By Alex Pomson and Melanie Schneider
Some of the most powerful memories from childhood are associated with summer: the riotous sound of crickets at night; a first sighting of the Milky Way; the hot sensation of a campfire on one’s face; or for those not able to get out of town, the intrigue of long hours left to one’s own devices. These moments gain their special force from breaking with the chores and routines of the school year.
For many Jewish adults, summer is associated with their childhood experiences of overnight camp. For six weeks or even longer, their foremost task as campers was to release the stress and constraints of school in the company of peers. Such programs might have recruited only a small portion of Jewish young people, but for many educators and parents they still constitute a kind of gold standard for immersive education and experience. Camp modeled an alternative society, and sometimes an explicitly Jewish one too.
In recent decades, these cultural patterns have dramatically changed. Overnight camps have been offering ever shorter programs. An increasing number provide 12-day/2-weekend experiences. Providers are being squeezed by diminished patience for multi-week programs, by a shrinking public’s ability and willingness to pay the fees associated with a full summer program, by the pressure teens increasingly feel to utilize summer experiences to enhance their resumés and by their interest to engage in a range of activities over the long stretch of the summer.
Against this backdrop, the New York Jewish Teen Initiative was launched in 2014. This ambitious effort to create new models of summer programing for Jewish teens, and to increase the numbers participating in Jewish experiences, is a partnership between UJA Federation of New York and the Jim Joseph Foundation within the framework of the Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative, which includes national and local funders from ten communities. The Jewish Education Project serves as lead operator of the Initiative, which is being evaluated by a team from Rosov Consulting. Ahead of a third summer of programming, it is appropriate to take stock of what we’ve learned so far. A full report is available here.
Over its first two years, the Initiative incubated a cohort of eight new summer programs for teens. A second cohort of six programs will be launched this summer. The first cohort was extremely diverse in its offerings. It included a service learning trip to the South, a pop-up/design-thinking catering initiative to serve seniors, Jewish surf camp, a theater camp, and different internship programs. Perhaps the only common feature was that these were not overnight camping programs. They included daytime programs in the New York area, an Israel experience with a vocational twist, and a challenging service learning program out of the city.
For all their diversity, there are some general learnings to be derived from these first two years of activity, about teens, Jewish teen programs, and the teen summer program ecosystem.
Stretching and Breathing: The summer marketplace may have changed, but in important respects teens have not. They seek opportunities to make friends and have fun with friends. At the same time, they want to be challenged, learn new skills, make the most of their time, and find meaning, (at least that’s the case for these young New Yorkers). When teens reflected on what they most enjoyed about these experiences they highlighted how the programs provided a chance both to learn AND to have fun. These programs demonstrate the promise of a model where intensity and relaxation, what we call “stretching and breathing,” can be experienced at the same time.
By offering something different from regular summer experiences, the programs provide teens with frameworks that speak deeply to their own personal interests, and that enable them to find themselves. As one teen told us, “that was the most myself I’ve ever been.” And – no less important – teens have a chance to find others. Paradoxically, by taking participants out of their comfort zones, the programs enable them to connect and form new friendships with other Jewish teens who share their interests. This relational core is compelling especially when accompanied by a sense of authenticity, self-worth and achievement.
Programs finding a Jewish voice: In their first year, program-leaders were anxious about being perceived as too Jewish in their messaging and content. In the second year the programs found their Jewish voice. On the one hand, they did so in diverse fashion: by infusing social action work with Jewish texts or Jewish role models; by developing modes of Jewish spirituality and religious meaning; or by broadening their participants’ encounter with the global Jewish community. On the other hand, the programs did develop a common Jewish ethos, one captured succinctly by a program director as helping “teens discover the extent to which Judaism is a framework for teens’ lives.” None of the programs promoted a particular ideological or denominational vision of Judaism. But, they did all share the same aspiration to demonstrate to teens that Judaism, and being Jewish, has potential to be relevant.
This is no small matter. Even while reaching out to and engaging a diverse group of teens – with varying levels of prior Jewish experiences and commitments – the programs demonstrate that it is possible to conceive of Jewish education in terms that are broad, inclusive, and meaningful, and to publicize this fact.
Startups in a legacy market: The cohort of new programs incubated by the New York Jewish Teen Initiative face an additional challenge. They are competing in a space where the dominant players are either legacy programs that have been in operation for years, and often generations, or are programs that recruit returnee-participants year after year. With the exception of one program, the Initiative’s programs are not designed for returnee participants. Even when the programs are housed at brand-name institutions or are led by well-known organizations, their challenge is to gain attention and traction for new offerings and experiences in a highly-congested general teen summer marketplace. These circumstances mean that recruitment has been the greatest challenge the programs have faced. Some of the original cohort have fallen by the wayside. Only now as Year 3 begins can the first cohort say that they have really found their market. And, even then, the intense work of meeting families and gaining their trust continues.
Evidently, it takes a few years to achieve the kind of traction programs seek, especially when the day-program model that most offer is itself a departure from the overnight norm for this age group. At a time when stakeholders often seek rapid returns on their investments, these teen programs demonstrate that, like so many other memorable summer experiences, good things take time.
Dr. Alex Pomson is Managing Director at Rosov Consulting. Melanie Schneider is Senior Planning Executive, Jewish Life Department, at UJA Federation of New York.