By Daryl Messinger and Jim Heeger
The entire Jewish community must face the multi-faceted challenge of engaging our youth. Our collective Jewish future depends on it. No single approach, organization, funder or community will succeed if we do not think and act differently than in the past. That’s why we are flying across the country from California to attend the Summit on Jewish Teens in Baltimore next month. We need to challenge our working assumptions if we are to infuse North American Jewish life with the creativity, passion and commitment of our youth.
We know this from our own experience. Five years ago, the two of us sat down to discuss the question of “what’s next?” Where and how do we want to direct our time and resources?
We both had served as president of our congregation; we were deeply involved in planning a major renovation of URJ Camp Newman; Jim was the president of Stanford Hillel and was coaching the founder and CEO of Moishe House; and, Daryl was the incoming president of the Oshman Family JCC – a $15M “start-up” JCC in the heart of Silicon Valley – while her role on the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) North American board was expanding.
We understood that our efforts and resources could easily be spread thin and our impact dissipated. Instead, we chose to leverage our time and effort by choosing a single focus. Indeed, what was “next” for us was an increased focus on engaging many more young Jews. Our reasons for making this commitment were both personal and communal:
- Our friends were dropping out of Jewish life. The post b’nai mitzvah drop off wasn’t just affecting teens; it was impacting the vibrancy of the entire community.
- We believe in the power of immersive Jewish experiences that happen at Jewish summer camps. We know that “camp works,” yet we saw a need to bring the power, professionalism, and possibilities for transformative engagement of summer camp to the rest of the school year.
- Numbers matter. The population of Millennials and Generation Z is 40 percent larger than Gen X. We must acknowledge the enormity of this opportunity. It is essential to develop strategies that harness the innate drive, creativity, idealism and energy of today’s youth.
- We have seen that the communities that invest in youth grow to become stronger communities overall. In these communities, young people and their parents are involved in significant and substantive ways.
- Importantly, many of the young Jewish leaders with whom we work had transformative Jewish experiences as teens, and we, as a community, will rely on them to step forward as leaders as they progress through life stages.
We weren’t alone in recognizing the need for significant investment. In fact, around the time we were strategizing about how to leverage our resources on the local level, a national shift was taking place as well. Large North American philanthropists were stepping up to strengthen youth engagement. At the same time, organizational change was underway. BBYO was transforming and new entrepreneurial ventures were growing and forming. There was a fresh willingness to collaborate and innovate across organizations and communities.
In particular, in December 2011 the URJ Campaign for Youth Engagement (CYE) galvanized the entire Reform Movement to commit to engaging the majority of teens in Jewish life by 2020, and Daryl was appointed the lay leader to help implement the CYE strategic plan – a key element of which is year-round teen engagement.
Today, we’re determined as ever to make sure that teens are supported in playing a pivotal role in Jewish life. That is why gatherings like the Summit on Jewish Teens are so important. The Summit on Jewish Teens provides an opportunity to identify points of intersection around which all of our organizations can engage more teens. It gives us the opportunity to harness each organization’s unique strengths in order to shape a more inclusive Jewish future. We hope that the many outstanding efforts to engage teens through congregations, youth organizations, alumni groups, camps, teen foundations and other programs can become parts of a much larger whole, capable of impacting the greater community.
Building on this, we are also excited to think beyond existing structures to identify new approaches, disruptive strategies, and fresh thinking that truly pushes the envelope. We believe it is critical to look outside the Jewish world – to other faiths and communities, to secular teen engagement, to the tech industry and elsewhere – in order to expand and elevate our work. In particular, we are looking forward to discussions about how to improve, partner, collaborate and fund a number of key initiatives:
- Professional and volunteer development – We have begun to tap into our alumni as a critical source of volunteers and a network for engagement; and we need to think of even more ways to support the professionals who keep our alumni active and animated.
- Outreach and engagement to younger pre-teens – We realize that if we wait to engage post b’nai mitzvah youth, our efforts may be too little, too late.
- Social justice – Youth and teens have an innate sense of fighting for what is “fair” and “just.” We need to develop, nurture and root that spirit in Jewish tradition for our young adults.
- Israel Engagement – We must find ways to collaborate in helping many more teens to form meaningful relationships with Israel; we must understand what strategies and approaches will connect our teens to the Jewish homeland. More teen trips to Israel would certainly be a start.
All too often, we fall into the trap of fighting over the same resources and participants rather than looking beyond our own institutions. Youth engagement does not need to be a “needle in the haystack” endeavor. The task ahead of us is a challenging one to be sure, but it also presents us with an unparalleled opportunity to put our best thinking forward. Now is the time for new partnerships, new ideas and a renewed commitment to our youth. They deserve our resources and they need them now.
Despite significant progress, in most communities across North America our collective efforts are still only reaching less than 20 percent of Jewish teens. For the Summit on Jewish Teens to succeed – and to truly kick start a windfall of teen engagement – we need many more organizations and individuals to attend. We need all hands on deck in order to raise awareness and to tackle this communal priority.
We hope you will join us and contribute your own thoughts and expertise in Baltimore February 11 and 12, 2016. Click here to register.
Daryl Messinger is the Chair of the Union for Reform Judaism and Jim Heeger is the Chair of Moishe House and the Treasurer of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. They live in Palo Alto, CA.