USY Embarks on Transformational Change

By Dana K. Prottas

Youth service organizations are embarking on a new decade of innovation and engagement for Jewish teens across the country. Part of this pivot stems from the monumental Jewish Education Project’s recent study, which is the largest study of American Jewish teens ever conducted – almost 18,000 teens. GenZ Now: Understanding and Connecting with Jewish Teens Today demonstrates in their research “an unprecedented understanding into who these teens are, what they care about and want, and to some extent, what the Jewish community can do to enhance their lives as people, and as Jews.”

USY, USCJ’s Youth Movement, was privileged to participate in this study with 13 other national youth-serving organizations. Through this process we examined the full scope of our programming – who attends USY, our strengths and areas for growth. What was unanimously clear is that USY provides tremendous benefit for those teens who participate. Across the board, according to GenZ Now, teens who participate in a youth-serving organization score higher on almost every measured outcome, including teens connecting to being Jewish, teens feeling good about themselves, their relationships and their ability to make change in the world.

With these outcomes in mind, USY is embarking on a transformational change to evolve our model and program to meet the needs of our teens across the country. For almost 70 years, USY has been the foundation for the Conservative Jewish teen experience. As the Conservative and broader Jewish world evolves, so, too, do the needs of our teens and our program. This week USCJ unveils its strategic plan, the Roadmap to Strategic Success and Operational Sustainability, which calls for the organization to achieve a balanced budget. This will be accomplished through several major cost savings measures, including the relocation of USCJ’s New York office, redefining staff positions to align job descriptions and key performance indicators, and regrettably, reducing our employee headcount.

In this day and age it is imperative that programs for teens evolve with our changing world. The future of youth programming relies on the traditions of the past and the innovation of the future. We have been working on USY’s evolution based on long held traditions while striving to create a strong, vibrant future for our teens. It is clear that USY in the future won’t look exactly as it did 70 years ago – and, in fact, it shouldn’t! Our change process began in 2016 and we are taking additional steps to continue moving ahead in this evolution.

During the next few months, USY will roll out the following new initiatives:

~ Increased Engagement Opportunities

At USY, we work hard to empower teens to engage with the Jewish community in authentic ways. We will be providing new, exciting and innovative opportunities for current USYers and those teens not-yet-involved to participate in our programming and chapters across North America through new peer-to-peer engagement, stronger Kadima programming for tweens in grades 5-8 as a bridge to USY, and the inauguration of USY programming in non-traditional settings, such as schools and camps.

~ Fresh Partnerships and Collaborations

USY will expand its programming through creative, engaging partnerships and collaborations with organizations both inside and outside the Conservative movement, including the Ramah Camping Movement, the Jewish Education Project, Keshet, AIPAC, Noam Olami and other national teen initiatives. These partnerships will allow for new opportunities such as cost efficiencies and leveraging relationships for programming and educational offerings. Our recent partnership with the Center for Israel Education provided an unparalleled program with significantly reduced fees due to a unique grant.

~ Ongoing Professional Development Investment

We are fortunate to have such amazing talent working for USY. Going forward we plan to invest more in our staff by providing training that will result in shared languages, experiences and competencies – from the chapter level to the regional and international levels. In fact, many of our USY staff has been trained in Youth Mental Health First Aid (YMHFA) and some of our senior staff are certified trainers.

~ A New Regional Engagement Network

This summer we are reimagining the USY map while maintaining the history, identity and continuity of USY and our regions. Teens will continue to see their friends from across the region at their chapter, regional and international events. We will also continue to offer all our signature programs, including International Convention (IC), Summer Experience (Wheels & Pilgrimage) and Nativ, the college leadership program in Israel.

Now is the time for teen programming to continue evolving and innovating. At the same time, we understand that the change process is complex and challenging. At USY we are proud to have a dedicated and passionate team working together with our teens and families to build our USY of the future built around both tradition and innovation. We invite you to be our partners in this exciting next chapter of USY.

Dana Kanter Prottas is the Senior Director of Teen Engagement for USY/USCJ. As a graduate with master degrees from JTS, HUC-JIR and the University of MN, she has received honors and awards as an educator and curriculum author. Prottas is a participant in the second cohort of the Generation Now Fellowship.