Priority Number One: The Campaign for Youth Engagement

by Rabbi Jonah PesnerIn less than 48 hours, the sound of the shofar will awaken us to renewal.  As the Union for Reform Judaism prepares to pass the mantle of leadership from Rabbi Eric Yoffie to Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the shofar calls us to honor the past by building for the future. That is why Rabbi Jacobs’ first and highest priority will be the Campaign for Youth Engagement (CYE), launched as a final act of leadership by Rabbi Yoffie. Fittingly, Rabbi Yoffie has asked that all funds raised for the tribute book being produced to honor his legacy be put towards the CYE.

EPSON051.jpgPesner and wife, Dana, on NFTY in Israel trip in 1984EPSON002.jpgPesner and wife, Dana, as counselorsat URJ Camp Eisner, 1988

This campaign is quite personal to me.  Like many leaders in theMovement I grew up in a wonderful Reform congregation.  And I discoveredthe power of youth engagement through weekends at Kutz Camp and theReligious Action Center (RAC), summers at Camp Eisner and on URJ Israelprograms, and as a North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY)leader.  I am a committed Jew today because of the inspiring youthworkers and counselors who took the time to engage me and my friends inJewish life.First, a little background. The Campaign for Youth Engagement is acollaborative effort across the Reform Movement that is built upon thefoundation laid by many groups dedicated to Jewish youth. Thiscollective was established by a handful of rabbis and volunteerleaders, headed by Rabbis Paul Yedwab and Michael White, and MarkGertz, who called for a renewed commitment by the Reform Movement toNFTY, and, more broadly, to youth work as a whole.Already their leadership inspired the Union board to expand thescope and reach of NFTY by hiring, mentoring, and training moreregional youth staff to increase our capacity to reach the youth oftoday. The Union’s effort is complemented by the new Certificate Program in Jewish Education for Adolescents and Emerging Adultsby the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR),which is generously supported by a grant from the Jim JosephFoundation.  In addition, the Joint Commission on Lifelong JewishLearning is exploring new curricula and pilot programs to introduceinnovative models of congregational life, and invited JustCongregations, the community organizing strategy of Reform Judaism, tojoin the growing team focused on transforming youth engagement.In order to ‘win’ this campaign, the entire Movement must work together collaboratively. The goal of the Campaign for Youth Engagement is to transform and strengthen the relationships between teens, their peers, their families, and their congregations.The CYE will dramatically improve the ability of Reform institutionsto involve young people in meaningful Jewish life and will strengthenpost-b’nei mitzvah engagement and retention in synagogues, day schools,camps, and youth programs throughout North America. We will leveragethe breadth and depth of relationships that exist within and beyondReform Movement institutions and congregations to bring to bear thefull commitment of talent, resources, and time at the Movement’sdisposal in order to make success the norm, not the exception.The CYE convened a “Vision Team” of nearly 60 leaders from acrossNorth America.  They represent every constituency of our Movement:teens; parents; rabbis and cantors; Union board members; leaders fromthe Women of Reform Judaism and Men of Reform Judaism; youthprofessionals; early childhood, day school, and congregationaleducators; synagogue executive directors; distinguished faculty ofHUC-JIR and seminary students; and Union staff, including those fromNFTY, the RAC, URJ Camps and Israel programs, and more.The Vision Team listened to more than 1,000 Reform Jews (includingmore than 400 youth) to learn how to better engage our teens.  On onehand, the reality is stark:80% of Reform youth who become b’nei mitzvah have no connection to a synagogue by 12th grade.On the other hand, we learned that when we reach teens and createdeep, meaningful relationships with them and their families, they arehighly likely to stay engaged.  So the Vision Team asked: Whatcould we do as a Movement to become better at creating deeper, moremeaningful relationships with teens and their families?Over the past 18 months, we have greatly expanded the number ofindividuals, organizations and congregations committed to this effort.Highlights of the past year include:

  • The Union expanded its full-time regional youth program managers from two to seven; by the end of 2012 there will 12 total.
  • HUC-JIR has already recruited the first-ever cohort for thenew certificate program in youth education, preparing to seed thefield with talented youth professionals with a new level of skilland commitment.
  • Over 100 URJ congregations are participating in pilot projects designed to engage post-b’nei mitzvah teens.
  • The Union has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in newgifts as seed money to hire new staff, offer training, and helpcongregations incubate new strategies.

So what’s next?  Rabbi Jacobs has issued an unequivocal commitmentnot only to continue the Campaign for Youth Engagement, but also todeepen and broaden it.  We will continue to support the growth of astronger NFTY; we will also work with congregations and partners acrossthe Movement to implement highly effective new strategies involvingyouth.In a future post, I will share the “Call to Action,” a platformbased in Jewish values that will provide specific, concrete ways inwhich all of us can help reshape our Reform Jewish communities.  We arecurrently testing and refining the “Call to Action” withrepresentative leaders across North America.  As a preview, the “Callto Action” will highlight three areas of action:

  • Investing in, supporting, and training the frontline people who work with our children and teens.
  • Increasing the scope of the transformative and immersiveexperiences (like camps, L’Taken Seminars and Mitzvah Corps, Israel trips, and day schools and early childhood education) thatconnect youth and families to meaningful Jewish social networks.
  • Foster and fund innovation.  Across the Movement,within congregations attuned to the needs of their localcommunities, we can find exciting new strategies to successfully reachand engage youth and families in meaningful Jewish community. Wewill call for an expansion of the funding to support ourcongregations and broad sharing of best practices.

In order to make these commitments a reality, we need your leadership. We hope that as a congregational team you will attend the Education Summit on Youth Engagementat the 2011 URJ Biennial Convention. This Biennial track will examinekey questions in Jewish learning and living and feature keynotesessions with Dr. Jonathan Woocher and Dr. Wendy Mogel.  Please alsojoin Rabbi Jacobs and senior leaders from across the Movement at theCYE Biennial forum on Thursday, December 15th from 2:00 – 3:30 pm.  Don’t miss this historic moment when we as a Movement ratify the Campaign for Youth Engagement and its call to action.This Rosh HaShanah I will be thinking of the youth advisors and camp counselors who revealed to me the joy of tefilah (prayer), the power of tikkun olam and the wisdom of Talmud Torah.I will remember those who cared for me after my father’s death,helping me maintain my faith.  I will offer a special prayer of thanksto God for placing them in my life.  And I will affirm my owncommitment to reaching the next generation. I hope you will join me inthat commitment to reflect on our past, to acknowledge our present andto hope for our future.How do you think congregations, the URJ, and the ReformMovement can better engage our youth and teens today, and not justtomorrow?  Do you have success stories to share?  What is your ownstory of connection to Reform Judaism and how might we pass that alongto our teens?  Please comment below and add your voice to thediscussion.L’shana tova umetukah – wishing you a good and sweet year

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Rabbi Jonah Pesner

About Rabbi Jonah Pesner

Rabbi Jonah Pesner represents the Reform Movement to Congress and the Administration as the Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. He also serves as the Senior Vice President of the URJ.

6 Responses to “Priority Number One: The Campaign for Youth Engagement”

  1. avatar

    Thanks Rabbi Pesner for your article. How informing to know that by 12 grade 80% have no connection. I am now in my 13 year as a full time Director of Youth Programming at Temple Solel. The investment that was made in my hiring as a result of Rabbi Yoffie’s youth initiative has made a huge transformational effect on the youth and overall community. As someone who grew up unaffiliated I found the power of Judaism and community in my early twenties through working at a Jewish camp. I have presented at the last two Biennial’s and will at this one on how to build a strong youth program that appeals to teens. In my years here I have seen teen lives positively affected by having a strong community. Reform Judaism can be and has been the answer to the alienation and cynicism that many teens experience. We regularly get 60-80 of our high school kids coming to a monthly 2 hour Friday night Shabbat service called the Teen Shabbat Jam led by a teen band of over 15 musicians called Kavannah. Besides our traditional TYG we have other leadership opportunities such as a youth led group entirely devoted to social action called the Tikkun Project. Our TYG Olim is regularly getting 60-80 kids at events and is usually the most represented TYG at NFTY SoCal regional events. We have a highly profitable summer day camp where our teens and college students are the staff and our 140 campers per session look up to them as role models. The Neshama Nosh program I run gets 11-12 graders coming in a few times a month for the sole purpose of having deep and meaningful conversation. These are just a few examples of what can happen to a congregation’s youth community when a good investment is made in the youth. The investment comes back in ways that are both measurable and beyond. The future of Reform Judaism will be bright when we can deliver what our teens really need which is A Judaism that brings relationship, relevance, and respect.
    Shanah tova,
    Craig Parks
    Director of Youth Programming
    Temple Solel

  2. avatar
    Cantor Rosalie Boxt Reply October 2, 2011 at 10:15 am

    Shanah Tovah!
    I am inspired by Rabbi Pesner’s words and by the work of the CYE leadership and vision team. It has been an honor to begin the work on this Team with a diverse and engaged group of lay people and professionals, committed more to youth and their families than to our own agendas. The Summit and Call to Action at Biennial are sure to be a turning point in this Campaign and I am looking forward to being a part of it, along with many colleauges from the American Conference of Cantors. Working together we can make a real difference in the lives of young people and strengthen our movement and community for years to come.
    Cantor Rosalie Boxt

  3. avatar

    Rabbi Jonah,
    Kol ha kavod to you, and Rabbi Yoffie, and Rabbi Jacobs, and everyone else involved, in making this a priority. As Director of Education at Temple Sinai in Miami, with 220 kids in our Early Childhood Education, 250 more in our K-8 day school, and another 50 in our Religious School, one of our biggest questions is the very one you’ve posed: how do we keep them engaged, post-B’nei Mitzvah? We have our NFTY group, but no high school – so 14 is the age at which…
    When I was a rebellious 14 year old, youth group (B’nei Brith in my case) was critical to my ability to make close Jewish friends, engage in meaningful tzedakah, find ways to define my identity as a Jew; in the UK we didn’t have Camp, and boy did we miss out. But youth group led to an Israel visit at age 18, which happened to coincide with the Yom Kippur War, and engagement became confirmed for life. The key was “personal experience”. Would I have gone to youth group if it had been hosted by a Rabbi, in a room at Temple? No – not a chance. We met in people’s homes, on Sunday mornings, to branch out to our various tzedakah projects, then regathered for the afternoon to socialise. It was my out-of-school life, and it was also Jewish. It gave me what I was looking for, rather than trying to make me fit something that it needed. That, I am convinced, is what we need to create today: meaningful personal experiences that meet the needs of the young people. And then birthright, march-of-the-living, not as a gift to just anyone, but as a reward at 18+ for the engagement 14+.
    Wearing my other hat – President of PARDeS – I want to express the commitment of all our day schools, and all our lay and professional leaders, to working with the CYE in the months and years ahead. There is no task more fundamental to Jewish Continuity than this one.

  4. avatar

    I was very active in PAFTY as a teenager and it was the most critical aspect of my developmen, spiritually, emotionally, socially, intellectually…and certainly as an engaged Jew.
    Now as a Head of A PARDES school I am passionate about youth engagement. It is all about connections, and making sure that Day Schools, religious schools, youth group and congregations collaborate and celebrate all of the routes one can take to become involved.

  5. avatar

    I am also happy and inspired by your words, Rabbi Jonah. It has been a long time in coming! As a movement, it is time to place our resources where our hearts have been for years already. I have long felt that every congregation needs a properly trained and full time youth professional. While I wonder if this should manifest as a new ordained clergy position to give credence its importance, any step in the right direction is a good one. Our Christian counterparts are Youth Ministers. Wouldn’t it be cutting edge and appropriate for the URJ to be the first to imbue such a titled role with clergy status in its congregations? I propose more than a certificate program in Youth Education! Let’s ordain or invest properly trained Youth Workers who have completed their studies as bona-fide fixtures in the synagogue and change the face of Reform Judaism forever! Show me the program, and I’m in!

  6. avatar

    I am really excited by the ideas that I am reading but I have a few questions like how will this work for the very small congregations like those who only have 4 or less teenagers in their congregation? How can the congregation afford to hire this Professional when they can’t even afford to hire a full time rabbi? How will the youth group leader who is usually a volunteer of these small congregations be recognized if they are not certified or can not afford to go to a jewish college to get certified? well I guess I have ask to many questions now and I hope I will hear from you soon.

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