In This Together: A Team Approach to Teen Engagement

By Malka Levitansky and Hallie Shapiro

We’re all looking for that magic formula. That unique program, experience or methodology that will somehow not only engage Jewish teens in the present, but also keep them Jewishly involved on college campus and beyond.

Foundations, Jewish federations and individuals invest millions of dollars a year in engaging the next generation of Jews. At the same time, there are tens of thousands of Jewish youth professionals, some affiliated with youth groups and others with Jewish organizations, working in the trenches to reach Jewish teens and connect them to their heritage.

And there are educators, and consultants, and other experts contributing their expertise and then evaluating all of these efforts in search of answers.

But the solution seems to be eluding us.

Perhaps it’s because we are looking in the wrong place. Maybe it’s not about the what, or where, or how often, but the rather, it’s about the who.

Case in point: Big Apple Adventure

Last month, Midwest NCSY had the opportunity to run a 5-day immersive experience as part of Springboard, a community initiative created with support from the Jim Joseph Foundation, the JUF/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, and a consortium of local funders, to introduce more teens in Chicago to high-quality Jewish programs.

Last March, Springboard released an RFP asking local organizations to create new and exciting school-break experiences that would increase the number of teens actively engaged in Jewish life. Midwest NCSY submitted a proposal that would bring 45 teens to New York for five days of fun and inspiration, including visiting local attractions, touring the Jewish community, volunteering at Jewish nonprofits, and celebrating a traditional Shabbat.

Initially, NCSY planned to pattern the trip after its existing Jewish Student Union (JSU) trips, in which public school teens who participate in JSU clubs on public school campuses travel to other communities for fun, learning and Jewish inspiration. But it soon became apparent that Big Apple Adventure was going to be something different entirely because of the deep partnership between NCSY and JUF – which not only provided the financial backing, but also support and guidance from a variety Jewish youth professionals, consultants, marketing experts and many others, every step of the way.

Here are some specific examples of how the partnership shaped – and impacted – the ultimate program:

  • Our first challenge was to recruit 40+ teens for the program, with the knowledge that Springboard’s goal is to reach as many unaffiliated teens as possible. While Springboard promoted this program among its other spring break offerings, the fact that Big Apple Adventure was a joint NCSYJUF program helped NCSY garner the attention of many parents whose teens dont regularly participate in the youth group. Of the 45 teens who participated in the trip, only one had previously attended an NCSY program.
  • A JUF workshop on marketing and social media proved to be the impetus for the creation of a totally different type of marketing campaign, with an emphasis on social media. The presenter spoke of the need to communicate with both teens and their parents in two distinct voices, with two distinct messages. It took time and effort, but NCSY created separate media strategies for both groups, and ultimately succeeded in engaging not just teens, but their parents as well.
  • At that marketing training, the presenter also put great emphasis on making one’s target audience the “hero” in all communications. NCSY took that a step further, makingBe a Hero” – and Judaisms viewpoint on heroismthe educational theme of Big Apple Adventure. This helped shape our entire trip, and also proved to resonate with teens and parents alike.
  • A training on program design and evaluation also had a major impact on the program. NCSY identified goals, the steps needed to accomplish those goals, and the methods to evaluate our success in both the short and long term. Yes, we knew we wanted participants to strengthen their Jewish identity. Yes, we knew we were going to give them the opportunity to see the sites, volunteer and celebrate Shabbat. But what NCSY became adept at doing was creating a connection between those elements, and then almost automatically stopping itself, at each step of the way, to question whether what it was doing was in keeping with its goals, and whether it was the best way to get there.
  • Bi-weekly checkin calls with JUF helped NCSY staff stay on track and proved to be an invaluable opportunity to share, question and discuss just about everything with seasoned Jewish teen professionals, from the location of the hotel to the type of swag to order, to the kinds of follow-up events that would likely draw the greatest number of teens. And that sharing wasn’t limited to once every other week. The lines of communication were open wide the entire time, with emails and calls flying back and forth – and steadily increasing – as the trip drew nearer.

We’re proud to report that the trip was far more successful than we ever could have imagined. In the blog written by the teens themselves on the trip, many spoke of the “meaning” and “connection” the trip had engendered. Many of the parents expressed the same sentiment, especially after being able to watch the teens in action in New York, during Facebook Live events. As one parent remarked, “I feel so fortunate that my child received this opportunity to embrace and love her Jewish heritage.”

So was Big Apple Adventure a unique program? We’d like to think so. Are there aspects of it that other Jewish teen professionals can learn from? We believe there are.

But of one thing we are certain: The trip worked because it was a partnership; we were in it together. And by pooling our knowledge, creativity, expertise – and shared commitment to truly inspire today’s youth – we made it happen.

Malka Levitansky is Grants and Marketing Manager of Midwest NCSY. Hallie Shapiro is Associate Vice President of Community Outreach and Engagement at JUF.

Cross-posted on Jim Joseph Foundation Blog