Counting Differently – Success with Teen Engagement

Photo courtesy NFTY in Israel

By Rabbi Becky Hoffman

Mark is an 11th grader at our congregation. He has not stepped into our synagogue since the day of his Bar Mitzvah other than High Holy Day services. The family has stayed members because there is a younger brother who is a year away from his Bar Mitzvah. It is questionable if they will stay members of the congregation, but they have been committed High Holy Day Jews. He is not enrolled in any of our teen programs and the family does not pay a school fee for him. However, Mark spent the summer on a NFTY trip to Israel. He has been an active camper at a Reform residential camp for every summer since he was 8 years old.

So … does he count? According to the traditional way of looking at membership and school registration numbers – no. He is not enrolled in a class and not a part of the youth group. Mark would fall into the typical category of the 85% of teens who leave congregational teen programming after their B’nai Mitzvah.

But, if we look at teen engagement differently and expand the definition, then the answer should be yes. Why? Because he is engaged in an aspect of Jewish life. It may not be a program that is planned by our congregation, but he is a Jewishly engaged teen. While he is not enrolled in our formal education program, he is engaged in Jewish life experiences through camp and an Israel trip. Therefore, as long as his family remains members of our congregation, he can be counted among our engaged teens. This goes for any teen in non-synagogue Jewish programming such as Israel trips, Federation programs, Jewish clubs at their public school, volunteering to serve dinner or at the Purim carnival, and so on. If we look at the idea of teen engagement more broadly, then we will see that we are much more successful than what appears in our databases.

There is a significant message in this shift – engagement can vary. Teen engagement is a process that is not necessarily tied to membership dues or tuition fees. An engaged teen is more than what is seen on a ledger or an excel doc.

We need to shift the paradigm of teen engagement. Instead of asking the question – how many teens do we have enrolled in our program, we need to ask how many teens are engaged in Jewish life. We need to focus on our successes. My feeling is that we are doing a better job than we are giving ourselves credit.

Any synagogue will experience a benefit to this shift. Engagement percentages of teens will shift higher. Just by counting differently and including teens engaged in non-congregational programs in our synagogue, our synagogue can claim a 50% retention rate of our teen population.

By shifting the question, we shift how we think about Jewish education in general. Jewish education is not only about who is enrolled in formal learning. The work of Jewish education moves beyond the confines of the classroom (or the tuition numbers) to be something greater than the school itself. It also forces synagogues to appreciate that Jewish education is not just about the numbers in a school, but rather it is about commitment to Judaism.

In this day and age, we are all concerned about the bottom line. There is a tendency by our boards, made up of invested and caring individuals, to look at the complexity of synagogue work in a simplified way which is represented by numbers. How much money is coming in and how much is going out. This makes sense to many lay leaders. But the work we do is so much bigger than budget. This becomes the conflict of numbers. We need to make sure there are synagogues to ensure Jewish homes for our Jewish families now. And the work that we do reaches beyond the boundaries of who is a member. We serve more than who is on our membership rolls. We serve the community.

We also need to ensure a diversity of experiences for our teens. The more ways we can offer for them to be involved, the more likely they will be to find a touchpoint and be connected to Judaism and the Jewish community. Ideally, this will build a relationship for the future and ensure that there will a longevity of synagogues and programmatic Judaism for the future.

Teen engagement is moving beyond the bottom line. When we count our teens more broadly, we see a more optimistic view of the present. We see an actively engaged teen community in a vibrant Jewish life.

Becky Hoffman is the Associate Rabbi and Religious School Director at Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, CA. She received rabbinic ordination from HUC and a MAEd from the AJU.