I Have Met the Enemy of Jewish Teen Engagement and It Is US

by Billy Planer

Reading the recent article “Towards a Teen Centered Jewish Future” by Lisa Farber Miller and Samantha Hea has inspired me to add my thoughts on how we engage our Jewish teens.

In 2003, after running a synagogue-based youth program for the preceding 15 years, I created an independent, nonprofit Jewish educational venture called Etgar 36. During the summer, we take 40 Jewish teens on a journey across America teaching them about history, politics and activism. Our goal is to develop their American and Jewish identities in order to empower and inspire them to get involved and create change. During the academic year, synagogues and day schools hire us to take their groups on weekend and weeklong journeys with the same mission in mind.

My experiences have brought me face-to-face with the ever-mounting struggle to engage Jewish teens. I have come to realize that the enemy, as it turns out, is us. Jarring as this indictment may seem, I believe it is ultimately good news, as it implies that we are also the solution to the problem. The bottom line is that we must embrace, and incorporate into our programs, the world our teens inhabit.

I can only speak from my experience as an independent program working alongside the organized Jewish community, but I imagine that the struggles I have endured, the feelings of isolation I have felt, and the suspicions with which my program has been met, are shared by many of the other exciting independent ventures that have come about in recent years.

Assuming we all agree that our goal is to engage Jewish teens in Jewish programs, regardless of the program, then I would like to propose the following solutions:

Stop guarding the borders

The main obstacle to our engaging teens is territoriality. Rabbis, educators, and youth directors too often act as gate keepers charged with keeping outside programs beyond the castle walls. Their reasons for not allowing quality programs to be publicized to their students are varied, but chief among them is that synagogues and institutions will typically only promote their own programs. While I understand the desire for a synagogue to promote its denomination’s philosophy, the flip side of the decision is that if a teen is not doing a traditional (USY/NFTY/NCSY/JRF/BBYO) program, he or she is generally not doing anything Jewish at all. In my best years running a formal youth program, I know that perhaps only 10% of my synagogue’s youths were doing movement sponsored programs. Are we to say that doing nothing Jewish is better than doing a program sponsored by an outside Jewish organization?

I have also heard from Rabbis that they cannot promote Etgar 36 because it is not a kosher or Shabbat observant trip, even though the majority of the congregants are neither. The decision makers, I believe, are making perfect the enemy of the good. When a synagogue demands that its congregants play exactly by their rules or not at all, their teens, more often than not, will inevitably choose the latter. The great irony is that, by denying our students access to all Jewish options available, we ultimately propel our own teens towards secular programs that provide not a different Jewish perspective, as Etgar 36 does, but rather no Jewish perspective at all. We cannot on one hand claim to promote total Jewish engagement but on the other demand uncompromisingly that that engagement be on the terms of any specific denomination or movement.

Israel cannot be the totality of our Jewish identity.

Federations often tell me that they can’t provide financial assistance to their local families for a program like Etgar 36 because they only fund Israel trips. I am not denying the incredible impact that spending time in Israel has on a Jewish teen. Unfortunately however, in our zeal to get our students to Israel, we have created a huge disconnect wherein we undermine the importance of our own country as it relates to our experience as Jews.

All too often I hear from students when they return home from their Israel trips that they felt so Jewish over there but cannot translate that experience to their lives in the United States. We in the American Jewish educational community have not done enough to build strong connections between our youth’s Jewish identities and the country where most of them will live the rest of their lives. Is it not in the long term benefit of the Federation to encourage young Jews to feel a connection to their own community just as they do to Israel? How wonderful and impactful would it be if we could give each Jewish teen a meaningful experience in Israel as well as America?

Non traditional is the new traditional in America

As a product of a Jewish summer camp myself, I am a 100% believer and backer of the importance of the camp experience. The Foundation for Jewish Camp has done a wonderful job promoting Jewish summer camps, but unfortunately they will only provide their one happy camper scholarship to “traditional” camps. When I have met with them to explain what Etgar 36 is about, I was told that right now they are only interested in camps with a physical campus (bunks, fields, etc.). While they are busy “studying the efficacy of non-traditional experiences” such as Etgar 36, the teen population they intend to support is rapidly passing them by. The teens and parents, it seems, have already deemed so called “non-traditional experiences” to be valid, whether they be on a bus, a college campus, in an art, music or movie studio, and they are showing up to them in droves. Unfortunately, most of these programs are not Jewish. The question is, when will the organized Jewish world catch up and help make these opportunities a reality to all Jewish teens? We stay stagnant at our own peril.

For the vast majority of Jewish parents, the program experience far outweighs the Jewish aspect of a given program. Parents are much happier to send their children to a desired program that also happens to be Jewish. Jewish programs are, in general, not the priority they used to be. We should be inundating our teens with as many options as possible. We are not in a position to play gatekeeper and judge what is a valid Jewish program and what is not. No other part of our American society runs in a one size fits all philosophy anymore, and neither should our Jewish community.

We are fortunate that, since we are the creators of the barriers, we are also the ones that can break down these walls. Programs like Etgar 36 are not the competition to the national youth group programs and camps. The Jewish teens doing nothing Jewish with their summer are our competition, and we should be making every possibility available to them as currently there are more than enough of them to keep all of us in business.

Billy Planer is the Founder and Director of Etgar 36, a Jewish educational nonprofit venture that takes Jewish teens on a 36 day summer domestic journey and, during the academic year, school and synagogue groups on trips to various cities with the goal of teaching about history, politics, and activism, while developing their American and Jewish identities.