If You Build it Together, They Will Come

Courtesy Reshet, via FaceBook
Courtesy Reshet, via FaceBook

By Anthony Ashworth Steen
and Hannah Brady

In Kevin Costner’s 1989 film Field of Dreams, one philosophy underpins the success of a farmer’s dream to create a baseball pitch from a corn field for the good of the community: “If you build it, [they] will come.”

In the Jewish community, we too have sought success by following this approach. Driven by the mantra “if you build it, they will come”, we’ve seen the establishment of new clubs, community centres, movements, schools, shuls, and so much more. Yet whilst there are some examples of where provisions have flourished with great uptake, other initiatives have proven more challenging. Most problematic is that while numbers have diminished, many of us are left desolately asking, ‘why?’ It’s a story not too unfamiliar to those working in informal Jewish education. Very often, informal educators will conceive of truly fantastic programmes but will be confused as to why the sign up rates of young people are low. Our belief is that the reason for this disconnect comes right down to that belief in “if you build it, they will come.” Clearly, it isn’t working for today’s 21st Century teens.

Indeed, there has been significant societal change over the past 20 years, with the coming-of-age of the ubiquitous Millennials (people born 1981-2000).

The world of the under-30s has changed in ways we could never have even imagined in the Nineties. Communication has changed, the concept of communities have changed, expectations on young people have changed, Israel has changed, the economy has changed and pressures on young people have changed.

In research conducted by Keeter and Taylor (2009) in the USA, they identified that Millennials are confident, self-expressive, liberal, open to change, less religious, better educated, live with their parents longer and are the first “always connected” generation. As a community we fell into the trap of believing that if something worked for their predecessors, Gen X, then it must work for Millennials. Maybe it’s our own fault then that the results of this have been devastating with many programmes or institutions closing due to no other reason than a lack of willing participants. So now it’s time to take up a new challenge. Let’s address these issues fully, and with purpose, so that we get it right for the next up-and-coming generations of the British Jewish community.

Although little research has been conducted about the next generation, Birdwell and Bani (2014) have coined the term ‘Generation Citizen’ or ‘Gen C’. Their early study on this group of young people describes them as digitally native, tolerant, compassionate, motivated to tackle social issues, caring, enthusiastic and hardworking.

So, how do we avoid falling into the “if you build it, they will come” model for Gen C in a way that we may have failed to do for our Millennials? How can we build a new paradigm for the 21st Century?

The answer may be blindingly obvious, but something that is rarely done: to stop talking at, but rather, to listen to young people.

At the heart of learning how to listen – and, more importantly, to creating a space for young people to speak from – is understanding the differences between relational and transactional relationships.

More common in informal education provision is the mind-set of a transactional relationship:

we build programmes, we market programmes, we watch as people sign up for our programmes. Maybe it’s time we took a step a new direction, and think about adopting a relational approach. We can see the building of a programme as a joint venture with the prospective participants themselves. Perhaps this is a more effective way of creating investment in our programmes amongst those we wish to engage.

On February 28 and 29, Reshet (the newly established network for Jewish youth provision in the UK) is hosting its inaugural conference for the field of Jewish informal education, which we are delighted to be co-chairing. Research from the field indicates that the most pressing issue in informal education is figuring out how to work with young people in the 21st century. Consequently, the conference will explore four educational themes that impact upon how the newest generations of our community relate to Judaism and Jewish society: community, Israel, pressures on young people and technology.

We’re delighted to be hosting a range of presenters and speakers, including Dr David Bryfman (a leading Jewish academic on teens), Scott Fried (an international award-winning speaker and youth educator) and Shelley Marsh (an influential thinker on informal education in the UK), and of course some of our own community’s very best.

At the centre of all our sessions, however, is the incredibly important voice of young people. It was vital to us that this conference didn’t surround and discuss young people without giving them a direct platform for their opinions. It’s a model for how we’d like communication in our community to be.

Of course, young people are not just the future – or even a future that we’re at risk of losing to Facebook, FIFA and Netflix. Rather, they’re our present leaders. Through school societies, youth movements, UJS and social activism, they’re already creating the foundations that Jewish informal education rests upon, and without which, would begin to crack and crumble. To maintain a vision of the future that is vibrant, inviting and (most importantly of all), full to the brim of young energy, it’s upon us to start listening to what young people actually want (and at times are already providing for themselves). This Reshet conference is our opportunity to jumpstart a new kind of communicative practice; it’s down to communities all over the country to keep the trend working.

As a result of this, we’ll have the potential to move towards a new model of engagement – and indeed, a new communal philosophy – that can only benefit all of us: “if we build it together, they will come”.

Anyone interested in attending the conference can sign up – www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/reshet-21st-century-teens-conference-registration-20778151009

Anthony Ashworth Steen is the Director of Informal Education and Israel Engagement at UJIA, one of the leading communal organisations in the UK.

Hannah Brady is currently the first openly disabled and first consecutive female President of the Union of Jewish Students (UJS).