Needed: Adult Mentors, Models for Youth Participation and a Pipeline of Youth Professionals

by Rabbi Bradley Solmsen

As the Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ) Campaign for Youth Engagement delves into a strategic planning process to determine how best to engage a majority of Reform Jewish youth by 2020, we are thinking much about the content in the Jim Joseph Foundation’s recently released report, Effective Strategies for Educating and Engaging Jewish Teens. Based on our learning to date, I have come away with three lingering thoughts:

  1. One of the keys to engaging youth will be engaging a large number of adult volunteers;
  2. We must look for new ways for teens to engage as participants and not only as leaders; and
  3. We have a major challenge regarding our pipeline of youth professionals.

I agree with Deborah Meyer’s assessment that adult mentors are essential to Jewish teen engagement. If we can improve adult engagement and increase their interaction with teens, then we can build a honeycomb of engaged Jews of all ages, ready to participate in their Jewish communities on multiple levels. We can no longer rely solely on our Jewish professionals to engage with teens. This needs to be a community-wide effort and demands reflection on the part of our professionals and lay leaders. We should utilize more adult volunteers to expand the reach of staff, especially in areas of specialized content. Every organization has a large number of adults with skills that are being underutilized. We are thinking about artists, lawyers, scientists, architects, and many others. These adult volunteers could become mentors and explore with teens how Judaism connects to their particular interests and professional lives. This would create more opportunities for teens to connect with and become engaged in the life of their community. The adults too would learn a tremendous amount from their teen protégés.

In the congregational world, most models for teen engagement mimic adult models – encouraging teens to become leaders and serve on boards. But are these the most effective models and messages? Do these models really allow for inclusion of the largest number of teens? Do they harness their interests and talents? The answer is a resolute, “No.” We have been working with our NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) staff to create new models that, we hope, will lead us to a “yes.” We are revising the criteria we currently employ for leadership in order to explore ways to engage more teens and cultivate their skills and interests. For example, in many of our NFTY regions, teens elect ONE social action vice president. But what about the other candidates? Where do they go? Are we overlooking many of our teens because the current system only allows for one person to fill various leadership positions? Perhaps we could change this model to create opportunities for all who are interested and qualified? We also have an unfulfilled obligation to better prepare more of our youth for a larger number of communal roles. Another question we have been asking is, are those who “merely” participate valued? Or is leadership so esteemed that those who do not become leaders feel alienated? We need to find ways to value all the teens who engage in Jewish life, so that they feel welcome, respected and appreciated. Our message to too many teens is that the only way to participate is to lead. But why don’t we recognize that just showing up and being fully present is meaningful? We need to offer many ways to be involved.

Lastly, we have a real challenge around human resources. Unfortunately, there are not enough of the right people considering a career working with youth when it should be one of the most esteemed positions in the Jewish professional world. Everyone seems to recognize that the survival of the Jewish people relies on youth engagement, but youth professionals are often, underpaid, undervalued and an afterthought. We need to invest more in youth professionals, give them more respect and better ongoing, long term support.

I believe successful youth engagement will depend on creating opportunities for adults and teens to be involved in the Jewish community together, finding new models to accommodate the variety of interest and skills of teens and investing much more in our youth professionals.

Rabbi Bradley Solmsen is Director of Youth Engagement for the Union for Reform Judaism.