Insights from The Greenhouse: A Platform for Teen-Led Social Innovation

By Rebecca Schumer

It’s a challenge Jewish educators have faced for generations: after their bar/bat mitzvah, most American Jewish teens abandon ties to the Jewish community.

Two years ago, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, senior rabbi at New York City’s Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, urged his congregation to address this challenge. “It is our synagogue’s responsibility to figure out how to keep young Jews attached to Jewish life,” he said in his Yom Kippur sermon. “What is more important than assuring the next generation – without which there will be no Jewish life?”

On Rosh Hashanah, Stephen Wise launched The Greenhouse, a city-wide platform for teen-led social innovation. The launch was the culmination of an exhilarating nine-month process powered by design thinking, a collaborative problem-solving methodology.

We hosted focus groups, online surveys, interviews, and workshops that engaged more than 300 teens and parents from all over New York City. We also spoke with dozens of educators and entrepreneurs, rabbis and youth ministers, and artists and program designers to ensure that we approached our assignment with partners from both within and beyond the Jewish community. Here are our top insights about New York City Jewish teens:

  • Teens want to volunteer – for everything. They want to support causes and communities that represent the many layers of their identities. They are interested not only in direct service work, but also in learning how they can drive long-term, systemic change.
  • Digital is their language. They belong to many physical and digital communities. This means that impressionable and inspiring moments are super diverse and happen 24/7.
  • Also known as the “slash generation,” our teens want to be who they are, wherever they are.
  • They aren’t defined by one set of behaviors or interests. They have deeply integrated identities, and are most likely to participate in Jewish experiences that fit naturally into the lives they already lead.
  • They live and learn in a (mostly) progressive bubble, and may or may not be prepared to navigate a college campus, internship, workplace, or local community that challenges New York City’s unique personality.
  • Religious observance level aside, the majority of NYC teens are proud of their Jewish identity and culture, and if anything, want to better understand why… and more artfully articulate this nuanced and deep-rooted feeling and belief.
  • “Teens are people, too.” We must empower our teen community to own the experiences that we’ll be designing together.

Guided by this powerful set of findings, we came up with sixteen different concepts to consider. By summertime we selected our prototype, a social impact design lab. The Greenhouse, our newly imagined platform for teen-led social innovation, will house an exciting array of year-round pop-up programming, semester-long social impact challenges, and unique travel experiences at the intersection of social innovation, Jewish values, and the global Jewish experience.

Designed by inspiring activists, educators, business leaders, and social innovators, these offerings will teach teens how to be critical thinkers, creative problem solvers, impactful storytellers, and creative social entrepreneurs, and will empower them to take these skills – and a deeper understanding of their own nuanced identity, purpose, and passions – to college, work, and beyond. We will incubate creative social impact products and services that are designed by our teens, and will put the most viable ones into the world.

And though The Greenhouse primarily engages Jewish teens and their peers, we’re also forming a new kind of Jewish community for NYC adults who wish to serve as role models, mentors, speakers, and hosts. (If you are interested in participating, email join@greenhouseimpact.org). We also invite you to offer suggestions regarding the ways in which The Greenhouse can develop strong, mutually beneficial, and maybe even unusual partnerships with nonprofits, businesses, universities, think tanks, social ventures, and startups.

Our vision is big and bold, and our success will be linked to our collective ability to inspire the next generation to be agents of change. As we build out our infrastructure and community, we’re cultivating a mindset that is key for any creative endeavor: We’re not afraid to fail. We will work with thousands of teens to co-create experiences that speak to Gen Z’s intellectual and social needs, and we will listen, iterate, and pivot to make The Greenhouse a living, breathing platform whose community defines its future.

Rebecca Schumer is Chief Innovation Officer of The Greenhouse, a project of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue.