of teens. These are the engaged 5% who go to camp, temple and NFTY youth group events. Our initiative, The Northeast Teen Collective, gives these committed teens the tools to inspire the multitude of unengaged teens.

Jewish education and youth engagement are in the midst of a paradigm shift. One powerful reality of this shift is the desire of individuals, of all ages, to be prosumers, co-creators of their Jewish experiences. With the formation of the Northeast Teen Collective, these URJ camps are providing a new, year-round, youth engagement and outreach strategy to support Jewish teens in the creation of their own Jewish experiences. This platform creates a 21st century framework for youth empowerment, teen and peer engagement, leadership development, authentic and relevant skill-building, outreach and in-reach through local and accessible experiences, and professional and communal collaboration.

The Northeast Teen Collective, powered by the Union for Reform Judaism’s Eisner and Crane Lake Camps in partnership with NFTY, Jim Joseph Foundation, and Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP in Boston), is an ambitious initiative to substantially increase the number of teens engaged in meaningful Jewish life throughout New York, New Jersey, and New England. The Northeast Teen Collective offers highly engaged Jewish teens new opportunities to further develop their leadership skills while simultaneously creating additional entry points into to Jewish life for their less engaged friends. The collaborative nature of the Northeast Teen Collective challenges synagogue and camp professionals to work together to create new pathways for teens to engage in Jewish life while simultaneously strengthening existing youth programs and structures.

All aspects of the Northeast Teen Collective challenge teen leaders to think deeply about:

  • The responsibility they have, as Jews, to care for themselves, all of k’lal Yisrael (Jewish peoplehood), and all people;
  • How Jewish values impact who they are and the decisions they make – how Jewish life is deeply connected to the issues they care the most about;
  • How being part of a Jewish community and engaging in Jewish learning can help them build the necessary virtues to live happier, healthier, and more fulfilling lives; and
  • Their responsibility in the chain of Jewish leaders who have used their gifts, stretched their boundaries, challenged their assumptions and imagined new possibilities for our people.

All teen participants can embrace their potential and become the Jewish leaders of today and tomorrow through real-life skill development, opportunities to build their resumes, fulfill community service hours, take risks, and be a part of something great. The Collective began its pilot phase in July 2015 and has worked with over a dozen teens to create hyper-local “pop-up events” in their communities. At this time, we are working with almost 80 teen leaders in The Machon Leadership Institute at URJ Eisner and Crane Lake Camps and we look forward to expanding our efforts, infrastructure and support systems in the upcoming year.

Unique strategies that have developed over the past year include:

  1. Engaging youth and nurturing leaders: We are giving highly engaged Jewish teen leaders valuable leadership opportunities, training, and support so they can involve their peers who aren’t active in Jewish life. All participants have the opportunity to develop skills for the real world, build their resumes and fulfill community service hours, are encouraged to take risks, and become a part of something great. The Machon Summer Leadership Institute and The Dana Gershon and Rabbi Jonah Pesner Northeast Leadership Summit enable us to achieve these goals.
  2. Harnessing power of old and new: We are creating new pathways for teens to engage in Jewish life while also strengthening existing systems and institutions. Because we prioritize collaboration, our programs are challenging synagogue and camp staff to work together in new ways that leverage the best of our traditions.
  3. Strengthening Jewish values and community: Jewish values frame all core learning, programs, and experiences. Teen leaders add meaning to their lives, strengthen their Jewish identity and the Jewish people, and learn to passionately convey their ideas to others in a way that engages and inspires them.
  4. Promoting easy access and sustained participation: Our local Pop-Up Events do not require affiliation, dues, or a long-term commitment, ensuring that there are low or no barriers to entry for interested teens. And because local follow-up is central to ongoing success, newly connected Pop-Up participants will be motivated to find other opportunities for Jewish participation in their community.
  5. Encouraging a connection to Israel: The Machon Summer Leadership Institute and the Leadership Summit offer teens returning from a summer in Israel the chance to connect with others who share their energy and enthusiasm and build upon their newfound passion for Israel and Judaism.
  6. Building camp leaders: The leadership experience campers get during their final year as campers will be strengthened by what they learn and experience during their Machon summer, setting them up to grow continuously as leaders and gain valuable personal and professional skills. Ultimately, their commitment will make the camp community fuller and richer for all.

As part of the suite of offerings from the Union for Reform Judaism family of camp and youth programs, The Northeast Teen Collective utilizes the strength of camp to provide a unique year-round approach to teen engagement. To learn more about the Northeast Teen Collective visit:  www.NortheastJewishTeens.org.

Louis Bordman is the Senior Director of URJ Eisner Camp. Louis has been a leader in the field of Jewish Education and Jewish camping for over 25 years. Over the last 15 years, his vision and direction inspired the URJ Eisner Camp’s renaissance.

Debby Shriber is the Director of URJ Crane Lake Camp. Debby has been with URJ Camps since 2009 and has worked in the camping field for over 19 years. Debby’s favorite parts of her job are being out and around camp with the campers and staff during the summer and getting to know camp families during the school year.

Emily Messinger, MARE, is the inaugural director of the Northeast Teen Collective and a graduate from HUC-JIR’s Executive Masters in Jewish Education. Emily is deeply committed to supporting and nurturing Jewish youth to understand and experience Am Yisrael (Jewish Peoplehood), K’lal Yisrael (the community of Israel), and Brit Yisrael (the covenant of Israel).