In 1924, educator Joseph L. Baron shared with the Chicago Rabbinical Association his plans for creating “clubs” to engage youth in Reform Jewish life and supplement the existing education-focused programs:
"Jewish Youth…want adventure, want romance, want the heroic…To enthuse the young with the idea of helping in the creation of a new people, to invest them with immediate duties toward that end, to show them where Judaism is not academic but vital and urgent and immediate, that is a means of arousing souls and installing new fervor in dry bones…And perhaps because of this, [these clubs] will strive with force into the sensitive heart and thirsty souls of our youth."
Our journey to engage young people in compelling Jewish life is not new. As Dr. Gary Zola notes in The Founding of NFTY and the Perennial Campaign for Youth Engagement, since the establishment of liberal Judaism there has been “a persistent concern that the American synagogue might become irrelevant to the rising generation of Jewish youth.” And yet, it is this very concern that keeps Judaism relevant, urging us to continue reimagining it.
Five years ago, the Union for Reform Judaism launched the Campaign for Youth Engagement, designed to inspire more young Jews to embrace Jewish life as a path to meaning, purpose, and joy. These nine guiding principles were developed by professionals in numerous congregations – Congregation Beth Or, Maple Glen, PA, Congregation Beth Israel, West Hartford, CT, and Temple Emanuel, Greensboro, NC, among others – in our collaborative work with them. We share them with congregations and use them to inform our own ongoing efforts to develop new camps and year-round programming.
- Talk to kids before they become teenagers. It is much easier to engage teens who already have had positive Jewish learning experiences. Building relationships prior to b’nai mitzvah can be the key to continuing them. Reinvent religious school curriculum, create social opportunities, or engage families together. Consider having an “aspirational arc,” where younger teens can see what older teens are doing, as is the case with campers who look forward to being camp counselors someday.
- Cultivate a safe environment. Programs are not enough. Successful organizations focus on relationships and creating a space for teens to explore identity, make friends, and feel valued as individuals.
- Make it age-appropriate. We often lump 9th to12th graders together, but they are in very different places both psychologically and emotionally. Keep these differences in mind when building programming strategies.
- It takes a team. Yes, it’s vital to have a committed, charismatic rabbi who can relate to our youth, but a successful strategy depends on more than one person. More adults in youth engagement, including professionals, lay leaders, camp staff, college students, and parents, means more youth participants.
- Listen to your teens. Too often we discount what teens themselves ask for, but many organizations are exploring new avenues for inviting them to be co-creators. Bringing audacious hospitality to their level not only mean welcoming them, but also allowing them to mold the experience to fit their needs.
- Offer varied options. We need to recognize that one size does not fit all and broaden programmatic menus to include deep engagement opportunities such as confirmation classes and years at camp and lighter opportunities such as social outings and afternoon activities. Some offerings will attract a wide audience; others will appeal to smaller groups.
- Consider partnerships. Offering many engagement options can be daunting. Collaboration (and reimagining “competitors” as allies) can allow us to do more, in smart and financially sustainable ways. Alternately, simply recognizing the myriad offerings available can help expand your options. Congregations are experimenting by being “connectors,” helping teens find the right program and then helping them reflect on what they learned.
- Engage parents. Even as teens try to differentiate themselves from their parents, they also continue to be influenced by them. In a recent study, Generation Now: Understanding and Engaging Jewish Teens Today, the majority of teens spoke about their families’ positive influence in enabling them to make life choices, including those related to being Jewish. Such studies highlight the importance of engaging and supporting teens – early and frequently.
- Keep content relevant and “real.” We must ensure our offerings meet young people where they are and fulfill their need to help make the world a better place – one of our core values as Reform Jews. Our teens are seeking leadership opportunities that will be relevant in other aspects of their lives. Some congregations connect teens to roles as madrichim (classroom assistants), b’nai mitzvah and confirmation tutoring opportunities, youth group mentorships, and leadership positions in summer programs.
Michelle Shapiro Abraham, MAJE, RJE, is the Union for Reform Judaism’s director of learning and innovation for youth and a consultant for the Foundation for Jewish Camp. A longtime Jewish educator, author, and speaker, she holds a master’s degree in Jewish education from the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Michelle is a recipient of the 2015 Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education and an active member of Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains, NJ, where her husband, Joel Abraham, serves as the rabbi.
Miriam Chilton is the Union for Reform Judaism's vice president of youth; prior to this, she served as director of strategy, operations and finance, for URJ Youth, Camp and Israel Programs. Miriam has a Master of Arts in Business Administration and Master of Science in information systems from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts in political science from Ithaca College. When she's not out in the field trying to engage more young people, Miriam is an active member of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, N.J.