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There are a few quips and phrases that make me cringe, like hearing nails on a chalkboard. One of them is the standard answer to the age-old question “Why are we doing things this way?” which is often, “Because that’s how it’s always been done.”
In my opinion, that expression is a cop-out answer for when we’re too too lazy or too scared to come up with a real response. When the only reason you’re still doing things is “because that’s how it’s always been done,” it’s probably time for a change.
I honor our youth group’s past and history and acknowledge that, for many years, it worked well for our congregation. Before radically changing things, I asked myself, “Am I willing to accept how it currently is? Or am I willing and able to challenge the status quo?”
Let me back up.
When I started as the director of youth engagement at The Temple – Tifereth Israel in Beachwood, OH, in April 2016, I inherited a small group of passionate and engaged teens. The programming was great; the teens involved loved it, and there weren’t any glaring issues. Nonetheless, I felt – I just knew – that our temple and these teens were capable of something more.
I wanted to innovate and co-create a way to reimagine teen engagement and programs with my temple teens. To do so, I needed to best understand what they wanted and needed from their synagogue and Jewish community.
So I spent the next two years figuring it out. I implemented small pilot programs, talked to teens, explored nontraditional models of youth engagement, and considered when and how we could best innovate.
In time, I came to understand that our traditional temple youth group was creating a barrier to entry for many of our temple teens. Many teens are excited to be involved in temple and teen programs, but less so in "youth group.” In meeting the needs of only a small group of our teens, the system in place wasn’t working. I wondered how I could fix that, so, alongside my teens and colleagues, I worked to reimagine teen engagement without barriers.
In March, I saw all of our efforts come to fruition. Our “youth group” teens wanted to have a “shul-in” (temple sleepover) the night before our Purim carnival. Instead of calling it the TEFTY (Tifereth Israel’s Senior Youth Group) Shul-In, we instead just marketed it a Temple Teen Shul-In – and saw participation increase by 50%, just by changing the name.
We couldn’t believe how this small change made such an impact! We knew we were onto something.
Even with the little sleep they got the night before, the energy from the teens was unlike anything I had seen. Our teens felt so much ownership over the Purim Carnival. It was theirs. This is their temple; these are their experiences.
After that success, my mind was whirring: How can we create a program inspired by their wants and needs? How can we create a temple community that works for and supports them? What kind of program will offer opportunities for learning, leadership, growth, and fun?
After a handful of meaningful conversations with other youth directors, a short post in The Tent and a conversation with my youth group president, we got to work innovating, creating, and changing the way we did things.
Why, for example, do we need a six-person youth group board when there’s so much more leadership potential out there? The disruptive and innovative answer is: We don’t. We can change, evolve, and fix things that aren’t working as well as they could be – and after seeing so much potential and energy amongst our teen community, we wanted to create a new model to match.
We created the Teen Leadership Committee, breaking down our six board positions into small, task-based committees that work together to enhance teen programming and engagement in a variety of ways. Now, for example, instead of one teen overseeing all programming, a group of teens shares the work. A handful of teens has taken ownership of our regularly scheduled programs, including Monday Madness, Hump Day Hangout, and regional and sub-regional events with NFTY-NEL.
As a youth director, I’m charged with guiding my teens and youth programs to succeed – and whatever the mark of success may be, it most definitely involves positive change. To be successful, we must question everything, never allowing the mindset of “the way it has always been” to stand in our way.
Jamie Collins is the director of youth engagement at The Temple-Tifereth Israel in Beachwood, OH. She is currently working towards a master’s degree from Case Western Reserve University in positive organizational development and change and has a bachelor’s degree in organizational communications from Ohio University.