Turning our Teenagers into Social Entrepreneurs

By Rabbi Jesse Olitzky and Andrea Fleishaker

Social Entrepreneurship is the buzzword in the Jewish community these days. Rather than waiting for the established leadership and organizations within the Jewish community, social entrepreneurship encourages grassroots development and implementation of ideas. Organizations like PresenTense, the Joshua Venture Group, Bikkurim, and UpStart have become incubators for new ideas and future innovators in Jewish communal life. The programs that have been launched, thanks to the support and guidance of these organizations, have led to advancements in spiritual connections, educational experiences, and justice work within the Jewish community. The goal is to spread such entrepreneurship to all facets of Jewish communal life.

While recent studies and statistics may suggest a declining affiliation with established institutions and communal organizations, there are an unprecedented number of “start-ups” within the American Jewish community. There is still a constant demand for new ideas, and the rise and acceptance of social entrepreneurship has allowed those ideas to become promising and impactful projects.

Jewish youth groups and camping have been successful at educating and empowering our teens for well over half a century. Youth groups are the bedrock for creating future rabbis, educators, and leaders of Jewish communal life. Our own personal experiences in United Synagogue Youth (USY) and Camp Ramah have led to us to where we are now, as a Conservative rabbi and Conservative Jewish educator, respectfully. Knowing the impact that USY has on cultivating leaders, we decided to take an unprecedented next step and turn our USYers into social entrepreneurs as well.

Our congregations, Congregation Beth El and Oheb Shalom Congregation, both located in South Orange, New Jersey, have a shared USY chapter as well as a shared teen learning component. Our teens are astute observers of their environments, often recognizing things that they feel are lacking or unjust, yet feel uncertain about how to make effective change. As such, we’ve decided that rather than teaching and inspiring our teens in hopes that they will eventually become leaders within our communities, we are teaching them to lead and create their own start-ups, now. Through our shared USY chapter and teen learning module, our teens will become social entrepreneurs, researching the needs of our communities, and learning about leadership, change, and evolution. Ultimately, our teens will break into groups and come up with ideas about how to change and evolve the spiritual, educational, social, and social action facets of our communities.

Like a version of the hit television show “Shark Tank,” our teens will pitch their idea to “sharks,” to Jewish communal professionals, with the winners receiving monetary investments from our congregations to enact change and to turn their ideas into reality. While social entrepreneurship is becoming a challenge to Jewish communal life as we have known it for many years, we believe that this groundbreaking work in the youth group world will help to further empower our teens to shape our communities both now and in the future.

If we truly want our teens to be the leaders of tomorrow, then we must allow them to be the leaders of today. We must encourage them to shape our communities, to add their own influence to the communal blueprint, and to create what our communities will look like. We must encourage our teens to become social entrepreneurs. We are supporting the teens of South Orange USY educationally, administratively, and financially to become such entrepreneurs. For the sake of the future of the American Jewish community, we urge other youth groups to do the same.

Rabbi Jesse Olitzky serves as rabbi of Congregation Beth El, South Orange, NJ and Andrea Fleishaker is director of the Zeman Religious School at Oheb Shalom Congregation, South Orange, NJ.