NFTY Convention Youth Summit, 2015: Blowing the Roof off in Atlanta with Hope, Challenge and Double Espressos

NFTY Convention 2015 - Opening Night Celebration; photo courtesy NFTY.
NFTY Convention 2015 – Opening Night Celebration; photo courtesy NFTY.

By Julie Fingersh

Want to feel hopeful about the future of the Jewish people? Land yourself in downtown Atlanta at the URJ NFTY Convention and Youth Summit Weekend. Sit back and watch “The Big Moment,” when 3,500 NFTY and BBYO teens from all corners of North America and beyond nearly blow the roof off the Hyatt with their energy, joy and conviction. Feel old and proud as you watch these teens celebrate, learn, pray, sing and agenda-set their way towards changing the world.

Want to feel the weight and the challenge of our Jewish future? Go to that same conference as a representative of your congregation. Participate in the URJ’s pilot Shared Leadership Incubator program. There you’ll discover, in session after session, just how complex an art and dance it is to create meaningful programs that will help congregations and our broader communities capture and engage youth in their Judaism for the long-haul.

As board members at Congregation Rodef Sholom of San Rafael, California, Hali Croner and I attended the conference with our rock star professional team of Lara Regev and Brandon Brown as part of the pilot Shared Leadership Incubator Program. There, we were joined with lay and staff leaders from seven other congregations from across the North America.

Our goal? To learn and explore new models of engagement. To learn tools that might help us chart the course for the next generation of youth programming. And, as one of our members drolly observed, to try to wrench ourselves out of our youth program mentality of the 1990’s.

What did we learn? Still processing. But here are five takeaways we’ve taken to heart.

Let’s get this branding thing rightand start ‘em early. Watching from the sidelines, us adults were awed at the fierce, loving and clearly life-long bond between these kids, their Judaism and a literally worldwide community of Jewish friends. This was a crystal clear manifestation of how it works: Jewish camp = involvement in youth groups like NFTY and BBYO = lifelong membership to an identity-defining, magical world of Jewish life.

Even as a Jewish day school graduate and strongly-identified Jew, I’ve never seen anything like it. And frankly, I couldn’t feel more remorse at my own choices. Had I witnessed this scene 10 years ago, our kids would have gone the URJ camp route, no opinions asked.

Our congregations and the URJ need to work even harder to learn how to brand and communicate this message: Jewish camps build Jews and mensches like nothing else. A parents’ choice to send their kids to a URJ camp is an almost foolproof on-ramp to a world of love, grounding, acceptance, and lifelong connection to a powerful trifecta of Jewish living, Jewish values, and Jewish friends.

We’re not alone. New York City. New Jersey. Dallas. Charleston. A tiny town outside of Boston. What we found was, no matter how large or small the Jewish community, no matter how assimilated or unified, we lay and professional leaders still struggle with the same question: how do we engage our Jewish youth long-term? One answer for sure: we need to build stronger networks to each other. We need to work in partnership with the URJ’s deep and dynamic resources, to focus on building systems to share program models. We need to stop trying to reinvent the same wheel in every community. We need to spend more time innovating together.

The enduring dilemma: relationship-building vs. Jewish content. How do we balance the need to teach Jewish content with the reality that many kids – gulp – feel glazed over by conventional teaching of Jewish content? Truth is, for many kids, hanging with friends is the main draw to religious school or youth group. But how far do we go with the current trend of putting more focus on social engagement at religious school? How enduring will our youth’s commitment be to Jewish living and learning if they aren’t meaningfully educated about their history, religion and language? We learned – surprise, surprise – that there are no easy answers here. But identifying the right questions is key. Also key? We need to embrace the need for both parts of the social and educational equation, and get creative in cracking the code for our market and community.

Design Thinking and beyond. When it comes to creating successful youth programming, we’re smart to look to the corporate world. We can’t just speculate about what turns our kids on. We need to learn tools to help us get into their brains. We learned a methodology based on “design thinking” to help us identify the barriers to entry and innovate those barriers away. It takes creativity. It takes an understanding of social currency and how to achieve it. It takes recognizing the role of family context in Jewish involvement. It means tapping members of our community to share the latest thinking on customer service and understanding the market. It takes getting out of the 1990’s.

Let’s take a cue from the kids. We had to laugh at the difference between us and the kids at the conference. Each morning as we made our way to our respective learning sessions, the teens were buzzing with clarity, optimism and petitions to end gun violence. Us? We were standing semi-stupefied in the 2-mile line at Starbucks, hoping our double espresso macchiatos would help wake up our brains.

We adults get a little tired. A little daunted at the task at hand. But let’s take heart. Let’s gather strength from the promise and energy of our kids, no matter where our programs are in their continuum. Here at Congregation Rodef Sholom, sure, sometimes we worry about our numbers. But all we need to do is look at the kids we do have, and know our potential.

And that’s all you’ve got to do, too. Just look at that group of kids hanging there in your social hall or pouring out of their classes. See how they’re kinetic with energy, life and love for one another? That’s not just youth or hormones. That’s Jewish connection.

That’s the joyful energy, the power – and the potential – of the next generation.

Our job as parents, educators and lay leaders is this: Keep our eye on the prize, use the yiddishe keppes that have served us for centuries, and keep moving ahead.

Julie Fingersh is a board member at Congregation Rodef Sholom, San Rafael, CA.