Intentional Community Building: The Missing Ingredient for Jewish Teens

By JustCity Leadership Institute staff

On the final day of the JustCity Leadership Institute last July, 18 teenagers hugged and said goodbye, ready to return to their regular lives. While this sight may be typical at the end of a high school summer program, there was something different about the way the lives of these students changed in just two weeks. In addition to forming incredible friendships and experiencing the excitement of New York City, JustCity participants adopted an entirely new worldview – one that will impact the rest of their teenage years as they continue to build Jewish lives.

JustCity is The Jewish Theological Seminary’s innovative precollege program, launched last summer in New York City with AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps, Camp Ramah, United Synagogue Youth, and the American Jewish Society for Service. JustCity takes JTS’s mission of learning, leadership, and vision in an exciting new direction by bringing together a diverse group of teens and training them in Jewish community-building, leadership, and social action. Designed for future changemakers, JustCity challenges high school students eager to engage with today’s social issues to think deeply about Judaism and social justice – and the ways young people can lead change at home and in the world. Participants also receive the benefit of living on JTS’s List College campus, where they have the opportunity to speak with college admissions advisors and learn about JTS’s dual-degree programs with Columbia University and Barnard College.

The most powerful takeaway of launching the JustCity Leadership Institute is how our immersive community model successfully empowered teens to form identities as Jewish leaders and agents of change. This reflects the findings on Jewish teen engagement that the Jim Joseph, Marcus, Schusterman, and Singer Foundations recently reported on eJewish Philanthropy:

  • The most successful programs put teens in the driver’s seat.
  • Teens today are an empowered generation. They know what they want, how to find it and how to build it. That’s why teens are most attracted to opportunities that allow them to take ownership for creating experiences, rather than simply consuming one-size-fits-all programs.

Over the course of the program, JustCity participants learned how to put their passion into action through hands-on leadership training, dynamic Jewish learning, skill-based workshops with social justice activists, community service projects, and intentional Jewish living. Each day began with a college-level class taught by AVODAH’s Rabbi Stephanie Ruskay that explored the connections between Judaism and social justice through challenging Jewish text study. After, they engaged in field work at locations throughout New York City, further developing their leadership skills and meeting with a range of notable social change leaders to gain direct insight into their methods and outcomes. The day often ended with a visit to a memorable, only-in-New-York cultural venue or event.

In their daily classes, leadership training, and field work, teens developed the tools needed to incubate innovation and maximize social impact. Further, they learned to identify root causes of complex social problems and were exposed to effective solutions. By the end of the program, participants also developed impressive personal action projects to address social issues that mattered to them, such as the education gap, gender equality, and environmental justice. Gaining this experience in high school – when new ideas have the power to drastically change the way we see things – can dramatically alter a teenager’s life and future.

The impact of the program on our JustCity teens, the New Yorkers they served, and the wider JTS community was very positive. In a post-program survey, the teens said they feel they developed critical leadership skills, deepened their commitment to social justice, and created community with new friends; they also said that JustCity afforded them a life-changing opportunity to develop their personal identity and grow as Jews.

Indeed, investing in teens at such a formative time in their Jewish identity resulted in powerful outcomes:

  • 100% of the students said they planned to lead change at home as a result of participating in JustCity.
  • 100% had specific plans for how they’d like to participate in social change, innovation, or activism.
  • 100% said that JustCity transformed them and made them think differently.

As alumni of JTS and AVODAH, we believe that another ingredient is necessary to successfully engage young people in lifelong Jewish practice: intentional community building. JTS has long been dedicated to creating dynamic residential-life communities that foster student development, identity formation, and experiential Jewish living and learning. JustCity participants come from across the country and represent a wide range of Jewish backgrounds. Building an intentional and pluralistic living community is central to our model.

In taking active responsibility for co-creating this inclusive Jewish community, including planning their own Shabbat programming, teens quickly learn how to become confident and creative Jewish leaders. While community is an integral component of the Jewish experience, self-directed groups are especially effective with teens. As developmental psychologists have noted, adolescents use their peers as an outlet for self-exploration and identity development. Our JustCity teens last summer felt this powerfully: they overwhelmingly ranked “community” as their favorite thing about the program.

As one institute participant said:

“I have no words for the incredible experience that JustCity was. It has changed me and I will never forget it or the amazing friends I’ve made. Meeting different Jewish teens who are passionate about social justice has restored my hope and drive. This program gave me a place to feel confident in my Judaism.”

The supportive environment JustCity participants created together challenged them to further explore their unique Jewish identities. For instance, only days into our first week together last summer, one participant volunteered to lead Shabbat services for her very first time. She had already felt a strong connection with her JustCity peers and was inspired to take on this new role in her Jewish life. She and her fellow participants worked with our staff to design a Shabbat service that was meaningful and comfortable for Jews of all backgrounds. Again she was supported beautifully by her peers.

The JustCity model demonstrates the key recommendations outlined by the Jim Joseph, Marcus, Schusterman, and Singer foundations. According to Marc Gary, executive vice chancellor and chief operating officer at JTS, it also reflects our extraordinary track record for developing active Jewish leaders. Mr. Gary, who served on our final “shark tank” panel, to which the students pitched their social-action proposals, found the JustCity teens “incredibly poised, confident, and self-aware. They demonstrated both passion and thoughtful analysis in devising creative solutions to many of the most difficult problems facing the Jewish community and society at large. JustCity clearly proves the value of intensive and immersive Jewish teen experiences.”

After a successful first summer, we eagerly anticipate watching future participants grow into the leaders they aspire to be. The application period for summer 2015 is still open. Visit us for more information or contact us at justcity@jtsa.edu.

Aliyah Vinikoor, LMSW, serves as director of the JustCity Leadership Institute. She is the associate dean of List College of The Jewish Theological Seminary, where she engages JTS-Columbia University dual-degree undergraduates and graduates in social action programming.

Ilana Krakowski is the current program leader for JustCity. She is a graduate of the dual-degree program between Barnard College and List College – as well as AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps. Ilana is a first-year rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts.