Welcoming the Stranger, Just How Open Should Our Jewish Teen Programming Tent Be?

by Ira Miller

I was interested to read Billy Planer’s blog post “I Have Met The Enemy of Jewish Teen Engagement and It Is US” and the conversation it has inspired. I’ve known Billy for years and have always been impressed with his work and the incredible programs he runs, including Etgar 36.

Billy makes an excellent argument about appreciating new “non-traditional” programs and seeing them as worthy recipients of funding, scholarships, and grants. I’m hopeful that he will help open the eyes of some the incredible philanthropists in the Jewish community who are looking to invest in programs that are different, exciting and impactful.

As one of the “gate keepers” that Billy refers to, however, I do see things a bit differently in terms of how we “guard the borders.” Though I can only speak for myself, I do not consider it a failure when teens from my congregation involve themselves in Jewish activities outside of our congregational walls, whether it be in BBYO, at Alexander Muss High School in Israel, or in programs sponsored by the JCC, Federation, or our local Jewish Education Agency. Rather, I try to support and celebrate our teens’ Jewish involvement wherever it takes place. When our teens are elected to their BBYO Chapter boards, I congratulate them just as I do when they are elected to the board of our temple youth group. When our teens visit Israel, even if not on a NFTY or Reform Movement program, I am simply thrilled that they have made the choice to visit their Jewish homeland.

As a congregational youth worker, the challenge is to determine which programs are excellent and which are not; which are well-planned, well-supervised, well-organized, and which are not; and, for Reform congregations, which programs are open and accepting of liberal Judaism, where our students will not be chastised or criticized or made to feel “less” Jewish because of their religious choices. The moment I put a brochure out at temple for a program, the families at my congregation believe I am endorsing it. The day a table appears in our front lobby with a representative from an outside organization, my community believes we are partners with them.

Unfortunately, no formalized process exists for outside programs to earn a stamp of approval. Multiple times a month, congregations are contacted by representatives of “other” programs that do not fall within the typical gates of a congregation or movement. Some of them may be incredible, and we may be missing out – but it is simply not possible for us to be well-informed on each of them. To determine which programs do meet our standards and which do not is an incredibly challenging, if not impossible, task. Perhaps now is the time for a national Jewish organization to create an accreditation process to let those truly outstanding programs be recognized rather than restricted by this dilemma of missed opportunities.

At the same time, if the goal of independent programs is to reach under-engaged youth, I find it interesting that those who run these programs rely so heavily on recruiting through congregations. If Etgar 36 came to my congregation to advertise their program, I know exactly which kids would flock to the table – the same ones who come to my youth group events and never miss a week of confirmation classes. There may be other kids in the room who would be interested in this type of program, but because they are not as involved in congregational life, might perceive it as too “institutional.”

My hope is that in addition to strengthening relationships with congregations and existing institutions, providers of independent programs will also explore new ways to engage Jewish teens and reach beyond congregational walls by expanding their marketing to websites, schools, community newspapers, and elsewhere. Pushing more product through the overstuffed pipeline of congregational recruitment efforts will not allow us to engage more teens. It will simply allow us to re-engage the same teens over and over again.

Ira Miller has worked at Washington Hebrew Congregation since 2002, first as Director of Youth Programs and more recently as Director of Informal Education.