To What End? New Benchmarks for Measuring Jewish Youth Engagement

Campers 2By Miriam Chilton

We often measure success by the numbers: In 2015-16, about 8,000 teens attended a NFTY event; more than 10,000 kids will attend our URJ summer camps; 2,000 teens and adults will travel to Israel; 300 teens will make a difference around the world with Mitzvah Corps this summer. And yet, as exciting as these headlines are, what is the point? What’s the goal of investing precious time and valuable philanthropic dollars in expanding our Movement’s youth engagement efforts?

Research recently released by the Jewish Education Project suggests new outcomes for the Jewish community in evaluating teen experiences. The report, “Generation Now: Understanding and Engaging Jewish Teens Today,” argues for a paradigm shift in the way we design programs for teens. Dr. David Bryfman suggests that the experiences we organize – and our motives for doing so – can no longer be about how we make these teens more learned or how they can strengthen our organizations. Instead, he suggests:

  • Experiences should develop the “whole person,” not just their Jewish identity.
  • Teens want to make a positive impact in the world and seek experiences that will set them up for success.
  • Talk to teens, in their language, and accept them as they are and not where they are on their Jewish journeys.

While taking in these findings, I found myself reflecting on our vast network. In many ways, we are already well-aligned to deliver the outcomes the research encourages. Through the Campaign for Youth Engagement we have set out to engage teens on their own terms and help them find meaning, purpose, and joy to better themselves, their communities, and the world. As a Movement, we can answer the four core questions that adolescents are asking themselves as their identity develops during these critical years:

Identity: “Who am I?”

Jewish teens want to feel connected to various communities and establish a strong sense of self. URJ Camps (where enrollment has grown 14% since the introduction of our first specialty camp in 2010) offer young people the chance to explore this question and develop lifelong skills in a safe, nurturing Jewish environment.

Belong: “With whom am I connected?”

Jewish teens want to develop strong friendships and relationships with mentors and feel connected to multiple and diverse communities. NFTY offers teens genuine mentorship by caring adults, leadership, and advocacy skills, and new friendships in inclusive, stress-free environments.

Peoplehood: “To whom am I responsible in the world?”

Jewish teens seek authentic dialogue and relationships with Israel. Our Israel programs offer teens the opportunity to explore our Jewish homeland on their own terms.

Making a Difference: “How can I bring about change in the world?”

Jewish teens want to make a positive difference in the communities in which they live. Mitzvah Corps connects teens to like-minded peers and communities around the world, offering a holistic approach for pursuing social justice.

Alone, the numbers are just numbers. When taken in light of these new findings, though, they tell a compelling story of success. This is why we celebrate that we’re reaching 23,000 unique youth and teens this year. This is why we get excited when we open a new program, and why we continuously seek your help to inform Reform congregants about these experiences.

Each of these unique participants is being given the chance to find their own way, to develop their voice, and to become the best version of themselves today, with the skills to flourish tomorrow. This is only the beginning. Let’s celebrate.


Miriam Chilton is the URJ’s Vice-President of Youth.

Cross-posted on URJ’s Inside Leadership Blog