New Frontiers: All Kinds of Entry and Re-entry Points for Jewish Engagement

by Sandy Edwards, Ph.D.

A new MA program in Experiential Education and Jewish Cultural Arts recently launched at George Washington University. Funded by the Foundation, it is indicative of a guiding principle that effective Jewish learning occurs both inside and outside the classroom – and that highly qualified educators are needed for institutional and experiential settings.

As the Foundation prepares a model documentation report of the North Shore Teen Initiative (NSTI), a Jewish teen engagement and education model in Boston’s North Shore community, a key takeaway is the effectiveness of Jewish service-learning opportunities with this audience.

And finally, my Foundation colleagues are collaborating with other foundation professionals on research about the Jewish Outdoor Food and Environmental Education (JOFEE) movement. Preliminary results of the research indicate significant growth in this space over the past decade.

Why am I listing these three seemingly unconnected grantees? Because they are in fact connected by an underlying theme: Jewish engagement and education has myriad entry points. While this concept may not be a new understanding, we are learning more about the potential of these experiences for achieving the vision of the Foundation: an increasing number of young Jews who engage in ongoing Jewish learning and choose to live a vibrant Jewish life. Moreover, we are gaining a deeper understanding of how these experiences serve as re-entry points that can trigger sustained Jewish engagement.

Key characteristics of effective entry and re-entry points:

Ownership of experiences – Different entry points offer the opportunity for young people to select one most comfortable for them. While some young adults may not feel “at home” in a traditional Jewish learning environment, they may have previously participated in secular community service, for example. As a result, the opportunity to engage in more Jewish service learning experiences may be appealing. They begin that experience already with a knowledge-base that can lead to a sense of ownership and and enable them to help their peers navigate the experience.

Relationship to non-Jewish friends – Along with service-learning, a cultural or outdoor experience lends itself to participation by non-Jews. Why is this important? Firstly, many youth and young adults lack a vast Jewish social network, although they may be attracted to a Jewish activity. If they can have non-Jewish friends accompany them, they may be more inclined to initially participate in a Jewish experience. Secondly – and certainly related to the first point – these entry points are experiences that are easy to discuss and relive with non-Jews. Young Jewish adults who attend a Jewish art exhibit during the day can easily explain that experience to their group of friends – Jewish or not – at the bar that night.

Integrating Jewish and Secular – Less traditional Jewish experiences blend secular interests such as music or food, for example, with Jewish learning. At a time when people are used to inter-connectedness in so many facets of life, the framework of a familiar experience can heighten interest and lead to further engagement.

Re-Entry Points

While entry experiences, such as music, service learning, food, outdoors, etc. may engage young adults in Jewish learning for the first time, such experiences are also effective in engaging young Jews who became b’nai mitzvah or participated in Jewish experiences in some way as children. While we have a large population of young Jews who had positive experiences when they were younger, they never had an opportunity to experience how Judaism can be relevant to them as an adult. For young Jews who choose to re-enter Jewish life, their initial experiences as children may not have been entirely positive. The Jewish experiences being created by the Foundation’s grantees are examples of how young adults can connect to non-pediatric Jewish learning that relates to their adult interests.

For example, the research underway about JOFEE shows that approximately 60% of young adult survey respondents had a period of disconnect from Jewish life. A significant number said JOFEE brought them back.

Gaining More Understanding

Many of these possible entry and re-entry points are still in their early stages of development. We have much to learn. While we know that thousands of people are engaging in Jewish service learning or JOFEE activities, we don’t yet know what this engagement looks like long-term and whether it results in ongoing engagement with Jewish learning opportunities. Simply, what does it mean that someone blends a love of farming or cooking or hiking with Jewish values?

The new Jewish engagement and education experiences are helping us understand emerging forms of Jewish expression that will matter perhaps in the same way that saving Russian Jews or gender equality in Jewish life mattered to previous generations.

As our community continues to make sense of the Pew study, the concept of various entry and re-entry points highlights a conundrum. We no longer can measure whether someone is connected to Judaism based exclusively on synagogue affiliation. For many, “doing Jewish” occurs through a range of experiences. And, these experiences are more than just entry and re-entry points. In fact, more and more young adults opt in to these experiences as their ongoing Jewish engagement.

We recognize the present opportunity and will continue to look for future worthwhile investments that create compelling learning experiences for young Jews. Of course, these investments will occur as we learn more about the long-term outcomes of experiences and we gain a deeper understanding of their potential for increased Jewish life.

Sandy Edwards, Ph.D., is associate director of the Jim Joseph Foundation. This piece is cross-posted on the Foundation blog.