Uncovering Abundance: A New Strategy for Youth Engagement

Inside Leadership

Uncovering Abundance: A New Strategy for Youth Engagement

Young teens gathered around the bimah as they look at an open Torah scroll

Is the glass half full or half empty? Often in Jewish youth engagement and education work we begin with a “scarcity mindset.” We ask ourselves, “Why aren’t participants coming to our programs?” or “Why do they drop out?” It’s an understandable mindset. After all, when you’re at an event where you’d expected to see double the number of participants, it’s easy to wonder, “Where is everyone?”

In our work with congregations, the URJ has begun to identify simple strategies for shifting our thinking to uncover the hidden successes of Jewish youth engagement and education.

Social scientists and business leaders alike encourage us to fight the focus on scarcity and instead begin with an “abundance mindset.” An abundance mindset asks us to look for those areas that are working – those that impact the lives of our youth and invite them to embrace Jewish life as a path to meaning, purpose, and joy. In this approach, we uncover overlooked successes to understand their root cause and learn how to amplify their impact and replicate their strategies.

The abundance mindset begins with the assumption that there is abundance in our systems; that there are meaningful and impactful experiences occurring, and we just need to find them. Once uncovered, these successes can open up new ways of approaching youth engagement work. By showing us possibilities we didn’t know existed, these successes help us break out of old models.

Though abundance can be found anywhere in our organizations, here are three areas its likely to hide in Jewish engagement and education work

  1. Relationships: Is there an amazing teacher to whom your students flock? Are there people in your community (think b’nai mitzvah tutors or active seniors) who forge meaningful relationships with your teens? Relationships are essential to helping people feel connected to our communities; sometimes they develop right under our noses, and we don’t even know they’re there. 
  2. Memorable Moments: We know that standing on the bimah, becoming bat mitzvah, or celebrating with confirmation class are memorable moments, but are there other moments, perhaps smaller in size but equally impactful, that you’re missing? A classroom teacher who created a special ritual for kids coming home from camp? A bonding moment during singing a specific song at Shabbat services? By uncovering these moments, we can learn from them how to bring people into our community and find opportunities for holiness in our work.
  3. Isolated Programming: Do you have dozens of teens who are madrichim (religious school aides)? Are teens going to one anothers’ homes to enjoy Shabbat dinner together? Sometimes we’re so busy looking at the forest that we miss the trees. We’re so busy pointing out absence that we don’t learn the widsdom from where they are present.

How do you find this abundance? Start digging! Interview your teens about their memorable moments, the people who inspire them, and what they enjoy doing. Interview their parents to understand what they see at home and what matters to them. Take a deep look at your attendance at classes, activities, and programs, and look for your high points.

These steps can often reveal hidden trends. As Kathy Schwartz, director of lifelong learning at Congregation Har HaShem in Boulder, CO, wrote,

“I interviewed 14-year-old-post b’nai mitzvah students and asked them about the most powerful part of becoming b’nai mitzvah. Something quite remarkable emerged that, until those conversations, our congregation had only given passing attention. Our teens spoke of the impact of their relationship with their tutor, which they said influenced how they felt about themselves and about Judaism. Through these conversations, we learned that tutors have the most influence in helping b’nai mitzvah students understand [and] develop confidence…”

The goal of this process is to be open to what you find. Often, we don’t see the abundance because it is so far from what we expect. Says Rabbi Ryan Daniels of North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, IL, “We spent so many hours brainstorming new ways to engage teens post-b’nai mitzvah, and then it hit me: We already have 50 teens who are here every Sunday as madrichim…” The teens were there the whole time, but not where we expected to find them. 

Once you know the abundance in your system, the possibilities begin to unfold:

  • “Our b'nai mitzvah students have an amazing relationship with their tutors.” How can you help celebrate and amplify this connection? 
  • “Our teens show up to be madrichim in our religious school.” How can you bring their experience in to your systems and engage them in deeper ways?  
  • “A specific teacher is a reason our teens show up for a class.” Where are opportunities to expand this teacher’s role?

It’s easy to get caught in a scarcity mindset; we’re deeply concerned about our Jewish youth finding meaning, purpose, and joy in Jewish life. However, if we can push past that place and do the listening and research that an abundance mindset asks of us, there are hidden nuggets of success to drive our holy work. We need to begin with knowing that they are there and then on the task of uncovering them.

Miriam Chilton is the Union for Reform Judaism's vice president of youth. Michelle Shapiro Abraham, MAJE, RJE, is the URJ's director of learning and innovation for youth and a consultant for the Foundation for Jewish Camp.

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