The Unprecedented Explosion of Now

Teen conferences offer chance for youth, adult thought leaders to collaborate on engagement for a Jewish future

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

By Maayan Jaffe

An unprecedented explosion of now that could have tremendous impact on the Jewish future will be erupting between Feb. 12 and 16 in Atlanta, Ga.

Four different but associated conventions focused on teen leadership and engagement will coincide in “The-A,” connecting more than 3,000 Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and unaffiliated Jewish teens, philanthropists and thought leaders. The meeting place and classroom will include inspiring speakers, learning opportunities, platforms for dialogue, a Shabbat experience and community service hours.

BBYO’s International Convention (IC) 2015 five-day summit will host upwards of 2,000 teens from across the North America and the Jewish world. The schedule includes 20 leadership labs for teens on the topics of advocacy, globalization, Israel, leadership, marketing, philanthropy and more. According to Ian Kandel, director of Aleph Zadik Aleph (AZA) and B’nai B’rith Girls (BBG) and the Teen Movement, BBYO teen leaders are expected to dialogue about issues of equality for transgender teens, about how to engage young adults with Israel, about ways to reduce world hunger and about the need for greater inclusiveness for those with disabilities.

“We use the convention to champion these values of the organization,” said Kandel. “We ask: ‘How do we make Jewish involvement more accessible, approachable and available to every Jewish teen?’ … We are very determined to leverage the movement’s muscle to make a difference in our local Jewish communities. The teens really enjoy driving that.”

courtesy Union for Reform Judaism
NFTY Convention 2013; courtesy Union for Reform Judaism

Simultaneously, the youth of the Reform teen movement – North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) – will gather at their own summit. Those teens, said Rabbi Bradley Solmsen, director of youth engagement for the Union of Reform Judaism, will debate methods to prevent gun violence, what teens can do to reduce sexual assault on college campuses and the role youth can play in improving race relations in the States.

“We are very committed to social justice and we will be thinking about how our teens can make the world a better place,” said Solmsen.

However, while the hot button issues may seem different at first, BBYO and NFTY leadership believe the agencies have a lot in common. And those similarities will be showcased through a series of joint learning and leadership sessions between teens from the two organizations. According to Solmsen, there will be multiple opportunities for the groups to work together, to make efforts to identify issues important to teens in both youth groups and to “ratify why it is important for all Jewish youth to speak with one voice, when they can.”

Kandel told eJewish Philanthropy that dialogue about closer ties between BBYO and NFTY began more than a decade ago, but it was only about four years ago and with ever-frequent reports of teen disengagement that a relationship was pushed and formalized.

“We can help each other,” Kandel said, noting that BBYO is reaching only about 45,000 of a potential 350,000 Jewish teens. According to Solmsen, roughly 10 percent of Reform Jewish teens are engaged in NFTY or other Reform youth programming. In general, only 20,000 to 30,000 young Jews are engaged in denominationally-based youth groups each year, according to estimates from field practitioners; this is out of the approximately 450,000 teens ages 13 to 18 reported by the latest National Jewish Population Survey.

The impact of engaging teens is well-known. A research study titled “Effective Strategies for Educating and Engaging Jewish Teens” conducted by the Jim Joseph Foundation found that, “When young people engage in effective Jewish learning experiences as adolescents, they are more likely to choose to live vibrant Jewish lives as adults.” A separate study titled, “It’s Not Just Who Stands Under the Chuppah,” which was published in 2008 by the Steinhardt Social Research Institute, found that experiences of Jewish living, education and friendship play the largest role in determining who will go on to live a richly Jewish life.

“It’s a strategic partnership,” said Solmsen. “We have a lot of work to do.”

Coordinated Collaboration

And so do the other youth groups and Jewish philanthropists who hope to play their own role in these collaborative efforts for a Jewish future. Two other features of President’s Day weekend in Atlanta are particularly unique: a convening moment for the Coalition of Jewish Teens (CJT) and the premier of the Summit on Jewish Teens.

CJT will bring together leadership from the five major youth movements – BBYO, NFTY, NCSY, USY and Young Judea – for 24 hours to strategically plan ways Jewish teens across the world can work together to build a stronger, more united Jewish community. The Summit on Jewish Teens, hosted by the Jim Joseph Foundation, the Marcus Foundation, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the Paul E. Singer Foundation, gathers the community’s most influential thought leaders and philanthropists to converse with each other and with teens about how to engage this sometimes elusive teen audience in Jewish life.

USY International President Hailee Grey, a senior at the Alan C. Pope High School in Cobb County, Atl., says that since taking on her role as international president, she has seen the value of learning from others who might be different from her.

“We all have the same goal in mind,” Grey told eJewish Philanthropy about the opportunity to be a part of CJT. “I am going in with an open mind and ready to learn.”

Grey said that USY is her “happy place” and she hopes to inspire others to be a part of a Jewish youth movement. She also hopes to deliver a powerful message to Jewish philanthropists and leaders: “Jewish teens today are really driven and we have a grasp on how the times are changing. We have a view of how we want to see the future.”

This is a message that Lisa Eisen is hoping her colleagues will hear loud and clear.

Eisen, vice president of the Schusterman Family Foundation, spearheaded the Summit on Jewish Teens and says she is excited about the buzz it is creating. She worked with partners to bring together these Jewish leaders and said she hopes 24 hours will be enough to demonstrate the efficacy of an investment in Jewish teens.

“Investing in Jewish teens is one of the smartest investments people who care about building a Jewish future can make,” Eisen said.

She explained that in her research she has learned that the programs that work best are those that put teens in charge.

“They need to be teen inspired, teen led, and engaging them in issues they care about and that they can make a difference about,” said Eisen, noting she is seeing a rise in the popularity of teen philanthropy and in teen voluntourism, and hopes her partner philanthropists will see the need to invest more in these opportunities.

Added Solmsen: “Too many adults don’t realize that [investing in teens] is not just making sure youth are engaged, it is the future of adult Jewish life, too.”

Maayan Jaffe is senior writer/editor at Netsmart and an Overland Park-based freelance writer. Reach her at or follow her on Twitter, @MaayanJaffe.