Putting Teens at the Center

by Reuben Posner

Professor Eleanor Duckworth, a cognitive psychologist and educator, suggests that the purpose of all education is to encourage the “having of wonderful ideas.” She writes that these ideas “need not necessarily look wonderful to the outside world… The more we help children to have their wonderful ideas and to feel good about themselves for having them, the more likely it is that they will some day happen upon wonderful ideas that no one else has happened upon before” (Duckworth, 2006).[1]

At Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston (CJP), this is our point of departure for effectively educating and engaging our Jewish teens. We believe this approach will ultimately help teens understand that Jewish life is both relevant and meaningful, and most importantly, that they are active partners in shaping their Jewish journeys.

By intentionally investing in strategies that support teen creativity, that build the capacity of teens themselves to contribute to teen life in Boston, and that enable teens to engage their peers, CJP hopes to educate and engage the next generation of Jewish teens in greater Boston.

How we got here and how we hope to get there

In 2010, Rabbi Dr. Ariel Burger, CJP’s Director of the Commission on Jewish Life and Learning (COJLL), conducted an in-depth examination of our local teen landscape in order to establish core design principles and to identify opportunities to strengthen our work with Jewish teens in Boston. From the very beginning, building partnerships was key. In addition to local partnerships, one element of this process from the outset included ongoing conversations with the leadership of the Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ) Campaign for Youth Engagement.

We were encouraged to see that our own internal recommendations for Boston closely mirrored the key recommendations that emerged from the national research report, “Effective Strategies for Educating and Engaging Jewish Teens.” Subsequently, we joined the national funder collaborative and engaged in a process with the Jim Joseph Foundation that led to the Boston community receiving the first Foundation grant of this kind as it experiments with a new model of a National and Local Funder Collaboration.

Jim Joseph Foundation dollars are enabling CJP to do more for teens than it could have done alone, and providing momentum within the community to support this work. In addition, participating in a national collaborative:

  • Connects CJP to thought partners from around the country, exposes CJP to new ideas, and expands our understanding of what is possible;
  • Opens up opportunities to combine forces with other communities considering similar projects, such as the development of a database of Jewish teen programs;
  • Helps CJP understand how efforts in Boston relate to other initiatives happening around the country;
  • Provides CJP with the opportunity to share the strategies it finds successful in Greater Boston so that other communities can learn and benefit from our work.

As we developed our new communal strategy, Margie Bogdanow, a colleague with a unique perspective that comes from being both a consultant to CJP and a member of the URJ’s Campaign for Youth Engagement team, reflected about the challenge of collaboration and cultivating authentic partnerships. She said to me, “Collaboration is hard.” It is a simple truth that many of us understand but sometimes forget. And it’s worth the effort because bringing everyone together helps create a unified movement whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Other important lessons we’ve learned along the way:

  • Listen to stakeholders: Don’t begin with an idea that you seek to validate, begin with a challenge that you want them to help you solve;
  • Work with implementation partners from day 1 (include both local and national players);
  • Involve prospective investors early in the process;
  • Continue learning after plans are in place. We are funding pilots and beginning to develop plans for an evaluation to keep the learning ongoing throughout the grant period.

Our strategy and how we’ll know it’s working

The initiative has four strategic priorities: (1) developing and implementing “The Design Lab,” which will empower Jewish teens to become designers of their own Jewish experiences by teaching them design thinking theory; (2) building up communal infrastructure in order to increase awareness of the variety of options for teens; (3) supporting the growth and development of teen education professionals; and (4) deepening CJP’s current investments in effective teen education programs. To read about our strategy in greater detail, click here.

The questions we will ask ourselves to help us gain a deeper understanding of our strategy and evaluate its effectiveness are: How and to what extent is the Initiative increasing, deepening and connecting Jewish learning for teens across the Boston Jewish community? Are more young Jews having (and feeling like they have) a place in the Jewish community where they can, and do, actively engage and nurture their whole selves after their Bar or Bat Mitzvah? At the end of the day, our commitment is not to our new strategy, it is to ensuring teens have and feel like they have a place in the Jewish community of Greater Boston.

A final thought

In a different essay, Eleanor Duckworth asserts that “knowing” an answer is not an active virtue because it “requires no decisions, carries no risks, and makes no demands.” She goes on to write that, “The virtues involved in not knowing are the ones that really count in the long run. What you do about what you don’t know is, in the final analysis, what determines what you will know” (Duckworth, 2006).

I think most people who care about the future of the Jewish people agree that we need to do more to educate and engage more of our teens. What no one knows for sure is the most effective way to go about doing that. This has not prevented the Jim Joseph Foundation from committing to work with communities around the country as they experiment with new models for educating and engaging teens. We in Boston are thrilled to be wading into the unknown in partnership with the Jim Joseph Foundation, the other federations and foundations in the funder collaborative, and our national and local partners.

Reuben Posner, Director of Youth Engagement, manages Combined Jewish Philanthropy’s Jewish Overnight Camping Initiative and serves as lead professional in developing and implementing the growing Teen Education and Engagement Initiative within CJP’s Commission on Jewish Life and Learning (COJLL). Under the leadership of Rabbi Dr. Ariel Burger, COJLL’s vision is a community engaged in lifelong learning that enhances Jewish identity and fosters a passionate commitment to Jewish life.

[1] Duckworth, E. (2006). “The Having of Wonderful Ideas” and Other Essays on Teaching and Learning. New York: Teachers College Press.