How Our Synagogue Increased Teen Engagement by Stepping Out of the Classroom

Inside Leadership

How Our Synagogue Increased Teen Engagement by Stepping Out of the Classroom

Large group of smiling teens wearing matching blue shirts that say OMGJK

When I arrived at Temple Kol Ami Emanu-El in Plantation, FL, six years ago, the congregation’s junior high and high school programs were dealing with a problem that many congregations are dealing with: trying to get teens who are going through b’nei mitzvah to take part in our program, and trying to keep post-b’nei mitzvah teens engaged.

The Original Model

Our 7th–12th grade religious school was on Tuesday nights, broken into three divisions: 7th–9th grade, 10th-grade confirmation, and 11th–12th-grade post-confirmation.

The 7th–9th-grade program had low attendance. On some nights, we were lucky if we had five teens attend. At the end of my first year, we decided to re-envision the program: We changed to a format where we alternated between more traditional classes and electives.

One week, we would have a “core class” (for example, the 7th grade was Holocaust studies and the 8th–9th-grade classes would study different topics throughout the year such as Israel, Holidays, and current events), then the next week, teens chose electives, such as cooking, art, or dance. This worked for a few weeks, but eventually the excitement wore off, and we found ourselves back where we started in terms of attendance.

The New Idea

The next summer, I presented a new idea, an idea that was out of the box, but one that I hoped would bring about higher engagement for our post-b’nei mitzvah teens. The first step was to move the 9th-graders out of a separate program and put them where they belonged: with the rest of the high school students.

The next step was to help the adults (parents, clergy, and lay leaders) to understand and support our number one goal: getting teens excited about coming to Temple and having them show up.

To build that excitement, we decided to take the entire program out of the classroom and do all of the learning through informal education. This didn’t mean we wouldn’t teach Jewish values or Jewish content –  just that we would do it in a non-traditional way. It also meant that we would change the frequency from every week to just two programs per month. Most programs were on Tuesdays, but some were held on Friday nights, Saturdays, and Sundays. We knew that, with busy schedules and lots of extracurricular activities, we needed to be flexible.

Introducing OMGJK

We also decided that our middle school youth group should be combined with our religious school program.

The previous religious school program for middle school had been called “OMG” (Our Meaningful Growth), and our junior youth group was called “Junior KAFTY” (JK). And thus, OMGJK was born.

OMGJK includes programs that are educational, as well as some that are purely social. Some examples include “Top Chef: Kosher Edition,” where participants learn about the basics of keeping kosher, and then have a chance to make kosher dishes; and “Extreme Couponing: Tzedakah Edition,” where participants use coupons and a gift card to buy as much food as they could for those in need. Because these programs serves both the religious school component and the youth group component, they’re co-led by our religious school director, Valeria Michanie, and me.

In addition to these interactive programs, we travel to different cities to learn about different topics. (Valeria and chaperone the teens, along with our executive director, Dvir Weiss.) We’ve been to Atlanta to learn about civil rights and to Philadelphia to visit the National American Jewish Museum and independence sites. These trips have been huge hits for our teens.

The Results

Overall, we’ve had 35 to 40 active members of the program, with 15 to 20 on any given night. Many of our 8th graders – who are not required to be a part of the religious school program because they have completed their b’nei mitzvah – continue to register and attend OMGJK programs. Our program for 9th–12th  graders is starting to see the effects of this, as well.

Making the jump from a “traditional” religious school program to the OMGJK model took the full support of our entire community, and it has paid off. We are seeing the benefits of stepping outside of the box and creating a program that our teens enjoy – more Jewishly engaged teens and a more vibrant synagogue community.

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Josh Simon is the full-time youth director at Temple Kol Ami Emanu-El in Plantation, FL. This is his 24th year as a youth professional, including 18 years as part-time advisor at Congregation Anshai-Emeth in Peoria, IL. He is a CLASP Fellow who also serves as the assistant program director at URJ Camp Coleman in Cleveland, GA.

Josh Simon
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