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.
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