A Holistic Approach to Youth and Teen Engagement Three Years in the Making

May 1, 2018Marisa Kaiser

At Temple Sinai in Atlanta, we have spent the last three years re-visioning and implementing changes in our approach to education. Three and a half years ago, new to my position, I spent the first few months of my job getting to know families and hearing what they wanted in education experiences for their children and for themselves. In every conversation, inevitably, someone would say to me “we need a change!” But no one could articulate what that “change” was. It was clear that we needed a cohesive vision for lifelong learning, and unclear how learning and engagement were connected, if at all. We launched a vision task force charged with three goals:

  1. Figuring out the overall vision for learning at Temple Sinai
  2. Breaking down the silos within the education department
  3. Determining the thread that ties it all together at all ages and stages in life

Fast forward, this past August we launched Temple Sinai’s Center for Learning and Engagement, which is our holistic approach to Jewish lifelong learning. We wanted to reflect the lifecycle of Jewish education experiences one can have throughout their life, so we organized the Center into four areas: Families with Young Children, Youth, Teens and Adults, The Center ensures that no matter your stage in life, we will provide high quality, relational and meaningful educational experiences under these 7 guiding principles:

  1. Quality Learning Experiences: Every experience is an opportunity for learning with intentional, hands on modalities and experiences. 
  2. Learning & Engagement go hand in hand: Every learning opportunity is an opportunity for engagement and every social engagement opportunity is an opportunity for learning.
  3. Building relationships and fostering connection: Our success in creating community among our children, teens, adults and families starts with the relationships we create and form.
  4. Based in Jewish values and texts: Jewish content must be infused in every experience we offer. 
  5. Inclusive for every age and every type of learner: We strive to ensure all types of learners have an opportunity to participate and be successful.
  6. Choice of accessible learning opportunities: We want to provide multiple options, personal choice and meet our learners wherever they are (both literally and figuratively).
  7. Evaluation of success and impact: We must hold ourselves accountable and continuously measure our success and the impact our experiences are having on our families.

At the same time we were creating the Center, we restructured our staff roles to match this new model. We have a Director of the Center for Learning & Engagement who supports our Young Family Learning & Engagement Director, as well as our Youth Learning and Engagement Director and Teen Learning and Engagement Director. Prior to this, we had separated out learning from youth and teen engagement: We had a Jewish educator who managed the Religious School and teen education programs, and we had a Youth Professional who managed the youth groups for K-12. We transitioned our staff structure to ensure that learning and engagement are united and that our educators are able to build relationships with our youth, teens and families that are meaningful and will have the most impact on their lives. We consider both formal and informal learning to be Jewish educational experiences, and as such, want all our education staff to consider themselves as Jewish educators.

We also shifted our lay committees to support this new structure. We have an Education Advisory Board, led by our VP of Education, which supports and advises the entire Center. And each of the four spheres works with a committee of lay leaders to focus directly on that area. They are our partners in vision, support and implementation. 

With this new structure in place, each sphere of the Center has been evaluating, conceptualizing and implementing new programs and initiatives with one clear vision linking them all together. We have a new approach to engaging families with young children, our adult learning is expanding to engage adults of all ages and our youth learning is launching a brand new program to replace the traditional Religious School. We are proud that we are able to now focus on teen learning and engagement as a member of the URJ’s Post B’nai Mitzvah Innovators Community of Practice as they guide us in this endeavor. This ongoing change process has led to a more connected synagogue community, and we are excited to continue exploring innovative and engaging learning experiences for all ages.


Marisa Kaiser, RJE is the Director of Temple Sinai’s Center for Learning & Engagement and serves as a Vice President of the Association of Reform Jewish Educators.


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