Youth Group Recruitment, Membership and Retention: It takes a village!



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by Hope Chernak
Director of Youth and Informal Education at Temple Shaaray Tefila, New York, NY

For those of us in the field of Informal Jewish Education, we face the uphill battle every year recruiting students for our youth programs. We spend a good deal of our energy on retaining our students and another chunk of our time trying to get new members. While many of our congregations have fancy membership brochures, membership recruitment budgets and gimmicks, most of our youth programs’ budgets are small or have fewer tools to focus on membership. Some youth professionals are even part-time and only can focus on the preparation of events or youth group board development. I have come to realize that perhaps our best tool in recruitment (besides the fancy swag and Facebook stalking techniques) is using our own students to assist in the process of recruitment. The old fashioned way: “face-to-face” recruitment!

Recently at Shaaray Tefila, we asked active students from our senior youth group, TaSTY to speak to our joint 8th/9th grade religious school class. (Parents were also invited to this special class!). We used this opportunity to have our active leaders talk about how to stay involved past confirmation within the synagogue. Our high school students first spent time sitting with the students in small groups over dinner. (While the religious school students were mingling with the TaSTY leaders, our parents sat together with one of our rabbis and the youth director for their own “bonding” time. Ironically these parents hadn’t been invited to sit together to just “talk” in many years).

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The informal time was essential to “mix and mingle” and have our teen leaders spend quality time with the 8th/9th graders. Once dinner was finished (and after a rousing rendition of Birkat Hamazon, using the NFTY Benchers!), a few of our leaders spoke to the students and parents that were in the room. After the students talked about the confirmation program (and their Religious Action Center Trip), “what is TaSTY-youth group?” and “what is NFTY?”, one of our students then read an open letter to the students. This letter summed up how he felt at NFTY Convention about his membership in youth group. I share this letter with you as tool or as a suggestion to have your own teen share their story of Youth Group membership.

March 2011

Dear 8th/9th Graders:

I am writing this letter to you, from my perspective – someone who has sat in your seat before…

At the end of my 8th grade year, I was asked a simple yet life-changing question, “Do you want to join TaSTY?” Back then tasty was a word that I used to describe how I felt about eating a size of pizza or a cup of ice cream. This would continue to my thought process about the word “tasty” until just a few months ago. Now, when I think of the word “tasty” – I think of a family, a loving community filled with joy and fun and of a life changing experience.

Here I am, sitting in the ballroom at NFTY convention in Dallas, Texas, where just a few hours prior, this ballroom was filled with over 700 Jewish teens. Through this life changing few days, I’ve realized an important truth about my life. I’ve missed so much — but not being part of TaSTY and NFTY. Yes, the transition between middle school and High school is difficult; however, NFTY and TaSTY are anything but a burden.

Joining TaSTY and NFTY has honestly made me feel connected and I proud to say I’m a Jewish teenager! I have re-learned what it means to be part of a Jewish community. Being Jewish is not solely about the prayers and the torah. Being Jewish is about relating what you have learned about Judaism and applying it to your personal life. It doesn’t have to be separate. TaSTY and NFTY is the best place to express your ideas as a teenager, in a judgment free environment.

As an active member this year in TaSTY, I have heard feedback that services and lack of teen engagement at the synagogue are the two main reasons why students have left after 8th grade. Being in your shoes once before, I know your arguments. I do understand where you are coming from … Let me tell you from my firsthand experience that TaSTY events and NFTY events are completely different. For example, worship services are one of the most powerful aspects of these groups. Hearing everyone’s voices, singing through prayer – has been one of the most emotional moments that I have witnessed in my life so far.

NFTY and TaSTY IS all about the teen engagement! Our voices are actually listened to by our peers and the adults and clergy that work with us. If I had to describe NFTY and TaSTY in a few simple words, I would say: community, family, and love.

So — please before saying “Nah, why would I want to be part of TaSTY and NFTY?” — remember these words. I regret joining so late into high school. Don’t make the same mistake as I did… and please join TaSTY!

Your fellow Shaaray Tefila member (and now active TaSTYite/NFTYite!),

– Matthew Simon

Matt Simon with other TaSTY members at NFTY Convention.png

Other suggestions for recruitment tactics from “TaSTY”:

  • Frequent “TaSTY” card (Students get rewarded for attending events with a sticker or “hole-punch” on a card and can be redeemed for special “SWAG”)
  • 8th grade kidnapping breakfast and program
  • Phone calls to 8th grade parents by teens to encourage student participation in upcoming programs (including the kidnap breakfast)
  • Snail mail birthday cards from the Youth Group
  • Teen Tuesday (High School students teach informal education programs 6 times a year for 6th & 7th graders during Religious School)
  • 8th grade students invited to join High School events & programs as early as March and April
  • Phone calls by teen grade reps other students in their grades
  • Facebook interaction (teen to teen, advisor to teen) & group events
  • Twitter messages
  • “SWAG” given out for students that attend a NFTY regional event, attend a first event (8th grade welcome gift), or for holidays such as Rosh Hashanah (to help build brand recognition)
  • Text reminders to retain members already involved

More resources on membership can be found on NFTY’s website.

Spotlight on Welcoming the Stranger: During the month of March, the URJ is highlighting resources that help our congregations with their Outreach and Membership efforts.

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