The Future of Engaging – and Re-engaging Jewish Youth
By Lenny Silberman
“This is massive – what an opportunity to get in on the ground floor,” said David, as we watched thousands of enthusiastic young fans pack the Barclays Center this past September.
David is David Bryfman, Chief Innovation Officer of The Jewish Education Project.
And the opportunity?
I had invited David, along with a dozen other Jewish communal and philanthropic leaders, to witness the esports phenomenon firsthand at the Barclays Center during ESL One, the largest event of its kind on the east coast in 2017.
More importantly, I asked David to be there to participate in a conversation on how outreach to Jewish youth will be revolutionized – by esports.
What are esports?
If you’ve never heard of esports, get ready. Amazon, ESPN, NBC, Disney, Turner, and Coca-Cola – along with the NBA, the Yankees, Mets, the Patriots’ Robert Kraft and many others – have made multi-million dollar investments in the field recently, positioning themselves to connect with vast audiences in the coming decades.
That’s right: decades. These brands and dozens more are betting big that esports will be a central part of American and World culture for the next 20-30 years.
Also known as electronic sports, esports (also written “e-sports,” or “eSports”) refers to organized, multiplayer, competitive video gaming on a scale that rivals and resembles traditional professional sports. Teams and individuals compete in games like League of Legends, Dota 2, Rocket League, and Madden NFL, and have legions of fans following their play via YouTube, Facebook, and the live-streaming platform Twtich. The growth in popularity of esports is nothing short of meteoric, with a global audience in the hundreds of millions and a market projected to generate $696 million this year.
Esports are by no means a strictly professional or market-driven phenomenon. The International Olympic Committee is considering making esports a medal event at the 2024 Games in Paris. Colleges throughout the U.S. field esports teams, many offering scholarships to attract top players, and some approaching official varsity status. The Big Ten has launched its own esports league.
And the teen space is already becoming the next frontier. This year, teams from every high school in Connecticut will compete in an 8-week regular esports season, culminating in a state championship tournament. Other states’ school systems are lining up to participate as well.
Educators at the college and high school levels see a connection between esports and academic achievement. They see esports as a great way to interest students in technology, and to teach many of the skills that will be in demand in the 21st Century economy.
I see, in esports, an unprecedented opportunity to engage young people in Jewish life.
What’s Jewish about video gaming?
Our Jewish institutions face more challenges than ever in engaging children, teens, and young adults. Millennials and Generation Z have a dazzling array of distractions via information and entertainment media literally at their fingertips. And they have grown up with powerful social tools through which they form their own communities.
In other words, today’s youth simply don’t “need” us the way they once did, even as we face incredible competition for their attention.
If we expect kids to come to us, we’ll be waiting a long time. But when we meet them on their territory – and make an initial connection through one of their passions – we can open doors to Jewish connections through our JCCs, camps, youth movements, and day schools.
So what’s Jewish about video gaming? The same thing that’s Jewish about basketball.
In the 1980s at the Pittsburgh JCC, we invested a lot of heart and soul into our basketball program, and the kids responded. It was cool, it was fun, it was a happening. Kids wanted to be a part of it. We grew from a very small program to over 1,000 boys and girls of all ages participating.
Basketball brought them in the door, and then we moved them on to participation in youth department activities, youth musicals, tikkun olam projects, and summer camp. They stayed involved at the JCC long past bar/bat mitzvah age, and their families stayed involved as well. Many of those kids are now leaders in the Pittsburgh Jewish community and other Jewish communities throughout North America and around the World.
I’m proud to say that for many of them, the first step in their Jewish journey was a game of hoops.
Dreaming in color
In the early days of that program, I told my supervisor I wanted to take a group of our teen athletes to a new Jewish sports tournament in Memphis. He looked at me like I was crazy. “You’re going to drive 14 hours across five states to play basketball?!”
It was 1982, the inaugural year of what became the JCC Maccabi Games. And to be fair, my supervisor wasn’t the only one with doubts about the idea. “It’s just sports,” the skeptics said. “Who wants to do all that traveling and pay all that money for just… sports?”
I’ll tell you who: teenagers.
Twenty years later we were welcoming 6,000 Jewish teens at upwards of five JCC Maccabi host cities. And the driving engine of the Games’ tremendous success was teens’ passion for sports.
Once we got the kids to the Games, taking them “from sports to Jewish” was as simple as going from point A to point B. Meeting other Jewish athletes from all over the World was not only exciting, and an eye-opener for our kids, but also an indelible introduction to Klal Yisrael. We built relevant, engaging Jewish content into the Games – the Rachmones rules, Day of Caring & Sharing, the Munich 11 tribute, Israel Hang-Time, etc. – and transformed the thrilling experience of competing far from home into an indelibly Jewish communal experience. It’s one that has impacted nearly half a million Jewish kids, and counting.
Half a million Jewish kids. Just sports? You tell me. Sometimes it’s the dream that sounds “out-there” at first that goes on to change the World.
The new basketball
The popularity of esports to the youth of today and tomorrow is undeniable. It’s what rock ‘n’ roll was to the Boomers, or what the internet was for the Millennials.
For me, I think of it as the new basketball.
Esports competitions and tournaments through a communal gaming platform would bring youth through the door on a scale we’ve never imagined. Given the enthusiasm for esports and the low barriers to spreading the word in the digital age, a stretch-goal of having 250,000 Jewish kids competing around the World in various tournaments within two years is not unrealistic. That’s a pretty significant captive audience to be engaged and re-engaged in organized Jewish life.
Unlike traditional sports, involvement in esports is not limited by athletic ability or geographic proximity. Participation is open to all, and at relatively low cost. Just like basketball, it’s cool, it’s fun, it’s a happening – and now it’s global, too. And the best part? It never has to stop. Not at the end of a school year, not the end of summer, not at the end of a sports season, not at the JCC Maccabi Games’ week of competition.
Imagine Jewish camp bunkmates staying connected year-round through online tournaments. Imagine three seasons of JCC Maccabi-type e-competitions, culminating every summer in a championship at the Games. Imagine URJ campers competing against Ramah campers, Yeshiva teams playing Solomon Schechter teams, and BBYO teens squaring off against their NFTY counterparts. Imagine youth in Pittsburgh competing against and communicating with not just youth in Atlanta, Phoenix and Toronto, but with their peers in Ramat Gan, Kiryat Shmona, and Sderot. Or for that matter, in Buenos Aires, London, and Mumbai, as well.
Imagine teens building Jewish connections, Jewish friendships, and Jewish relationships, as they extend their experiences at camp, at the JCC Maccabi Games, at the JCC, at day schools, at their youth group into ongoing interactions.
Imagine Jewish youth who otherwise might not enter our doors at all reached by a global gaming platform that reflects and educates about the Jewish calendar. One that promotes opportunities for in-person activities at local Jewish institutions. One that harnesses the power of connectivity to engage young people in tikkun olam projects around the globe.
Esports will get them in the door. Informal Jewish experiences, with a few carefully curated formal experiences crafted in partnership with Jewish educators, will do the rest.
For the moment, we’re ahead of the trend. But there’s no doubt that the esports ship is sailing soon and our kids will be on it.
The question is whether the organized Jewish community will explore and invest in this platform and be there as well.
Lenny Silberman is CEO of Henry Kaufmann Campgrounds in New York City. He was the continental director of the JCC Maccabi Games from 1994-2008.