The Campaign for Youth Engagement: A Call to Action

by Rabbi Jonah Pesner

There have been several articles recently about the issue of engaging teens in Jewish life. Many claim to have found the golden ticket – the one program that can solve this problem. As it should be, this issue of engaging teens is at the top of the list for many in the Jewish community and we in the Reform Movement share both the concern and the excitement about how to engage the next generation. This problem will require numerous solutions, including expanding beyond the walls of our synagogues and indeed, outside our own Movement.

Our Jewish organizations are full of dedicated and creative lay people and professionals who successfully connect with youth, but still the facts are grim. Research tells us that if current trends continue, approximately 80% of the children who become b’nei mitzvah will have no relationship of any kind with their synagogue by the time they reach senior year of high school. And, even fewer will live their lives as active Jews.

What if we could reverse that trend? What if teens and their families found relevance, community, and purpose in their Jewish connections? How would our Jewish lives – now and in the future – be changed?

This is an issue that has concerned me from my own post-Bar Mitzvah days. When my father died suddenly only months after my Bar Mitzvah 30 years ago, it was the rabbis, youth group advisors and my camp friends who nurtured me through a most challenging time. To me, youth engagement is as personal as it gets. I know the impact that our synagogues camps and youth groups can have on young people searching for a community and shared identity.

But I also know that young people today have their own ideas about what they need. That’s why we went to the source – to the teens themselves, We also talked to practitioners for insight, conducting 1,000 grassroots conversations with teens, educators, rabbis, youth workers, cantors, administrators and lay leaders about what inspires teens and what does not. In these conversations several themes emerged:

  • There are many local success stories, mostly where communities have built long term relationships with teens and families beyond bar and bat mitzvah;
  • Front-line adults who work with youth can make a tremendous difference;
  • Immersive experiences (camp, Israel, service) continue to inspire longer term commitment;
  • Successfully engaging young families impacts the decision by teens and parents to remain involved after bar and bat mitzvah;
  • Success depends on creative partnerships with other organizations and institutions on a local and North American level to create new pathways for youth engagement.

If we are serious about youth engagement, we can’t just replicate another program – even one that works in the short term. We need a massive initiative, a focused, strategic effort to ensure that we leverage the full strength and talent of every corner of the Jewish world.

Our goal is nothing less than hoping that by the year 2020, we will have the majority of Jewish youth active in Jewish life.

Toward this end, the URJ has committed to putting significant money behind this campaign.

Secondly, we are committing to enhancing and supporting the wonderful professional youth staff that we already have. We will add more staff, more training, more mentoring and more support, we will have more full time youth professionals across North America and we will hire the very best youth professionals we can find. We will not only grow our staff, but will also grow their capacity to mentor and train teen leaders through and beyond synagogues to engage their peers. We are also committed to partnerships in order to increase our youth engagement professionals’ reach. In addition to collaboration with HUC-JIR, we are beginning conversations with BBYO, Hillel, and local federations about how to work together to train more youth engagement professionals to reach more kids.

Thirdly, we commit to growing our camping and Israel programs. The vast majority of Jewish children does not attend a Jewish summer camp or participate in an immersive Israel program. In the years ahead, we will increase enrollment at our camps by as much as thirty percent and expand the type of immersive experiences available. We will also explore partnerships to send more young people to Israel at younger ages and for longer periods of time. And, we will enhance our service learning work, also in partnership with those who are engaging in this important work now.

For the URJ, our congregations and their work in their communities are the heart and soul of our movement. That’s why we will provide challenge grants for local innovation in our congregations. The incubator grant program offers funds to local congregations to experiment with new modes of teen and family engagement. Synagogues are required to plan carefully, build evaluation into the process, and be prepared to diffuse the innovations they discover. The innovation grant program enables us to test ideas on a local, community-wide level. For example, in the weeks ahead, the URJ will launch “teens engaging teens” in which congregations can apply for funds to train teen leaders to reach out to under-engaged peers. This program will also require planning, evaluation, and a process to diffuse innovative practices.

How will we know we are successful? The URJ will conduct a rigorous process of evaluation and accountability to learn from pilot programs, and consequently to adjust the strategies based on real learning. We also realize the vision will require the broader resources of the wider Jewish community (and learning from the non-Jewish world as well). We welcome dialogue within the broader community. Our goal is not to build the Reform Movement alone; rather is it to play a catalytic role in the creation of the Jewish future.

Rabbi Jonah Pesner is Senior Vice President, Union for Reform Judaism.