A YOUTH INITIATIVE Sermon to UAHC Board of Trustees Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie Memphis, TN, December 4, l998
On this Shabbat I would like to discuss with you a matter of overwhelming importance to the future of Reform Judaism.
Permit me to begin with a personal story. I grew up in a Reform congregation in Worcester, Massachusetts. I was born in l947 in the first wave of the baby boom, and my Jewish experience was typical for Worcester children of my generation. I attended religious school, celebrated my Bar Mitzvah at age l3, joined our junior youth group, and was confirmed in 9th grade in a Confirmation class of more than l40 young people. The culmination of my Jewish involvement was the Temple's Senior Youth Group, to which I devoted myself in my high school years. Joining youth group was not a sacrifice on my part; on the contrary, everyone I knew joined when I did. In the early l960's, Temple Emanuel's senior youth group was the place to be in my community---the undisputed center of social, cultural, and religious life for Jewish teens.
More than 35 years later, I remember little about Sunday school and Confirmation class, but there is little that I don't remember about my youth group days. I have vivid recollections of the meetings and the conclaves, the friendships and the romances, the programs and the singing. It was there that my Jewish ideas were formed, and my Jewish commitments shaped; it was there that I first experienced heartfelt worship and had my first serious encounters with Torah. It was there that I met Hank Skirball, the Jewish inspiration of my teenage years, and Sam Cook, the creative genius and master-builder of NFTY. They, and a cadre of younger rabbis, won over my circle of friends with mentshlikeit and caring, but most of all with trust and respect for kids; they were youthful in outlook and always honest, and what we admired in them most was their confidence in our capacity to grow in spirit.
Even now a dreamlike, wistful gleam illuminates my face when I talk of my NFTY years, and I am wise enough to know that elements of nostalgia color my thinking. But I have no doubt whatever that it was NFTY that made Judaism come to life in my heart, and that put me on the road to the rabbinate. And what was true for me was true for a whole generation of Reform leaders---rabbis and lay leaders alike.
And what is the reality today? The reality is that teen involvement must be seen as largely a disaster area for the Reform Movement, just as it is for the North American Jewish community as a whole. The reality is that NFTY is no more than a shadow of its former self, on both the local and the national level.
There are many reasons for the decline, and most are related to broader trends in large measure beyond our control:
When I was a teen, I lived in a largely Jewish neighborhood, and the proximity of Jewish kids to other Jewish kids made youth group membership an accepted social norm. Today, as we know, such neighborhoods have virtually disappeared in North American cities.
Similarly, in the l960's, the family with two working parents was still the exception rather than the rule. But it is a rare home today where both parents do not work, and the result, to take but one example, is that transportation to youth group meetings is often simply not available.
And then there is the factor of the altered authority structure of our society. When my parents told me that I was going to youth group, I went. But things just don't work that way now, even if those of us with teenage children wished that they did. For better or worse, our kids have more freedom and independence and make many more of their own decisions.
And then there is this: More than ever before our kids are over-scheduled and overworked; soccer, ballet, and SAT tutors leave little leisure time for anything at all, youth group included.
And, finally, there is the challenge posed by the overpowering pull of American pop culture. When I was a teenager, my youth group did not have to compete with on-line chat rooms, Nintendo technology, the frenzied dancing of MTV, or the latest Will Smith video. In my day, setting up for the Chanukkah dinner was an exciting youth group activity. But when pop culture and multimedia are the powers that be, we need a far more creative approach to Jewish life---or youth group will be dismissed as an irrelevance and an obscurity.
What all of this means in the real world of synagogue life is a teen drop-out rate that is appallingly high.
Virtually all of the children in our religious schools celebrate a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, but after the ceremony, between one-third and two-thirds of them disappear, depending on which set of statistics you choose to believe. Even those who stay on to Confirmation often have the most tenuous connection with the synagogue. Of this we can be certain: for the great majority of our teenagers, there is no youth group experience of any kind, and their teen years are spent in a larger teen culture in which Jewish influences are essentially non-existent..
Every responsible expert agrees that the impact of this reality is potentially devastating. Dr. Bruce Phillips, a professor at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, recently studied the factors that encourage young Jews to affiliate with the Jewish community when they become adults. Religious school makes a difference, he concluded, but informal education in the teen years is of special importance. Youth groups, along with camps and Israel trips, create teen peer groups which are critical in shaping dating patterns and long-term Jewish consciousness. A child who attends religious school is more likely to be an identifying Jewish adult than a child who does not; but the chances of Jewish affiliation increase dramatically when the child's religious school education is supplemented by youth group activities that continue into the teen years.
In a sense, all of this is so obvious as to be virtually self-evident. Anyone who has ever had a teenage child knows the importance of peer groups for adolescents. If those peer groups are Jewish and offer specifically Jewish experiences, it is of course true that the participants are far more likely to emerge as Jews. And yet, as Dr. Phillips and others have pointed out, the entire educational system of North American Jewry is based on the opposite premise: that formal education in the pre-teen years is the key. Fixated on Bar Mitzvah, we devote virtually all of our time, energy, and resources to four to six years of formal education in the pre-Bar Mitzvah period. Phillips notes that this makes no sense at all; from an educational point of view, if we had to choose, we would be far better off if the average child had three years of religious school prior to Bar Mitzvah and three years of school and youth group afterward.
If the idea of Jewish continuity is not to degenerate into a comfortable but meaningless slogan, we must think seriously about strategies for change. And the answer is not the one-time Israel trip, as valuable as that surely is. The answer, at least in part, is to begin the hard, painstaking work of building a grassroots youth movement for Reform Jewish teens.
In the two and one-half years that I have been President of the Union, I have not mentioned the subject of youth groups, and this omission has been intentional.
Our Movement is undergoing a period of intense introspection and revival. Reform Jews in every corner of this continent are affirming that to be a Jew is to love and to study Torah---which means Torah liberally conceived.
Appropriately, our focus has been on Jewish study and practice for grown-ups. We have emphasized that the pediatric Judaism of the past half century has failed, and that the era of child-centeredness is over. It is clear, in fact, that today's search for Jewish meaning is a reaction against the view that Judaism was for my children and not for me. A Judaism that is pediatric has nothing to say adults, who will then look elsewhere to meet their spiritual needs.
But Judaism of course is not pediatric. For thousands of years it has been something else: a religion of adults who strive to find God, observe Torah, embrace mitzvot, and honor commitments going back to Abraham and Sarah.
Am I suggesting that we neglect our children? Heaven forbid. But I am saying that we influence children best by providing them with a model of parents who live Jewish lives. And I am saying too that whatever we do for our children must be part of a broader effort to promote competence and commitment among every member of our community. And that is why for the last several years we have stressed Jewish literacy and Torah study for adults.
But the time has now come to take the next step.
Now, it is true that in one area we did undertake a major initiative for our children---and that is the expansion of our camping system. We all understand the value of our Union camps; they are the place where our children stretch both their Jewish muscles and their Jewish minds. Here the need for action was so pressing that we simply could not afford to wait. And our progress has been impressive: we have already purchased two new camps and stand ready to purchase a third, and every one of our existing facilities is adding camper beds. Still, while there is no substitute for a Jewish camp, a camp is no substitute for year-round youth work. Even when expanded, our camps will involve a relatively small percentage of our kids. And we can never be satisfied with this; our goal must be to reach large numbers of young people in a serious way---to teach them to do Jewish, and to feel as a Jew feels. For this, we must revive our youth groups.
If we are to recapture our teenagers for Jewish life, there is no full-proof strategy that we can depend on, no full-proof strategy to overcome the problems that I have enumerated.
But neither is there any reason for despair. A number of our congregations have defied common wisdom and common practice, and have built vibrant youth programs which involve their young people well into their teen years. And our regional and national NFTY events, while reaching modest numbers, have also enjoyed considerable success. If we are to rejuvenate our youth work, we do not lack for models on how best to proceed.
The starting point in every case is a congregational youth advisor who is well-trained and Jewishly knowledgeable---a professional youth worker who truly knows adolescents. But, let's admit, it is the rarest of congregations that has such a staff member; they are hard to find, and expensive, and congregations budget very little money in this area. If a synagogue has a paid advisor at all, it is likely to hire the first person who comes in the door; almost any Jewish college student with a car is considered qualified. In other words, many of our advisors are students with no training who are no more than adolescents themselves---hardly a recipe for success. Another approach is to assign youth work to assistant rabbis who are so overburdened that they have virtually no time to give. And in other cases we find that congregations which insist on professionalism in all other areas of Temple life are prepared to use untrained volunteers to oversee their youth programs.
But, even when we have our best advisors, they usually confront a system that is doomed to failure.
The key to successful teen programs is to begin where the kids are. Once they have left the Temple, even if their parents remain, it may be almost impossible to get them back. This means that we must focus on children in grades 5-7, when they are still in religious school. Junior youth group activities for these younger children will in turn pave the way for senior youth group involvement.
But this approach requires that congregations break down the barriers between formal and informal education, and that the religious school principal and youth group advisor work in closest cooperation. Ideally, there would not be a staff person for the school and a staff person for the youth group, but a single professional---a youth educator---who would be responsible for both. Some of our synagogues understand these needs, and their school and youth programs work together in complete harmony. But in too many cases these programs operate in isolation from one another, according to the failed paradigms of the past.
But I am not here to point an accusing finger at our congregations; not at all. Most have done the best that they can with the resources at hand. If a finger of blame is to be pointed, we need to point it at ourselves.
Our Union is an extraordinary organization, which for a century and a quarter has provided vision and leadership to a large and diverse movement. Our achievements, which are too numerous to be mentioned here, include an outreach effort which has revolutionized North American Jewish life, and a social action program that is unsurpassed on the North American scene.
But honesty compels us to acknowledge that we cannot boast of similar accomplishments in the area of youth grouping.
If building a youth movement is not a top priority of Reform Judaism, that is because we have not made it a priority.
If local youth advisors are not adequately trained, that is because we have not trained them.
If local lay leaders are not strong advocates for the needs of teens, that is because we have not educated these lay leaders and encouraged them.
If principals and youth group advisors are not working together to build programs for teens, that is because we have not brought them together to promote dialogue and cooperative effort.
In many areas of the country, our youth affiliate---the North American Federation of Temple Youth---is virtually invisible. In those areas, if there is a significant youth presence at all, it is far more likely to be BBYO---the youth arm of B'nai B'rith, or Young Judaea---the youth arm of Hadassah.
And it is not surprising that this should be so. BBYO has 66 full-time youth professionals who work in North America---training, organizing, educating, and promoting youth activities. Young Judaea has 40 full-time youth professionals. NFTY, in its 2l regions, has 3 full-time youth professionals. The remainder of our regions are served mostly by recent college graduates, wonderful kids who work l5 hours a week and make $5000 or $l0,000 per year; they are enthusiastic and committed, but they have neither the time nor the training to do much more than plan meetings.
Do not misunderstand me. I am not critical of BBYO and Young Judaea. Quite the contrary. I am filled with admiration for B'nai B'rith and Hadassah, which have committed themselves to a level of support for youth that is far beyond what we have been prepared to do up till now. They do fine work, and we wish them success in their programs.
But I am convinced that we have something unique to offer to teens; and I am convinced as well that our failure to offer it is a profound disservice to our children and to our Movement. And what we have to offer is simply this: religious commitment and community.
The frenetic quality of modern life has brought a depressing loneliness to the teenagers of North America. Our young people long for community---long for it so desperately that some may be ready to surrender to any form of community that comes along, or to anything that promises new sources of arousal and exhilaration.
But our response as never been to surrender to the whims of contemporary culture, or to offer an endless round of dances and social activities. What we see in our young people is the beginning of a thirst for the noble and the spiritual. What we see is their desperate need for credible values and a personal spiritual center. What we realize is that they want a sense of coherence, a religious grasp of how their lives fit into the big picture.
We respond by helping them to create religious community, which is very hard because teenagers have very high standards. They are disgusted with half-hearted commitments and hypocrisies. They are dissatisfied with what they often describe as the coldness and empty formality of our religious life. They demand a Judaism that welcomes emotions as well as ideas, and that is open to the mystical without surrendering the rational. They are rebellious, as youth always are, and suspicious of religious establishments; but---and this is the key---they are also willing, even anxious, to struggle to construct new spiritual identities.
I have no doubt---none whatever---that it is Reform Judaism that can best respond to their needs. As liberal Jews, we will not impose religion upon our teenagers; we will not insist that God's revelation becomes manifest in only one form, or only one way. Instead, we will awaken their own latent religious instincts, and channel them in the direction of Jewish commitment.
What our teenagers need is Jewish education and meaningful and rich worship. What they need is to join in the intense creative process of Jewish tradition. What they need is a genuine bond with the religiously creative life of the Jewish people. And we cannot expect such things to come from others; they can come only from us.
There are those who look around them, see the indifference of so many of our teenagers, and have the chutzpah to accuse the young of betrayal. But I am not among them. If our young people are deserting the Jewish ship, it is because the ship for them is empty, and it is we who have failed to fill it.
I am therefore suggesting that this Movement begin the task of loading that ship with a rich Jewish cargo, especially intended for the young people in our midst. And with that in mind, I will put before our board this weekend a comprehensive plan for rebuilding the Reform Jewish youth movement in North America.
The plan that I will submit has three components. The first calls for the Union to put a full-time youth professional in every regional UAHC office by no later than July l in the year 2000. Each one will have a graduate degree, or extensive, high-quality experience in the youth work field. They will work with our kids, improve regional youth events, train local youth advisors, and assist congregational youth committees and boards in developing programs for teenagers.
The second part of our program calls for creating a network of junior youth groups in our synagogues---a goal that we have frequently proclaimed and never achieved. But this time we will do more than simply exhort; we will offer high-quality junior youth group conclaves and retreats in every major metropolitan area, and we will bring together youth advisors and educators in cities throughout North America to jointly plan a school/youth group partnership. The National Association of Temple Educators and the Joint Commission on Reform Jewish Education will be full partners with our Youth Division in this effort.
The third part of our plan calls upon the Union to develop, within two years, a range of innovative programs for those teens who remain beyond the reach of any youth group structure. Our young people, of course, are as diverse as the adults in our congregations; for some, even a revived youth group will simply have no appeal. Therefore, we need to offer a variety of programs that will appeal to more specialized interests, drawing these children as well into the realm of Jewish experience.
For example, for musically inclined children we plan to offer city-wide Jewish choir programs in our major cities. For college-bound juniors, we are planning a summer experience that will include SAT preparation and college visitation, along with Jewish programming and study. For young people devoted to tikkun olam, we will offer a Mitzvah Corps on Wheels -- a summer travel program focusing on carefully-chosen social justice projects.
I have given you here only the barest outline of what I am suggesting; full details will be provided tomorrow, along with recommendations on financing. Rabbi Allen Smith, the brilliant director of our Youth Division, and Rabbi Dennis Eisner, our dynamic new Director of Junior and Senior High School Youth, will be responsible for implementing any proposal that our Union board might ultimately adopt, together with our lay committees and commissions.
I know that our leadership will give its full attention to this proposal, making whatever changes it feels are necessary. I know too that even if every detail of this plan were to be passed, our Union, the largest grassroots religious movement in North America, would still be devoting less to youth work than it should be, and less than other Jewish organizations with much smaller constituencies. And I know as well that this proposal does not even start to address other youth populations that will require much more of our attention in the future: college students, for example, and young adults.
But it is an important, significant, and I believe historic beginning. And I am filled with optimism; if this great Movement of ours applies its resources, creativity, and vibrant energy to the issue of teenage involvement in Jewish life, we will succeed: we will convey to our young people a pride in their Judaism that is neither empty feeling nor vague recollection, but a true possession.
Let me conclude with a very brief anecdote from Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, who tells of meeting the great theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel shortly before his death. Heschel told Wolf about his final months in Germany, of how that community had been galvanized and transformed, and not because of Hitler alone. Jews were finally learning, and doing mitzvot, and finding their Jewish selves. It had happened in Germany, Heschel said; it can also happen in America. But, and here Heschel lowered his voice for emphasis: there is very little time.
These are the sentiments that possess me when I think of our teenagers. They are restless and impatient and hungry for direction, and we---and they---have very little time.
And so we must push aside inertia, and grab hold of history, turning it in the direction we choose.
We must remember the Biblical verse chosen by Sam Cook as NFTY's motto: Your old shall dream dreams and your youth shall see visions.
We must offer our teenagers inspiration and direction, learning and worship, teachers and role models who will amplify for them the heartbeat of our precious heritage so that it can be heard above the noisy rhythms of modern life.
We must do all this and more, so that we can dream our dreams while our sons and daughters prophesy, seeing the visions that only our youth can see.