by Barb Shimansky, MSW

I knew going into the Reform Movement’s recent Youth Engagement Conference that our Sunday morning trip to the First African Methodist Episcopal (FAME) Church would be a highlight of the weekend. Learning how another faith organization engages their youth would surely provide some insight into how we as Jewish professionals can do the same.

As 130 of us – educators, clergy, and lay leaders who work with Jewish youth – walked into the service, we were struck by church members who warmly greeted us outside on the sidewalk. This seemed like a no-brainer for creating a welcoming atmosphere until I put it into context for my own congregation in Wisconsin; standing outside the building in mid-February is not really an option there! Even so, the notion of how well the FAME members welcomed the stranger resonated, particularly because we often do not accomplish this commandment as well as we would like to think we do within our own Jewish communities and congregations.

The service itself was full of joy and spirit, and every single person in the congregation seemed to be engaged in the moment. The music was plentiful and uplifting. We were even pleasantly surprised when the pastor began his sermon and framed it in the text of Lech L’cha! (In English, of course; we recognized that as visitors, we Jews have a distinct advantage with regard to language over many who visit our Jewish congregations.)

After the service, we heard from a panel of FAME teens and the adults who work with them, who shared with us their thoughts on how they have been successful in the area of youth engagement. One teacher shared with us that his measure of engagement is whether the teens are on their phones or not during class. In fact, he identifies potential participants for his program by looking for those who are texting during a service. He invites those students to a religious school class to learn about the prayers so that they can eventually return to services with a greater appreciation and understanding of what is going on – and at that point, they no longer feel a need to be on their phones during a service. Instead of directing our teens to put their phones away as soon as they walk into a class or service, perhaps we should let them monitor usage themselves and use it as a measure of whether they are “with us” or not!

Among the biggest takeaways from the panel was how FAME frames everything they do within the context of worship. It is not that their activities vary so significantly from ours – the FAME teens also participate in religious school, youth choir, lock-ins, and community service – but everything they do is seen as a form of worship: Learning in the classroom helps enhance the actual prayer experience; the things we would call social action or tikkun olam are framed as direct service to God, and therefore a direct form of worship. Conversely, when we in the Reform Movement attempt to engage teens, we often try to steer it away from worship by saying things such as, “It’s a totally social event, there won’t be any services” or “Youth services are more fun than the ones in your congregation.”

While the adults at FAME try to help their teens connect more deeply to their worship experiences through everything else they do, we frequently try to diminish the presence of worship in the experiences we provide for Jewish teens. While we cannot completely emulate the FAME model due to some obvious liturgical differences, I am excited to start working on how we might take this approach and adapt it to our own framework for worship.

Barb Shimansky, MSW is the Director of Youth Education at Congregation Sinai in Milwaukee, WI. She has been in the field of Jewish youth and education for nearly 15 years, and has previously worked with congregations in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. Barb also serves as a summer faculty member at the URJ Kutz Camp, and is a newly-appointed member of the NATE Operations Team.