Addressing Mentor Gaps in Synagogue Leadership through Engaging 20-Somethings
by Rabbi Wendi Geffen
Much of the 20-30 year old Jewish population described instudies finds the synagogue unappealing because, in their minds, it translates toan institutional culture that previously proved unable to address their variedneeds/beliefs/values as individuals. Assuch, not only is the future of synagogue affiliation a problem, but the dearthof an enduring line of synagogue leadership proves, in many ways, an evenlarger obstacle. In early 2011, NorthShore Congregation Israel (NSCI) in suburban Chicago was awarded a URJIncubator Grant to create a program to address these challenges. B&B (Beyond and Back) is NSCI’s multi-facetedvalues and leadership development program for Jewish 22-30 year olds. The B&B leadership track not onlyconnects participants to their Jewish identity and the synagogue, but mentorspotential Jewish leaders for the future as well.
Today, it seems many of our 20-somethings experiencesomewhat of an identity crisis. Theygenerally do not identify as their own family unit, seeing themselves more as”young” than as “adult”, but not fitting in to either category completely. They are likely single or in relationships,but are not yet married and do not yet have their own children. Most of their Jewish experiences have placedthem on the “receiving” end of synagogue offerings and services, and therefore,their view of themselves as “young” rather than “adult” holds in relation to thesynagogue as well.
B&B addresses this issue by offering a comprehensivespiritual identity and leadership development program combined with realopportunities for the target population to reconnect with the synagogue,specifically through our youth programs department. A small corps of individuals, many whom benefited from NSCI youth programs whilegrowing up, were selected to be in the first B&B Leadership cohort. NSCI holds two annual high school”identity-development” retreats previously led by our parent-age leaderpopulation. We have shifted the leadershipto our young adult population, training the cohort in advance of the retreats,as well as empowering them to facilitate most of the programs. The20-somethings are paid a stipend for their time missed from work on theretreats (our retreats begin on Thursday evenings or Friday mornings), but notfor their involvement in the training sessions leading up to or weekend time onthe retreats. We teach these young adults the value of contributing back to thesynagogue, by giving time and money, in a safe and non-threatening way. This has been a powerful opportunity for thecohort to be placed directly in the position of being Jewish role-models forour high school population in a significant and compelling way. This has allowed our young adults todemonstrate to our teenagers that one can maintain a fulfilling connectionafter high school, college, and leaving the nest. The teens responded with overwhelmingacceptance and interest. Besidesdeveloping close personal relationships with the “B&B”ers, many have sincecommented that they hope to be a “B&B”er when they are older. Whereas it proved difficult for ahigh-schooler to visualize themselves as someone their parent’s age, it proves not only easy, but moreimportantly, readily meaningful for themto see themselves as a young adult. Additionally,the program has helped our young professionals gain profound, “feel-good” Jewish experiences as the drivers, not the driven. They get the opportunity to give back to thatfrom which they gained so much in their younger years, and in doing so, feelthey have received even more. They gainextensive Jewish knowledge by learning how to teach it and doing so. Additionally, facilitated conversation timewas set aside for the young adults and the parent-leaders to engagetogether. The young adults heard storiesfrom the older leaders about their lives, choices, commitments, and spiritualidentities. The older leaders heard thesame from the young adults and then shared questions/comments ranging from veryspecific, yet often unaddressed topics, like “how much tzedakah do youcontribute annually as a family,” to more general questions about personaltheologies. The two populations wereable to get to know each other on a more familiar, friendly level, and as such,the young adults were able to better seethemselves as “adults” rather than “big kids.”
Through the program,teenagers have seen a future Jewish path for themselves after college connectedwith a congregation, and the young adults are able to visualize what theirinvolvement might look like through dialogue with established leaders in thecommunity.
Rabbi Wendi Geffen isan associate rabbi at North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, IL where she has served for 10 years.