Reform Leaders Commend President Obama’s Commitment to Stopping the Spread of ISIS

In response to President Obama’s announcement of an expanded military effort against ISIS, Reform Movement leaders issued the following statement: We commend President Obama’s commitment to stopping the spread of ISIS, which has imposed terror in the Middle East and beyond and whose actions are appalling and offensive to all who value freedom. Already, the […]

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Now Introducing Bonim Kehilah for Jewish Young Adults

Much has been written about millennials and how they’re constructing adult lives: They live at home longer, marry later, and are less likely to affiliate with political and religious institutions than ever before. It follows that those young adults looking for sustained, meaningful Jewish engagement find few entry points into the current communal landscape. Without […]

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Achieving Excellence by Pursuing Excellence in our Early Childhood Center

For the past 18 months, the URJ supported three “Communities of Practice,” cohorts of congregations that came together to learn, discuss, and experiment in a specific field. Members from participating congregations have been asked to reflect about their process. by Dr. Paula Sayag As an early childhood consultant with Washington, D.C.’s central Jewish education agency, […]

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Engage Jewish Youth During the High Holiday Season

With the High Holidays approaching, congregations are considering new ways to effectively connect to more youth at this vital time in the Jewish calendar. If your synagogue is among those looking at new approaches this year, consider the following variables: Make sure the program content is varied. Teens need spirituality, but are also drawn to […]

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Teen Talk: What We Can Learn from the Marketing Techniques of the Ice Bucket Challenge



The Journal of Youth Engagement is an online forum of ideas and dialogue for those committed to engaging youth in vibrant Jewish life and living. Join the discussion and become a contributor.

The reality of today’s online participatory culture, is that teens (and yes, adults, too) like to show what they’re doing. While sometimes this can be a “for better or worse” situation, when it comes to raising awareness for a good cause, you can’t find a better place to rally for attention than on the stream of your Facebook mini-feed. We saw this rapidly unfold with the enormously successful ALS Ice Bucket Challenge fundraising campaign. The challenge was successful for a multitude of reasons—but what’s significant to us is the way in which some of these Ice Bucket Challenge marketing tools can be used to help us better understand and engage our own teens.

For starters, a very significant aspect of the challenge was its ability to bridge the inter-generational gap between youth and adults. Teens were just as happy to share themselves dumping ice buckets on their heads as adults were, and the low barrier to entry meant that anybody could get involved. In this particular fundraising situation, the subject matter was fused with a universal sense of “playfulness” which played a big factor in the ability for teens and adults to relate. In reviewing the Ice Bucket Challenge techniques, the call to action: pour a bucket of ice water over your head, and the ensuing nominations strategy: designate friends to keep on performing the challenge, were the greatest attention-grabbing tools of them all. By directing teens to perform a specific deed with an implied time limit (24 hours) to share with their Facebook friends, communities worldwide were able to rally around one cause with extraordinary results.

Here are a few takeaways we can apply from the swift marketing techniques of the Ice Bucket Challenge to boost teen engagement within communities.

1. Utilize the power of sharing on social media between youth and adults

Teens today build off of responses from peers in a way that is unprecedented and unchartered; their proclivity for sharing comes from our new community-based culture—one that rests on group building from social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. When teens receive a “like” on Facebook they are more likely to forge connections and common ground with peers and adults.

If we share what we’re doing in our congregations in our virtual communities, teens will be much more apt to engage in important conversations. Rabbi Danny Burkeman of the Community Synagogue honed in on the efficiency of the Ice Bucket Challenge, and in the spirit of the High Holidays, formed his own mission: the Elul Challenge. His congregants were called upon to record a 30-second video performing any mitzvah of their choice, and instructed to nominate three friends and share on Facebook. According to Rabbi Burkeman, “Teens have definitely been engaging in the challenge. We’ve seen a number of them post videos on their Facebook pages, challenging their friends, but interestingly, also adults in the Jewish community.” The highly successful strategies of sharing and nominating not only unites teens, but bridges the gap between youth and adults for more accessible and direct dialogue.

2. Engage teens by “tagging” them with personal invitations AKA “nominations”

There’s no doubt that this generation of teens likes to call attention to themselves—and they do this by using social media as their main podium of expression. In this case, the Ice Bucket Challenge honed in on the nominations technique by applying “Facebook tagging” as way of personally inviting friends to engage in the challenge. Not only does this get the teen excited about seeing a Facebook notification pop up on their phone, it also gives him or her greater impetus to complete any challenge directed their way, because it appears on their Facebook wall. By having their friends actually see the nomination, a certain level of expectation develops for the teen, along with a heightened sense of responsibility to get the job done.

URJ NFTY-Michigan’s teens were inspired by the ALS challenge’s tagging technique in promoting their upcoming NFTY weekend event in Mackinaw City. Their regional board posted on social media with the hashtag: #Mackattackwednesday. They then listed and tagged a few people and asked them to register, and continued the chain by posting about who they want to see join the event.

Regional Director of Youth Engagement, Barrett Harr, elaborated, “Tagging was a great way to get people to post and spread the word about our event and registration. We will definitely continue to use this tactic in the future.”

The nomination strategy is all about connection, timing, and repetition. In the original Ice Bucket Challenge, nominees only had 24 hours, and the challenge lasted throughout the entire summer. Although the cause and call to action was what initially galvanized the excitement to create the videos, NFTY SoCal Regional Advisor Spencer Hirsch credits a big part of the challenges’ success to its ability to connect people. Again, it all comes back to community, and opening the door to long-term engagement. He explained, “You’re being publicly tagged or honored by a friend. You’re being invited to be a part of an experience. That’s a good strategy. It’s all about intentional timing, and the new nomination tactic makes people feel connected.

3. Hone in on the urgency of a “deadline”

Teens are constantly inundated with information via the internet, and it’s increasingly difficult to grab their attention and keep it. By instituting a deadline for participation, such as the 24-hour cut off with the Ice Bucket Challenge, we can summon a unique sense of urgency. Not only does this bring the issue front and center in a swift way, but it also makes the teen feel like they have to fit in the “task” as a priority. They receive an immediate feeling of gratification from completing and posting their challenge, which simultaneously expands their web identity/presence. Adam Blum, the fundraising Vice-President of NFTY-CWR, is a teen who is currently working in partnership with NFTY to develop a more productive way for teens to sign up for NFTY Convention 2015. With the success of the nominations strategy modeled by the Ice Bucket Challenge, the NFTY team plans to employ this tactic to combat issues of late attendee registration, and to expand the NFTY convention participant pool. “What is really important about this idea is not the challenge, but that we are thinking about nomination strategies as a way to raise awareness and drive registration. Hopefully the nomination component will keep NFTY members active and connected, and maybe attract a new audience as well.”

 

Jillian Scheinfeld is the Writer and PR Associate for the URJ Youth Communications team. She has been published in the New York Observer, Tablet Magazine, JTA, Kveller, and Jewcy.

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A New Vision for Youth Shabbat



The Journal of Youth Engagement is an online forum of ideas and dialogue for those committed to engaging youth in vibrant Jewish life and living. Join the discussion and become a contributor.

Nearly four years ago, I walked into the youth lounge at The Community Synagogue, excited to spend one of our monthly “lounge nights” with a small and mighty group of POWTY (Port Washington Temple Youth) teens. I observed the members of our program as they sat, surrounded by the embrace of our safe and cozy space, happily expressing their thoughts and feelings over shared snacks and treats. I saw them laughing and enjoying the company of Jewish friends, developing their identities as people, and as Jews.

While reflecting on our small community that met one Tuesday per month for “lounge night”—bonding time that supplements our larger youth events and programs–I saw an opportunity to expand and enrich programs we were already providing our members. If the teens were happy to spend their evenings with their Jewish friends, committing their personal time to a relaxing evening spent breaking bread and learning and laughing together, why was I hosting a lounge night on a Tuesday? Why wasn’t I able to find a way to adjust these evenings so that they provided more Jewish content, more meaning, and more fun?  Why shouldn’t I be hosting a POWTY Shabbat program on a Friday?

Switching POWTY’s monthly lounge nights to POWTY Shabbat–our monthly youth Shabbat program—was one of the greatest risks I’ve ever taken as Director of Youth Engagement at The Community Synagogue, and it was all it took to transform our evenings into opportunities for meaningful Jewish ritual, prayer, and rejoicing. The POWTY Shabbat program completely revitalized our teen community, providing new learning opportunities, and chances for our participants to make connections to their heritage, religion, and Jewish selves.

What began as a handful of members who were excited to spend Shabbat evenings with POWTY is now an established monthly POWTY Shabbat program that our teens look forward to and enjoy. Upon the great success of our POWTY Shabbat programs, I have spoken with many of our current members and alumni about their POWTY Shabbat experiences. I am constantly learning from the Jewish youth I work with, and I think that their stories about their own experiences are rich with important lessons for my goals of meaningfully engaging them with Judaism. I hope these words of wisdom from our POWTY members and alumni will encourage other professionals working with Jewish youth to consider the opportunities that Shabbat can give us to engage today’s Jewish youth.

Teens get to connect with people they may never have had a change to get to know.
Jesse Epstein, Current POWTY Co-President:“POWTY

Shabbat is one of my favorite events to attend. It feels great when we are all sitting around the table in the youth lounge, talking and engaging in all our special POWTY traditions. These events have definitely brought me a lot closer to other young people in the community that I might have not have otherwise gotten to know, and I know that my life would be very different without them.”

When Shabbat is celebrated with friends, it becomes a priority for teens.
Emily Shlafmitz, a POWTY alum:

As a teenager in high school there were a number of ways I could have chosen to spend my Friday nights—however, attending POWTY Shabbats was always a top priority. Going to POWTY Shabbats was meaningful for me because I got to participate in reciting prayers and performing various rituals, such as the blessing over the challah, and new rituals that we as a POWTY created together. These dinners have provided me with so many amazing experiences, great friends, and intelligent conversations that I will carry with me as I enter college this coming fall, and for the rest of my life.”These cherished POWTY family rituals Emily references, such as shouting “Oh, what a beautiful challah!” as we prepare to say the motzi, and sharing the best part of each of our weeks as we enjoy our meal together, define our community, and become traditions that our members find themselves longing to hold onto.

Creating Shabbat rituals helps us to instill a positive foundation for teens, who will continue to seek out Shabbat experiences.
Miles Kurtz, a POWTY alum:

“POWTY Shabbat has allowed me to develop a meaningful relationship with Shabbat. With POWTY, Shabbat was no longer an intangible holiday, but an experience that involved some of my best friends and the synagogue where I grew up. It became a genuinely relaxing way to end my week, and that is the first time I really felt peace on Shabbat, which, after all, is what it is supposed to bring.”

Teens learn to be resourseful when it comes to celebrating Jewish holidays; if they can’t find the Shabbat experiences they desire, they’ll have the confidence and knowledge to cultivate their own.
Jenna Lipman, POWTY alum:

“I left home and moved all the way across the country to attend Santa Clara University, a Catholic school. At the beginning of my freshman year, I felt that I had lost my Jewish community. Once I started to meet other Jewish students on campus, it became clear to me that we needed a way to casually get together and stay connected to Judaism. I began inviting all of my Jewish friends, and all of our non-Jewish friends, to Shabbat at my apartment. This was a way for us all to be together and show our friends that being Jewish can be practical and inclusive, and has allowed me to find that same community that guided me through high school. Without the initial experience of POWTY Shabbat dinners, there would be no Shabbat at my apartment, and thus possibly no connection to the Jewish community I left at home. Our monthly Shabbat evenings, that began as pasta dinners for a few teens around a small table, have grown into themed evenings for dozens of POWTY members packed into our youth lounge. Our Shabbat programs now include special meals, programs, and suprises, such as Pinata Shabbata, where we enjoyed Tex-Mex for dinner, and Shabbushi, our sushi Shabbat program.   After seeing how accessible I could make Shabbat for our adolescent members, I realized I could create fun, exciting, and unconventional programs built around Shabbat experiences for all of our members. Last year, POWTY hosted our first ever All POWTY Shabbat for grades 4-12, and almost 60 members shared a Shabbat meal before leading services for our entire synagogue community.

Having older teens connect to and mentor younger teens during Shabbat helps in the developmental and engagement processes for both adolescents and children.
Jackie Kindler, a current POWTY Board member and past POWTY Religious Affairs Chair:

“Having Senior POWTY members talk with the younger kids about things they enjoy, while being at a fun themed POWTY Shabbat creates an atmosphere that gives room for kids to get down and deeply explore their religion. I know that being in such an amazing environment has helped me to thrive into the POWTY member that I am, and even learn things from the littler kids.

As a result of the successful implementation of our ALL POWTY Shabbat programs, I introduced JPOW (Junior POWTY) Shabbat programs created specifically for our members in grades 4-6 with “Pump It Up Shabbat”. Thirty of our JPOW members loaded onto a bus and took Shabbat on the road!  We spend our Shabbat evening at a local Pump It Up location, before sharing an upbeat, unique Shabbat service and dinner in their party space.

This year, POWTY will be hosting its first ever JPOW Sha-GAGA (Shabbat at Ultimate Gaga!) program, and we plan to make our All POWTY Shabbat for entire group in grades 4-12 even bigger and better than last years.

As I’ve continued to develop our Shabbat programming throughout the past few years, I have been fortunate to see how children and young adults have been meaningfully engaged with Judaism through the program, which has evolved into a central focus of our entire youth engagement program at The Community Synagogue. As our alumni bless me with stories of their continued enjoyment and engagement with Shabbat as reform Jews within our greater community, my inspiration for further innovation and creativity grows.

Moving our monthly Tuesday lounge nights to Friday evening Shabbat programs was a giant risk that has fortunately reaped great rewards for POWTY Youth Programs. Creativity, teamwork, and attentiveness to child and adolescent interests have helped us find ways to make Jewish rituals and observance something our kids enjoy, look forward to, prioritize, and refuse to leave behind. Our POWTY Shabbat program has inspired a new vision for what Jewish youth engagement can look like in our community, and has renewed an excitement for our members’ Jewish futures.

 

Lindsay Ganci is the Director of Youth Engagement at The Community Synagogue in Port Washington, NY, where she has worked since 2010. She is a recent graduate of the HUC-JIR Certificate in Jewish Education for Adolescents and Emerging Adults, and received her MA in Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. She is also a member of the Reform Youth Professionals Association (RYPA). 

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“Ruach Rock” Tefilah: Engaging Teens in Creating Meaningful Prayer Experiences



The Journal of Youth Engagement is an online forum of ideas and dialogue for those committed to engaging youth in vibrant Jewish life and living. Join the discussion and become a contributor.

Are you an educator or youth professional seeking an innovative approach to teaching teens about prayer? Project-based learning is a great way for teens to explore their own spirituality and create meaningful prayer experiences for themselves and their fellow students.  My advice would be to start by sharing what you find meaningful, as a role model to inspire your students.

Last year, in partial fulfillment of the requirements for my Master of Arts in Religious Education (MARE) program at HUC-JIR, I completed my Capstone Curriculum, titled “Ruach Rock” Tefilah: A Creative Prayer Curriculum for Teens. Designed specifically for 7th-10th graders, I used my “Ruach Rock” Tefilah as the kickoff session for a semester-long exploration of the reform service liturgy in which teens are encouraged to learn more about the prayers in order to create their own interpretations of them. Recognizing that music is not everyone’s area of creative expertise, I designed the curriculum to use a different mode of approach for each prayer, based on Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, which has long informed my work with teens. Utilizing a mixture of games, art, technology, writing and movement, students are empowered to explore what is meaningful to them in our tradition and consider how to articulate those feelings and share them with peers.

Last fall at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City, we used a project-based learning (PBL) approach to liven up our weekly 8th-12th grade minyan and charged the teens with creating their own service. They formed small groups to pick tunes, set up the space and select/create readings. After a few weeks of planning, we reconvened and they presented their Tefilah – which turned out to be a very traditional Shabbat evening service, nearly twice as long as our typical minyan, in our usual location!

From this experience we realized that it is not so easy for students to think outside the box about prayer.  For them, choosing between two or three familiar tunes for each prayer was the most leeway they felt they had. This experience strengthened my commitment to experiment with the prayer curriculum I was developing for my Capstone which I believed could offer teens a much-needed opportunity to create their own meaningful prayer experience.

So during our minyan on Tuesday nights, I adapted elements from the curriculum into our service:

  • Taking 5-10 minutes each week to creatively explore one of the prayers as it occurred within the service
  • Moving our minyan to a different location in the building
  • Utilizing visual Tefilah which allowed me to refer back to some of our previous creative exercises

Over the weeks, I began to see signs of life from our teens as they engaged in conversations, brainstormed their ideas in groups, and tried out new spaces. I found their singing to be more invigorated, and even drew smiles from them! We managed to find a space in our building that better fit the group size and engaged students who were previously in the building but had abstained from the minyan. I integrated students’ ideas into the service as the weeks went on, so that piece by piece our minyan was transformed to reflect our process.

Given the new energy we were able to bring to our Tefilah experience in such a short amount of time, I am excited to imagine the possibilities of what students could learn and create if they had dedicated time each week to explore our traditions. I am looking forward to continuing to innovate with students to turn what is sometimes the most dreaded part of religious school into something that is meaningful, personal, and engaging.

 

 

Jay Rapoport is the new Director of Lifelong Learning at Temple Sholom in Chicago and a composer/performer of Jewish music. He recently completed his Master’s Degree in Religious Education at HUC-JIR along with his second crowd-funded album of Jewish music for children, teens and families. www.ruachrock.com

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Mitzvah Corps: The Power of Community, The Power of Self



By Alex Rogers, Avra Bossov, and Matt Liebman

As a central tenet of Reform Judaism, tikkun olam – repairing the world – can seem overwhelming. How does one take on such a task as an individual? For over 50 years, Mitzvah Corps has empowered Jewish teenagers across the continent to infuse this concept into their daily lives. Mitzvah Corps has impacted numerous communities and has thousands of alumni that continue the work that started during their Mitzvah Corps program.

With the Campaign for Youth Engagement’s growing focus on new entry points for teenagers to engage in Jewish life, this summer Mitzvah Corps expanded to include eight sites with over 190 participants. In other words, record levels of engagement. The beauty of Mitzvah Corps is that each summer, around the world, groups of strangers come together to build a kehilah kedosha, a holy community. We pray together, make difficult decisions together, and find the best versions of ourselves while being surrounded by bustling communities moving through their day. In essence, it brings the best of Jewish immersive experiences into the day-to-day experience of cities across the globe.

Our team spent two weeks in Portland, Oregon, with 31 incredible teens from around the country. We learned about food justice and sustainability; participated in service learning with three different community partners (PCUN, the Learning Gardens Lab, and The Rebuilding Center); and explored various neighborhoods and communities within the city. As we learned together as a new community, we watched our teens expand their view of the world, and feel empowered to apply their new knowledge immediately as they interacted with the larger Portland community.

As a 34-person community, we were able to practice tikkun olam and tikkun midot. Rabbi Jan Katzew explains these concepts best:

“The practice of tikkun olam does not stand alone. It is necessary, but not sufficient to live up to the ethics of Judaism. Some of us may be so drawn to fixing the outside world that we neglect the inner world of our being. And so Jewish tradition offers us a partner to tikkun olam, a partner that has too often been neglected — the process of internal mending called tikkun midot. Whereas acts of tikkun olam are social and public, acts of tikkun midot are personal and private. As tikkun olam confronts the incompleteness and imperfection of the world around us, tikkun midot addresses the incompleteness and imperfection of our inner self. Tikkun midot enables us to maintain a moral balance. The term midot refers to measures — measures which determine our character. The practice of tikkun midot is a process of defining and refining our moral compass when we are faced with competing urges and do not know which path to follow.” Katzew concludes: “Tikkun midot and tikkun olam are not mutually exclusive; they are mutually dependent and inextricably intertwined; both are necessary to uplift the world. The moral whole is more than the sum of the moral parts. Spiritual awareness and social justice are two sides of the same coin: tikkun midot looks at the moral life from the inside out; tikkun olam approaches the same domain from the outside in. Tikkun midot starts with me; tikkun olam starts with us.”

-Repairing the World from the Inside Out, Reform Judaism, Winter 1999

In addition to our work of confronting the imperfections of the world around us through understanding the broader social issue areas surrounding sustainability of communities from environmental, economic, and social lenses, we also practiced tikkun midot. We challenged ourselves to define the moral standards for our community; we defined our personal “why” statements (a concept leadership expert Simon Sinek identified in his popular TED Talk) in order to reflect externally on our behavior so that we could help each other on our journey of refining our moral compass; and we crafted what our lesson would be if we had ten minutes to teach the entire world something and how that defines who we are and the impact we wish to have.

Our Mitzvah Corps Portland program formed a solid foundation of who we are as individuals and as a community and how we fit into building better communities beyond this experience—at home, in our synagogues, in our schools, in our daily interactions. As Mitzvah Corps expands, it means more teens growing, learning, laughing and being active members of society. It means more youth engaging with Jewish values. It means the harnessing of incredible energy and passion for the betterment of communities across the globe. The work of tikkun olam is not the sole responsibility of an individual, it is in the power of community paired with acts of tikkun midot, in which we can begin the most sacred task of repairing the world.

Alex Rogers is the Mitzvah Corps Portland Program Director and the Youth Engagement Specialist at URJ Camp Newman. Avra Bossov is the Mitzvah Corps Portland Assistant Program Director. Matt Liebman is the Mitzvah Corps Portland Assistant Program Coordinator and the Youth Group Advisor at Temple Emanuel, Denver CO

 

The NFTY Alumni Gap



The Journal of Youth Engagement is an online forum of ideas and dialogue for those committed to engaging youth in vibrant Jewish life and living. Join the discussion and become a contributor.

As someone who has worked with NFTYites for nearly 20 years, I cherish the long term relationships I continue to have with my former youth groupers. I try to keep an eye on their progression through college, their entry into the work force and eventually their weddings, the birth of their children and all of the various life moments, happy and sad, that occur. No matter what their age or stage in life, I always think of them as “former NFTYites.”

I am continually amazed at the impact of NFTY and NFTY friendships on these individuals. It is their NFTY friends who keep appearing in photo albums as the years go by.  I am touched at the number of these former NFTYites who reach out to me, and other youth group advisors, for guidance and advice as they move through life.  I am flattered that these now college students and young adults want to keep up with my life and know my family as it grows along with theirs.

On the one hand, this is what we’ve always been hoping for. Teenagers who have such profound experiences and moments that they create lifelong friendships and meaningful relationships with adult role models.

On the other hand, for too many of our former NFTYites, they never get past the incredible weekends, trips and programs they experienced in NFTY.  Nothing compares to the community they create, the fun they have, the ruach they feel and the smiles that they can’t get off their faces. NFTY has spoiled them by giving them exactly what they want out of their Jewish experience, something that can’t simply be re-created at local congregations.

Our NFTY alumni have strong Jewish identities and lots of Jewish friends but very few of them have any type of involvement in an organized Jewish community after they leave the ones in which we’ve engaged them. Our teens often say that NFTY stands for “Never Forget These Years” but for our alumni it might as well be “No Future Temple Years (at least until they are ready to put their own kids into religious school). When I think of these young leaders as “former NFTYites” rather than “active leaders,” there’s a gap between what we have envisioned for our young people beyond high school and what we have delivered.

Instead of placing blame, or simply accepting this as a reality, I challenge us to see this “problem” as a “solution waiting to happen.” What might it look like if outreach to NFTY alumni was a priority for our congregations?

  • Congregations could have “NFTY alumni groups” which would be a natural draw for young professionals who had NFTY experiences. This might be more appealing to many of them than a generic young adult group with some type of catchy name that a committee or marketing consultant suggested. Former NFTYites would know what to expect with an alumni group – they would know they would be accepted, welcomed and with people who share common experiences even if from different regions.
  • In addition to sending holiday care packages to their own college students, congregations could also welcome NFTY alumni at nearby colleges to celebrate holidays together.  This doesn’t work in every city, but many of our congregations are located near colleges and universities. Instead of giving our Reform college students no other choice but to go to Hillel, why not provide a congregational space, and a Reform community, for these students to be together in a setting they are comfortable with. I am inspired by the concept of our congregations as a home away from home (or at least a “Temple away from Temple”) for all of our NFTYites attending college.
  • One of the main reasons for NFTY’s success is the involvement and leadership of its participants. We have a robust pool of alumni with real leadership skills – they can run programs, lead services, engage their peers, and so much more. What would it look like to invite NFTY alumni to create their own “lay” service in the style of what they would have experienced in their high school years?
  • One way to test these models is by incorporating alumni engagement into the portfolio of a youth professional, clergy member or educator.  Could we reconnect more of these young adults to the services, programs and opportunities offered by our congregations? With investment from our professional staff, we would see returns in greater synagogue involvement and membership by NFTY alumni.

At a time when study after study tells us that “membership” is a dirty word, NFTY alumni know from experience how their life was improved by being a member of NFTY. They are not scared of that word nor of that level of commitment. They are eager to find a place that is welcoming, accepting, warm, friendly and fun. When they do, I believe they will join, they will become involved and they will help lead.

NFTY alumni want to find a place where they feel they belong and that belongs to them. They understand that high school is long over and their NFTY days have passed. The opportunity to create new and positive Jewish experiences with those same people and others like them is bigger than ever. Let’s seize it.

 

Ira Miller is the Director of Informal Education at Washington Hebrew Congregation, Washington, DC. Learn more about NFTY’s alumni network at nfty75.org

Journal of Youth Engagement

A Force to be Reckoned With



by Cantor Ellen Dreskin

I remember the first time I met Debbie Friedman. In the fall of 1974, I was a college freshman. Rabbi Sam Karff from Congregation Beth Israel in Houston (my home) let me know that Debbie would be spending a Shabbat at Beth Israel, presenting her new Hanukkah service, “Not by Might, Not by Power,” complete with youth choir, dancers, and guitar. He wanted to know if I would come home from Austin and play the flute… Read more…

The Challenges of Teaching about Israel



by Jack Wertheimer

With the new school year nearly upon us, Jewish educational leaders are scrambling to prepare their teachers to discuss this summer’s Gaza War. The most pressing challenge is to design age-appropriate conversations: At which grade level might classroom discussions include potentially frightening topics, such as the wounding of non-combatants, kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets? And how should teachers address the tough issues of civilian casualties in Gaza and the flagrant hostility toward Jews and Israel that has erupted in many parts of the world? Read more…

NFTY Regions – It Takes a Village and We are a Village



by Julie Marsh

Many people wonder about the “magic” of NFTY, the power to bring teenagers together, create a holy community, and create lasting relationships. As a regional advisor, I am often asked how, when, and who creates that NFTY “magic.” To many, these questions are complicated, and to be honest, when it comes to my Florida region, NFTY-Southern Tropical Region (NFTY-STR), the answers are simple. The success and “magic” of NFTY-STR is the result of a vast support network. The adage, “It takes a village” could not be truer for us. Our NFTY-STR village is made up of NFTYites, alumni, congregations, and additional stakeholders who we have welcomed into our community over the years. Read more…

The Porch: It’s Southern, It’s Open, and It’s Jewish



For the past 18 months, the URJ supported three “Communities of Practice,” cohorts of congregations that came together to learn, discuss, and experiment in a specific field. Members from participating congregations have been asked to reflect about their process.

by Cantor Mary Rebecca Thomas

When I was ordained a cantor in 2011, I never imagined that leading a congregation’s young adult group would fall within my professional portfolio. I’d never taken the much-lauded community organizing class and I didn’t think informal education was my thing. (In retrospect, it would have been great to have developed community organizing and informal education skills in advance.) As a part-time assistant cantor in Charlotte, NC, I expected to teach b’nai mitzvah kids and adult ed, lead services, and attend lots of meetings – all of which I do.

Even a year after moving to Charlotte, however, I didn’t have many local friends, and I missed the ones I’d left behind in New York. Looking to enrich my life, I asked to take on our young adult group and our Tot Shabbat group. Despite regular attendance at events, neither group was creating meaningful community among members and before long, I was experimenting with doing just that.

At the same time, the URJ invited synagogues to join its Communities of Practice (CoP) initiative, bringing together lay and professional leaders from Reform congregations across North America for 18 months of shared learning, networking, and experimenting, all with a specific focus. I was thrilled when our congregation applied and was selected to participate in the Families with Young Children cohort, knowing that I could apply whatever skills and ideas I learned to our young adult population as well.

Our CoP kicked off in January 2013 and my lay partner and I traveled to Chicago for the event, an invaluable experience that provided me with three main takeaways:

  • Don’t be afraid to completely break down what is and start from scratch. Both Rabbi Benay Lappe and Rabbi Rick Jacobs stressed that if that’s the right thing to do, just do it. Do it with all your will, and do not be afraid.
  • We must know the lives of those we serve. To truly help them, we need to be aware and extremely mindful of their needs.
  • It’s never about how many people show up, but rather about how much the people who show up take away.

With the Chicago takeaways fresh in my mind, we convened as many thoughtful, interesting people as we could find – singles, families with kids, those who are deeply committed to Jewish life, and those who swore they’d never join a synagogue. One by one, we asked them to come help build the Jewish world they want to see. Through those first conversations, our dedicated lay leadership team was born, and The Porch, Temple Beth El’s Young Adults and Young Families Community, followed.

Seeking to create an open, accessible community devoted to promoting connections among young singles, young couples, and young families, we carefully constructed “hybrid” events — picnics, bowling, and late afternoon Shabbat activities that conclude with Havdalah – that appeal equally to 20-something singles and 30-something parents with young kids. After all, who isn’t up for an opportunity to relax with a beer and hang-out with friends? We also offer events for specific cohorts within the community: happy hour, Tot Shabbat, and Torah study, among others. In all our community building efforts, we rely on social media and personal outreach to foster relationships, build trust, and encourage participation.

In March 2014, we launched Shabbat Supper Club, the epitome of The Porch and, I believe, what the synagogue of the future can be.

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Using social media, email, and personal asks, we convened groups of people – singles, couples, and families with young children – willing to have Shabbat dinner together once a month. Members of each group take turns planning and hosting dinners – mostly in homes, but sometimes in restaurants or parks. Regardless of the setting, all the events are beautiful because they build Jewish lives, Jewish observance, and Jewish community in an ongoing way (and explicitly give people permission to skip services). In fact, Shabbat Supper Club members often ask how they can incorporate more Judaism into their time together. Although I don’t attend the dinners, as the groups’ members connect to each other and to Judaism, I work to maintain their connections to the synagogue. Building on the Shabbat Supper Club’s initial success, this year we will expand it to families with school-aged children.

Thanks to our participation in a URJ Community of Practice cohort, which inspired the Shabbat Supper Club and all of The Porch initiatives, not only are we strengthened by the engaged community we’re building, but we’re empowered to figure out what it means to be a synagogue that nurtures ongoing relationships outside the walls of the building. I am deeply moved by what The Porch has become and eager to watch its continued growth and success.

We aren’t done yet. Big things are coming, and I can’t wait!

Cantor Mary Rebecca Thomas is the associate cantor at Temple Beth El in Charlotte, NC. She is grateful to reside in a blue house with her awesome husband Matt and two small, blonde people: Johannah, 3, and Ezra, 1.

Jewish Women Innovators: The Next Generation



by Sam Kazer

This week, the WRJ Blog features a series of articles about the newest URJ Camp: URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, and WRJ’s efforts to increase the presence of girls at the camp and, by extension, support women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Our girls’ dorm, Rosie, is named after Rosalind Franklin, a biologist whose critical work with X-Ray Diffraction led to the understanding of the double helix structure of DNA. By choosing this name for the dorm, we hope to inspire our campers to shoot for the stars as empowered women, scientists and innovators. Yesterday, I sat down with two exuberant campers from Rosie, Hannah and Mia, who received YES grants to attend Sci-Tech from WRJ.

For Hannah and Mia, science and technology is their bread and butter. Besides technology being the “best way to communicate with [her] friends,” Mia has a distinct passion for robotics. In middle school, Mia won the science fair with another girl by making a robot  that blew bubbles. Although she “doesn’t always like the programming,” she is invested in exploring robotics because “Robots can (or will) do things like save people from earthquakes and natural disasters.” Hannah has split passions; she triumphantly explained that “as a future director and biologist, [she has] always liked animals and [she has] always been in love with taking picture because [she has] thought of pictures as memories.” Like Mia, Hannah finds that “making videos is a social experience” and that digital media allows her to “think outside of the box” and spur “conversations about art.”

Read more…

L’dor V’dor: From Adults, to Teens, to Kids, Camp Shalom Inspires



The Journal of Youth Engagement is an online forum of ideas and dialogue for those committed to engaging youth in vibrant Jewish life and living. Join the discussion and become a contributor.

There’s a reason so many people have been talking about summer camp: The camp environment provides daily Jewish living experiences that often prove to be transformational. It is the place where religious school lessons come to life, where Jewish friendships begin, and where the foundation for our children’s Jewish future is laid. Indeed, study after study cites Jewish camp as a critical factor in the development of a strong Jewish identity.

As the vice president and education director, respectively, of Congregation Beth Shalom of the Woodlands, we encourage parents in our congregation to make summertime Jewish time by enrolling their children in a Jewish camp. The Woodlands, however, is a surburban community an hour and a half north of Houston and its Jewish community – too far for daily commuting by most families in our temple. Therefore, for the last decade or so, we’ve set aside two weeks in June to run Camp Shalom, creating an opportunity for our kids (ages 3 to 12) to escape the Texas heat and enjoy the benefits of Jewish camp.

A few years ago, short on adult volunteers for Camp Shalom, we invited our teens – many of whom didn’t go to a URJ camp or only attended one session – to serve as madrichim (counselors).  The educational philosophy at the Woodlands is to empower teens to continue their post B’nai Mitzvah Jewish education by educating younger children. This is the corps of our madrichim training. During the school year, on Sunday and Wednesday evenings teen’s both participate in an education program for themselves and help with the younger kids.  Trained madrichim are given the opportunity to volunteer as counselors at Camp Shalom.

Today, the madrichim, with adult supervision, run the camp – organizing and supervising swimming, relay races, a movie night, craft projects, and Shabbat worship.

The beauty of Camp Shalom is empowering teens to administer and run the program.  Prior to the beginning of each camp session, the teens and adults meet to plan the daily schedule.  Immediately following each camp day, both teens and adults participate in a staff meeting. This allows continuity from one day to the next including evaluation and planning. Teens have the opportunity to discuss both the pros and the cons from the day and the ownership to adjust as needed.  As challenges arise, teens and adults develop solutions together.

High retention of post B’nai Mitzvah teens is a significant goal of our education program and we believe that Camp Shalom is a key factor in our success.

Camp Shalom provides an opportunity for the teens – who often are one of only a handful of Jews in their schools – to be together, to build friendships and to bond with one another. During camp we realized that teens organized social activities beyond camp hours.  Feeling that the temple is their home, inspiring them to engage Jewishly, and honing their leadership skills so they can take on other leadership roles in NFTY and in our temple are other benefits Camp Shalom offers them.

As one madrich put it, “Camp Shalom is special to me because I like to spend time with awesome children and teach them new things.” And that is just what he is doing. After an all-day trip to the lake, a 5-year-old camper insisted none of us could leave for home until we recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Upon its conclusion, the camper added, “Now the Jewish one…”

Indeed, making a Jewish difference in our young people is what Camp Shalom is all about.

Maura Schofield is a vice president at Congregation Beth Shalom of the Woodlands in Texas. Helen Richard is the director of education and Camp Shalom at the congregation.

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A Jewish Junta



By Rabbi Jonah Pesner

Who recruited you into NFTY?

Who invited you to your first event?

Who tapped you on the shoulder, and suggested you should become involved in a Jewish youth group?

I remember them. They called themselves “The Junta.” Sometimes they were referred to as a “gang of four.” They were the four high school seniors who were the founders of the Village Temple Youth Group back in 1983. To those of us who were younger, they were the coolest kids you could imagine. And because of their efforts, an entire generation of Jewish teens found a home in Jewish life.

Read more…

Investing in the Next Generation: The URJ’s Emerging Young Adult Initiatives Community of Practice



For the past 18 months, the URJ supported three “Communities of Practice,” cohorts of congregations that came together to learn, discuss, and experiment in a specific field. Members from participating congregations have been asked to reflect about their process.

by Rabbi Daniel Mikelberg and Adam Freedman

Judaism is constantly evolving, addressing new challenges and needs, and a key aspect of synagogue life is setting a vision for tomorrow. Consistent is our yearning to plant seeds for the next generation, but that pathway to doing so is often unclear.

This yearning pushed us at Temple Sinai Congregation of Toronto to prioritize congregational programming that would engage and inspire young Jewish adults. We joined the URJ’s Emerging Young Adult Initiatives Community of Practice (“CoP”) in order to explore best practices for addressing the needs of our young adult cohort and to connect with congregations facing parallel concerns. This initiative brought together seven Reform congregations for an 18-learning month process. We learned from experts in the field of young adult engagement, supported and drew support from the other congregations in the cohort, and launched a pilot to apply our learnings to our congregational needs and landscape. We viewed the CoP as a means to invest in our congregation’s continuing history. Read more…

Asking Big Questions: Applying Design Thinking to Working with Teens



The Journal of Youth Engagement is an online forum of ideas and dialogue for those committed to engaging youth in vibrant Jewish life and living. Join the discussion and become a contributor.

We are asking big questions in Boston and we are inviting, encouraging and supporting our teens to ask them with us. This spring a group of teens asked, “How might we create a meaningful spiritual experience for those coming of age?” This was not a question that was handed to them on a piece of paper; this was a question that evolved out of some very meaningful work in the Design Lab pilot.

The Design Lab is an innovative model of teen engagement that is a partnership between the URJ, Combined Jewish Philanthropies and the Brandeis University Office of High School Programs with partial funding from the Jim Joseph Foundation. It is a wonderful new example of collaboration as we all work together to engage a larger group of teens to delve more deeply into Judaism, and to support and enable them to engage their friends and be co-creators of their own meaningful Jewish experiences. It is an experiment in bringing the principles of Design Thinking to our work with teens. Design Thinking was first articulated and developed by a Silicon Valley design Firm, IDEO, as a framework to design physical objects. However, its applications are growing, and it is now being used in a number of settings as a way to design experiences of all sorts.

Design Thinking is a mode of problem solving that has several steps, including:

  1. Empathize/Understand/Immerse
  2. Frame/Define
  3. Ideate/Imagine
  4. Prototype
  5. Test

Our belief is that by teaching teens design thinking, and providing them time, space and support, they can and will engage their peers and develop experiences for change in their communities.

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For the pilot this spring we worked with consultants from Upstart Bay Area to help us in our thinking and learning. Our pilot group included teen cohorts from Temple Shir Tikva. Wayland and Temple Emanuel. Newton – two communities who enthusiastically experimented with us. Although the time framework for our pilot did not allow the 18 teen participants to fully answer the question that evolved  – “How might we create a meaningful spiritual experience for those coming of age?” – it did allow time and space for a substantial amount of reflection and learning from one another using the principles and stages of Design Thinking.   Design thinking by nature is often ambiguous, and learning to live with that ambiguity, without a known result, was an important learning for all.  The process is a winding and weaving road, not necessarily visible from the start.  It is a continuous looping through the stages.

Each step of our process was taught and experienced through design “sprints” as well as through deep questioning, exploring and testing of our assumptions. One of the primary tenets of Design Thinking involves developing empathy and understanding (of the “user”) and connecting that empathy and understanding to the design of objects and experiences. In our first meeting we designed wallets. Designing a wallet might sound simple, but as we reflected on our needs for a wallet, then shared our thoughts with a partner and listened to how they used their wallet, the ways in which their wallet could be improved and what their wallet meant to them (many were gifts and had meaning beyond what one could imagine), we were struck by the simplicity with which we had first seen the issue. After deeply exploring the many issues, we began to imagine a new wallet for our partners that truly reflected what we had learned about them.

We followed up by making wallet prototypes for our partners using play dough, pipe cleaners, feathers, glue sticks, yarn, construction paper, duct tap, etc. Very few of the prototypes looked anything like what we had initially assumed a wallet should be. Some had multiple slots, some had places for keys and/or phones to attach, one was built into a pocket of a pair of pants, one had modules that could be taken apart.  That exercise began to truly expand and change the way many in the room viewed designed objects and experiences.

Throughout the five sessions we continued to link back to the issue of spirituality and what that meant to each individual. Participants began to reflect on times, spaces and experiences that felt spiritual and began expanding their thinking about what it means to come of age. The participants filled the room with photos and post-it notes of all colors with thoughts, questions, ideas and musings that related to spirituality.

We also learned a lot about words.  We focused on the concept of “and” rather than “but.” “And” is additive while “but” can be restrictive. In many ways, this related to our learning that it is possible to expand on someone’s idea, rather than to narrow or eliminate it if we thought we had a better idea. We used words like “might” as in “how might we create an experience?” By using the word “might” we did not have to be constrained by practicalities.

The energy, enthusiasm and variety of ideas generated through these exercises were extraordinary. We spent time thinking about ways to create interfaith meals and dialogues into our communities, we expanded our thinking about youth group activities and ultimately focused on an idea called Torah Trek. This is a concept that brings nature and physical movement, among other things, into each Torah portion and ultimately to the B’nai Mitzvah experience.

Although the five sessions allotted and committed to by the participants did not allow enough time to fully flesh out this idea, follow-up to the pilot is an important piece of our model. We are hopeful that a group of these teens will continue to work together with us to apply design thinking to their communities and to continue to develop ideas. We still have many unanswered questions about the best ways to refine and grow this model. However, in keeping with Design Thinking we are OK with that. We know that by continuing to listen, learn, immerse, frame, imagine, prototype and test we will enhance our toolbox in Boston and have an opportunity to greatly impact the community. We are excited about our continuing to work with this group, while simultaneously cultivating a new cohort of teens and communities to work with us, and continuing to ask big questions.

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