No Experience Necessary – USY’s Epic Summer Pivot

By Rabbi Joshua Rabin

Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”
Thomas A. Edison

I’m still heartbroken.

I’m definitely not the only one.

A few weeks ago, USY cancelled our summer programs for the first time in our almost seventy-year history. We were not the first, nor were we the last.

And yet one of the most important things people can do in times of acute stress is express hakarat ha-tov, gratitude, and these days I find myself with an abundance of gratitude.

As it became clear that running our summer programs would be an impossibility, my biggest concern was that the staff who spend all year working on these programs would fall into despair. From the outside looking in, few people realize how much time experiential educators must toil in minutiae in order to bring to life the trips, camps, and experiences that change lives. What happens when all those programs grind to a halt; does that mean that “the work” grinds to a halt, as well? Of course not, but when the optimal experiences are taken out of the picture, there is no way for that not to impact intrinsic motivation.

However, beneath every stumbling block is a stepping stone, and after the team at USY reached the sad conclusion that our trips would not take place, work began on a more interesting design question: How might we serve as many Jewish teeangers as possible when thousands of those teenagers will wake up one day with their summer plans cancelled?

Enter myUSYfi Summer.

myUSYfi Summer is a completely digital operation for USY summer programs, spanning the needs of children from grades 5-12 across North America. On paper, much of what we are offering is similar to any summer program, including Israeli dancing, improv games, and Talmud Torah. And yet three principles underlie our approach to myUSYfiSummer that we believe reflect the future of teen engagement when this crisis subsides:

  1. No USY Experience Necessary: All youth-serving organizations (YSOs) face the same major challenge, namely that the community teens form in our organizations is the most compelling reason the experience is impactful, and yet the community can also be the hardest thing for a new teen to penetrate. The beauty of myUSYfi Summer is nothing we offer depends on having USY experience.
  2. Lower Cost, Lower Barrier: Before COVID-19, the field of teen engagement faced a funding crisis, where most organizations offered amazing programs whose prices continued to inexorably rise. Minus a few premium classes, a child can sign up for myUSYfi Summer and attend unlimited programs for $99 for the entire summer. Costs for teen engagement programs are inelastic, and running everything remotely enables us to test how much our future can be ensured at a radically lower price.
  3. Disrupt the Model From Within: Does the future of teen engagement require that USY eliminate membership dues, lessen the importance of hierarchical leadership, and take a more expansive approach to who we bring into Jewish Community? Perhaps. myUSYfi Summer allows USY to test our assumptions while not presuming a particular future.

Any of the above features of myUSYfi Summer represent challenges that USY experienced as an organization prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and they were questions we needed to grapple with no matter what happened this year or in years to come. Yet I find myself experiencing deep gratitude today that we are able to use this time as a chance to take a deliberate pause and ask ourselves who we are and what we can be.

By nature, I am skeptical about grand predictions, as the evidence suggests that most Jewish thought leaders are no better than predicting the future than “dart-throwing chimps,” as has been amply demonstrated in fields including financial investment and political analysis. So I am cautious when I hear someone tell me that the COVID-19 pandemic is going to “change everything,” and you should be too.

That said, it’s certainly possible that this pandemic will disrupt most sectors of Jewish life, particularly experiential education. And a few weeks ago, I woke up in the middle of the night bursting with worries about how USY’s business model could be changed forever. And I suspect I’m not the only one.

And yet as has been suggested a number of times on eJewishPhilanthropy in the midst of chronic prognostication is the importance of scenario planning, imagining different futures and safely testing different possibilities of what could be as the emerging future presents itself. Paul Schoemaker writes in the MIT Sloan Management Review that,

“Good scenarios challenge tunnel vision by instilling a deeper appreciation for the myriad factors that shape the future. Scenario planning requires intellectual courage to reveal evidence that does not fit our current conceptual maps, especially when it threatens our very existence. Nonetheless, what may initially seem to be bleak scenarios could, in fact, hold the seeds of new business and unrecognized opportunity.”

I know very few visionary thinkers in the Jewish community who also have expert knowledge about global health, virology, or epidemiology. As such, any of us planning for the Jewish future need to recognize that there is much we will not know about the future until we are told by someone who knows more than we do. And that lack of knowledge only reinforces the need to experiment in ways that will make us ready for the future as it presents itself.

I hope we do not live in a world where USY cannot bring together large numbers of Jewish teenagers to be together in song, study, prayer, and action; but it’s possible. And because it’s possible, USY and all of us need to imagine a world that shatters the traditional models. Watching these possibilities unfold throughout myUSYfiSummer will be an incredible ride, a journey to see what can be today and tomorrow.

Rabbi Joshua Rabin is the Senior Director of USY. USY empowers exceptional Jewish teens to create exceptional Jewish experiences. You can read more of Josh’s writings at www.joshuarabin.com. If you are interested in signing up for myUSYfi Summer, click here.