Investing in Jewish Teens: A Golden Opportunity for Action

Participants at 2014 BBYO International Convention (IC); photo courtesy.
Participants at 2014 BBYO International Convention (IC); photo courtesy.

By the Jim Joseph, Marcus, Schusterman and Singer Foundations

This week, more than 3,000 Jewish teens from around the country and across the globe will join together in Atlanta for three days of service, learning and celebration as part of BBYO and NFTY’s International Conventions. They will come from cities near and far, towns big and small, each on a leadership journey, all inspired to contribute to the future of the Jewish people.

We can think of no better moment to focus our communal attention on the vital importance of Jewish teen engagement and education.

That is why our foundations are simultaneously bringing together 250 Jewish philanthropists, foundation professionals and communal leaders for the first-ever Summit on Jewish Teens. Concurrently, the leaders of the major youth movements will run a Coalition of Jewish Teens Summit to set shared goals and present a coordinated plan for engaging and educating as many teens as possible about Jewish life and leadership.

These summits come at a time when we more fully understand the positive, long-term impact of engaging teens. Indeed, the good news is that study after study proves that when young people are involved in meaningful Jewish experiences during their teenage years, they are much more likely to be active, lifelong members of the Jewish community. They participate in Jewish life, take on Jewish professional and lay leadership roles, and build a strong connection with Israel and the global Jewish people. What’s more, they often directly credit the organizations and programs they participated in as teens for shaping their Jewish journeys throughout adulthood.

And yet, the bad news is that as far as we have come, we still have a long way to go before we fully address the disturbing fact that in most communities, an estimated 80 percent of Jewish teens drop out of Jewish life after their b’nai mitzvah.

As funders and community leaders, it is our responsibility to ensure that the post-bar/bat mitzvah years become an on ramp to, rather than exit route from, active Jewish life and leadership.

It will take continued hard work, significant additional investment and sustained commitment if we are going to realize the full potential for Jewish engagement and education during the teen years. We are sharing here a few of the lessons we have learned that we hope will encourage and guide increased investment in the teen space.

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.

BBYO, for example, has seen tremendous success basing its entire model around allowing teens to shape peer-led experiences – a philosophy that has helped them grow from engaging 12,000 to nearly 50,000 teens annually over the past decade. What they and others have found is that ownership inspires leadership and continued excitement to be part of a community that values members not just as consumers but as creators.

Likewise, Jewish teen philanthropy programs are attracting more and more participants by putting teens front and center, empowering them to make strategic philanthropic decisions that have direct impact on their local communities.

Talented Jewish youth professionals make a difference.

The North Shore Teen Initiative (NSTI), a pilot project supported by the Jim Joseph Foundation, provides another successful model, due in large part to the staff. NSTI invests in talented staff who, in turn, make a point of empowering teens to be involved in everything from event planning to recruiting friends to program implementation. Indeed, according to a 2013 study, “Effective Strategies for Educating and Engaging Jewish Teens,” it is that combination of empowerment and support from talented educators that best yields attractive and meaningful experiences.

Other organizations including BBYO, iCenter, Union for Reform Judaism, Foundation for Jewish Camp, Moving Traditions and Jewish Student Connection also understand the importance of investing in training and support to help develop professionals who serve as close mentors, role models and guides to our teens.

Service and Israel play crucial roles in teen experiences.

Service opportunities can be one of the most effective ways to engage teens in Jewish life. Teens are eager to join a community of like-minded peers and make a difference in the lives of others, as evidenced by Repair the World’s J-Serve, the American Jewish Society for Service, summer and gap year service programs and the overall increase in these opportunities and recurring findings from research about the millennial generation.

Likewise, opportunities to connect with Israel are effective catalysts for Jewish engagement. Teen Israel trips play a vital role in helping young Jews forge connections with their peers, with Israelis and with our beautiful and diverse homeland. Studies also show that the impact of an Israel trip actually grows over time, inspiring increased and ongoing involvement in Jewish life and with Israel.

Collaboration is key and leads to creative, new teen engagement opportunities.

It is fitting that the theme of BBYO’s International Convention this year is “Stronger Together.” As funders and communal leaders, we too are stronger together. As we push forward and take action to support and inspire teens, we should remember that no one foundation or organization can tackle this critical issue alone. Many of us are part of a Funder Collaborative that is focusing on how we can create local and national partnerships to help engage more teens in select communities across the country. Already we are seeing that through forming strategic partnerships, scaling innovative initiatives and strengthening the pipeline of continued engagement, we each have unique and vital roles to play.

Now is the moment for us to embrace those roles as part of a broader ecosystem with shared goals and outcomes. We have models of engagement that are working. We have teens who are hungry for opportunities to tap into something larger than themselves, to live as engaged global citizens and to find new ways to connect with Israel and to repair the world. We have studies that show the quantifiable impact of this work and its direct effect on the strength and vibrancy of the Jewish future.

But we need the communal commitment. There are many who are already doing important work in this space. We hope even more will join us, starting this week at the Summit in Atlanta.

Together we can scale successful models and seed new ones so they can reach and engage growing numbers of teens. With this strategy, a generation from now, the 80 percent figure may reflect the number of teens engaged with, rather than disengaged from, Jewish life. And we can inspire teens to have a love of Jewish life and learning, to actively work to strengthen our peoples’ future, and to draw on Jewish values as they create change in the broader world.