How Our Youth Programs Make a Difference

Inside Leadership

How Our Youth Programs Make a Difference

Four smiling, laughing teens passing a Torah scroll from one to the next

One of the great joys in my role as vice president of youth for the Union for Reform Judaism is hearing stories from alumni.

I hear stories about how NFTY shaped their Judaism and encouraged them to seek out congregational connections. I hear stories from alumni from interfaith families about how their time at camp forged their Jewish identity and gave them the gift of a Jewish community that extends beyond the walls of their homes. I meet Reform leaders whose first forays into Jewish leadership happened in their congregational youth groups. I love hearing these stories because they remind me that the work we do to engage young Reform Jews is a sacred endeavor, one that shapes our movement and our world.

In the fall of 2017, the Union for Reform Judaism hired Rosov Consulting, premier evaluators, to help us quantify this impact. We researched whether Reform Movement youth experiences last into adulthood and sought to understand the effect these programs have in shaping a more whole, just, and compassionate world.

Many such studies in recent years have measured the impact of Jewish youth movements. We designed a study that would take our research one step further. In addition to evaluating against conventional measure of Jewish continuity, we sought to understand the true impact of these programs over entire lifetimes. We asked questions such as these:

  • How do Reform Jewish youth experiences influence the choices – both Jewish and otherwise – that alumni make as adults?
  • How do their Jewish experiences shape their careers, inform the causes they care about, and inspire them to make a difference in the world?
  • In what ways does participation in Reform youth experiences lead to a flourishing Jewish community?

We now have data that affirms what we know to be true: Adults who had Reform Jewish experiences in their youth are strongly associated with an array of Jewish outcomes later in life. The research points to the Reform Movement’s unique continuum of influence over the lifetime of individuals from youth to young adulthood and beyond. Among the highlights, the findings show that Reform Movement youth experiences translate into greater Jewish engagement in college, which in turns is a catalyst for greater Jewish engagement later in life.

Here are four key findings to inspire Reform congregations:

1. Alumni are proud to be Jewish (81%).

Alumni care about being Jewish and feel that Jewish community is essential. They care about choosing and adapting Jewish rituals, a signature outcome of Reform youth experiences. Beyond the great importance of identifying as Jewish, alumni care deeply about identify as Reform Jews.

2. Alumni care about doing good (87%).

Alumni of Reform youth experiences translate their Jewish values into social action and agree that “doing volunteer work is important to me.” They also say that Jewish concepts of tikkun olam (repair of the world) learned in our programs inspire them to make the world a better place. As Zoe Terner, NFTY’s social action vice president, said earlier this year, “NFTY [offers us] the opportunity to join a movement of people committed to creating a better, safer world.”

3. Alumni join Jewish communities as adults (82%).

A majority of alumni belong to a synagogue, temple, minyan, or chavurah, and they regularly attend synagogue as adults.

4. Alumni provide Jewish education to their children (98%).

Jewish education is all but universal among the children of alumni, with the great majority (89%) reporting they choose Reform Jewish education for their children.  

As the Jewish community faces challenges to retain active participants, the URJ’s youth programs prove to be an antidote, offering a future of engaged adults and active global citizens looking to pass along their Jewish values and education to their children. The Reform Movement has the unique opportunity to provide a variety of meaningful, immersive experiences, each of which has lasting impact. However, the data also affirms that the impact is even greater when we can string experiences together. As one alum shared, “For me, camp gave way to youth group, which turned into leadership opportunities. It inspired my trip to Israel, my career, my marriage – all the contours of my adult life.”

We have much to be proud of as a movement, and the data points to an even brighter future. I encourage you to read the full findings of the report, share these stories with your congregants, and join me in conversation about how we are measuring success in our work. Most importantly, I invite you to join me in helping each young person find the best fit among the Reform Movement’s many youth programs. We now have the data that proves it: youth programs make a difference for alumni, for the movement, and for the world. 

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Miriam T. Chilton is the Union for Reform Judaism's vice president of youth; she previoulsy served as director of strategy, operations, and finance, for URJ Youth, Camp and Israel Programs. Miriam holds a master of arts in business administration and a master of science in information systems from Boston University, as well as 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.

Miriam T. Chilton
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