Flipping the Jewish Journey Map: Empowering Our Teens to Engage and Guide Each Other

If we dont know why we do what we do, then how can we expect anyone else to know?

By Brett Lubarsky

[This article is the third in a series written by participants in the inaugural Senior Educators Cohort at M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education.]

One of my most cherished roles as a Jewish professional has always been that of barista. While I’ve been helping teens and families connect to the myriad of opportunities they can choose from while navigating their Jewish journeys, my preferred go-to has been to invite them to have a conversation over a cup of coffee or tea. Rooted in the foundational concepts of community organizing, I view this interaction as a critical first step in laying the groundwork of creating a relationship. Far too often teens exit the bar and bat mitzvah experience without having been asked directly: what does the next part of your Jewish journey look like to you? At that critical stage of development, adolescents and teens are laser-focused on being with their friends, cultivating their image, and trying to figure out who they are and who they want to be. Jewish professionals are typically charged with getting participants to a program, with a limited menu of opportunities and little flexibility. But what if we entered the conversation with the goals of developing a personal connection, helping to connect them in the way they wanted to be connected, and letting them know about some of the cool opportunities that exist?

In both the synagogue and communal spheres, we hear similar responses when teens were asked the infamous question, “Hey, want to come [to this program]?” Unless their friends are signed-up and in the loop, it is usually a non-starter. Meanwhile, Hillel International took note of a similar challenge: the vast majority of Jewish students on campuses nationwide were not participating in campus Jewish life, and provided the same common reasons: they weren’t asked or didn’t know something was happening, they didn’t have anyone to go with and they were intimidated by their perceived lack of Jewish identity. In response, Hillel created an internship program where they trained college students in community organizing, outreach and building relationships, and empowered them to connect to their peers. To say that the results have been successful would be an understatement. This model of peer-to-peer engagement has galvanized broader and deeper engagement on campuses throughout the country.

Knowing that we wanted to turn the teen engagement conversation upside down, the North Shore Teen Initiative (NSTI) has partnered with Hillel to bring this approach to our teens in the Greater Boston area. Having launched this past fall in the North Shore suburbs of Boston and launching in the Metro West suburbs this spring, NSTI’s Sloane Peer Leader Fellowship trains teens to be the communal connectors – reaching out to their marginally or under-connected peers, building those relationships and connecting them to opportunities which relate to their interests. With the emphasis on the relationship rather than program attendance, the pressure is off. NSTI is the first teen partner in the country to adapt and use Hillel’s model, and the early results coming in from the fellows have been exciting and has provided direct insight into a new group of Jewish teens. By recruiting and hiring gregarious and diverse teen leaders, representing public and private schools and numerous synagogues in the community, we have begun to get answers to what the perceived barriers have been and how we can remove them. Other teen initiatives around the country are excited and eager to adapt this innovative model of peer engagement.

With some help from Simon Sinek, we started with WHY, and asked our teens what inspired them. Similar to how we might train counselors at a camp, or many other groups of Jewish nonprofit professionals, the conversation began with our mission and values and a series of questions: If we don’t know why we do what we do, then how can we expect anyone else to know? It was then that we emphasized the importance and power of our work together: we believe that we will be able to engage hundreds of teens who are currently not on the radar. How will our values-driven work bring this to a reality? By investing and training our peer leadership fellows, helping to identify and develop their passions and social networks, and creating multiple opportunities for leadership and connection.

Our first step was to have the fellows identify and map out their social networks, followed by a peer-to-peer engagement training with Hillel International, and now they are connecting with underserved/disengaged Jewish teens in their communities, helping them to identify possible connections to Jewish life. Local synagogues are an important partner in the conversation as well, enabling us to reconnect with teens that have been off the map since they became b’nai mitzvah. This investment in our teen leaders is significant. Monthly group training seminars and individual virtual check-ins provide opportunities for skills-based training, supervision, reflection, mentorship and community building. Fellows live in varying geographic areas rather than affording the advantages of living together on a college campus, so the Hillel “coffee date” often takes the form of phone calls, FaceTime conversations and text message follow-ups between the teens.

As we have developed and adapted this model, one of our greatest learnings has been that our program and approach can only become better if we work and learn collaboratively from other organizations. Hillel’s groundbreaking work in this sphere has inspired us to turn the youth engagement conversation upside down – moving away from the assumption that teens need to be engaged first by a staff person – and, based on their success, we are able to test out a new strategy and approach in our communities. Collaborations such as this one have been at the heart of my experience with fellow educators in the M² Senior Educators Cohort (SEC), where we are constantly discussing and brainstorming new ways to learn from one another. Through our experience together in the SEC, my fellow cohort members and I have formed a deep and powerful community of practice in which we continually share ideas and best practices from our work.

The message we want to give to our teens is simple: No secret or hidden menus. Everyone is a rewards member with their name spelled correctly. Free substitutions and add-ins. Welcome to the Jewish community. We’re glad you’re here and excited to be on this journey with you.

Brett Lubarsky is the Associate Director at the Jewish Teen Initiative of Greater Boston, a Birthright Israel Fellow, and a current participant in the inaugural Senior Educators Cohort (SEC) at M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education. SEC is generously supported by the Maimonides Fund.

Applications are now open for Cohort 2 of the Senior Educators Cohort. For more information and to request an application visit www.ieje.org.