Strengthening Global Jewish Peoplehood One Friend at a Time

Teens are eager for the keys to the car (literally and figuratively). They are not interested in being passive consumers.

Teens at BBYO 2014 IC (International Convention); photo courtesy BBYO.
Teens at BBYO 2014 IC (International Convention); photo courtesy BBYO.

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 16 – Developing Teen Leadership with a Peoplehood Orientation published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By David Rittberg

This past February, Atlanta trembled with the raucous cheers of over 3,000 Jewish teens from around the world. They came from the U.S., Bulgaria, Israel, Chile and many other countries to take part in the annual BBYO International Convention. The excitement was palpable. The hall was packed not with mere acquaintances, but with co-captains, co-dreamers and co-builders of a more vibrant Jewish future. It was full of teen leaders who felt deeply connected to one another, to their peers back home, to Israel and to the global Jewish people.

It was a beautiful scene to behold, and as funders and Jewish professionals, we know that doesn’t happen by accident or circumstance. Organizations like BBYO, NFTY and others have been laying the groundwork to ensure that every Jewish teen has the opportunity to connect with Jewish values and traditions, engage with Israel and the Jewish people and find their place within a global network of peers eager to make a difference.

At such a crucial moment for Israel and the Jewish people, how do we ensure that scenes like the one in Atlanta grow and multiply? What’s in the secret sauce?

For the ingredients, we at the Schusterman Family Foundation have joined with our colleagues and partners in turning to teen leaders themselves and organizations of all sizes that support thriving teen networks, as well as undertaking substantive evaluation and research of these efforts, to identify common principles.

Offer teens the chance to feel transcendence and belonging. Teens want to feel and actually be part of something larger than themselves. That is why, rather than engaging teens in silos, BBYO members are intentionally connected to a vast network of peers across the globe and asked to build the Jewish future alongside one another. They share more than an association or a common membership. They join each other as brothers and sisters on the ground working to make their shared goals a reality. As a result, their bonds are real and lasting. This is true for both teens who see themselves as Jewish leaders and those who are still exploring what Jewish thought and values mean to them. The two groups complement each other and create a powerful whole – and both deserve experiences that engage and inspire them to grow their leadership abilities and strengthen their Jewish identities.

Let teens take the reins so that they might form leadership habits that last well beyond the teen years. Teens are eager for the keys to the car (literally and figuratively). They are not interested in being passive consumers. They want to create, build, recruit for and run experiences themselves. That’s why successful teen programs put teens in the driver’s seat. When teens are empowered to create the Jewish life they and their friends want to participate in, they rise to the occasion in truly amazing ways. They grow as community organizers and inspire others to join them, partner with them and become leaders in their own right. By giving them the ability to share ideas and develop networks, teens are able to make more of an impact on their communities and chart a course of similar engagement for the future.

Provide in-person opportunities and digital channels for ongoing connection and leadership development. We know by now that teens never stop communicating with each other. (For an important take on this topic, check out Danah Boyd’s It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.) Their ability to stay connected is not limited to any one format or location. They crave IRL (“in real life” for those without teenagers in the house) connections and, at the same time, fully expect to stay in touch in a variety of digital spaces. It’s up to us to offer all of the above: programs and opportunities that speak to the interests of teens as well as access to virtual networks and experiences that allow for continued engagement. A greater emphasis on integrating both the online and in-person will not only foster greater social cohesion, but also help teens build stronger, more persistent social networks they can tap into for future community- building activities.

The Jewish community is blessed with a rising generation with tremendous potential to shape a bright future. Their potential, however, is not realized alone. To truly empower teens takes the guidance of dedicated mentors, facilitation by savvy professionals and the support of multiple organizations collaborating to serve them effectively. It takes effort on all of our parts to spark and sustain a path for teens that help them to feel the joy of Jewish life and peoplehood.

Our efforts will be well worth the payoff. However challenging the world becomes, we have before us a generation that is redefining what it means to care for, include and celebrate one another. They are shaping what a global Jewish people can look like today and setting the stage for future generations to do the same. Our job now is to support and amplify their efforts so that all teens find their place in this groundswell to the benefit of the Jewish community and beyond.

David Rittberg is a Senior Program Officer at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, a global organization committed to igniting the passion and unleashing the power in young people to create positive change in the Jewish community and beyond.