The Campaign for Youth Engagment: A 2020 Vision

by Jonah Pesner

As promised in my post last month, we are sharing with you below the DRAFT resolution on youth engagement that will be voted on at the upcoming URJ Biennial convention. It reflects our Call to Action: the steps we are committing to take as a Reform Movement in order engage more kids, more deeply in Jewish life.

Please read. Share it with colleagues. React to it. Does the vision resonate with you? What would success look like in your community? Whether you are a teen, a parent, or a congregational leader, what role do you play in the success of the Campaign for Youth Engagement?We hope to see you in person at the Education Summit on Youth Engagement at the URJ Biennial in December!

Rabbi Jonah Pesner“When the Children of Israel stood at Mount Sinai to receive Divine Revelation, the Holy One of Blessing, said to them:  ‘Bring me good guarantors that you will keep my Revelation and then I will give it to you.’  They replied:  ‘Sovereign of the Universe, our ancestors will be our guarantors.’  Said God them:  ‘Your guarantors need guarantors themselves, for they have not been without fault.’  They answered, ‘Our prophets will be our guarantors.’  God replied:  ‘They have also not been without fault.’  Then the Israelites said:  ‘Our children will be our guarantors.’  To which God replied:  ‘In truth these are good guarantors.  For their sake I will give it to you.'”  (Song of Songs Rabbah, 1:4)

As much as the Jewish people are a people of memory, we are even more a people of hope, with a future orientation animated by a belief that the best is yet to come. It is in this spirit that the Reform Movement is embarking on a Campaign for Youth Engagement.  We acknowledge that in 2011 only a minority of b’nei and b’not mitzvah in North America, including but also transcending the Reform Movement, remains actively engaged in Jewish communal life by the time they graduate from high school – in congregational and day schools, youth groups and immersion experiences in areas such as social justice and Israel engagement.

We are committed to strengthen connections between Jewish youth and Jewish communities and to support and nurture congregations that strive to excel in engaging Jewish youth. By 2020 we aim to engage a majority of Reform Jewish teens actively in Jewish communal learning and living in order to guarantee a vibrant and dynamic Jewish future.  We commit to investing in people who work with Jewish youth and families, to providing excellent, ongoing training, and to developing a career path and a valued role for adults who dedicate themselves to leading and serving our youth. The success of the Campaign for Youth Engagement will entail a systemic cultural shift throughout the Reform Movement that prioritizes building relationships with peers and adults involving:


  • The expansion of affordable and accessible immersion experiences for Jewish youth
  • The diffusion of exemplary congregational and communal efforts to engage Jewish youth
  • The collection, analysis and sharing of data relevant to the recruitment, retention and involvement of Jewish youth in Jewish life

Youth Professionals

  • The creation and nurturing of a profession for adults who devote themselves to Jewish youth
  • The elevation of kavod (status) for adults who work with Jewish youth
  • The participation of increasing numbers of adults who teach, mentor and support Jewish youth in the HUC-JIR Certificate in Jewish Education with a Specialization in Adolescents and Emerging Adults and other training programs that may become available to those who work with youth in multiple settings


  • The creation of innovative educational and experiential strategies and programs designed with and for Jewish youth
  • The expansion of affordable and accessible immersion experiences for Jewish youth
  • The support and diffusion of exemplary congregational and communal efforts to engage Jewish youth


  • The commitment to collaborate with organizations and individuals within and beyond the Reform Movement that share the overall campaign goal
  • The Movement-wide collection, analysis and sharing of data relevant to the recruitment, retention and involvement of Jewish youth in Jewish life
  • The recruitment, infusion, and allocation of human and financial resources from philanthropic individuals and foundations required to enable the success of the Campaign for Youth Engagement. 

We will know that the Campaign for Youth Engagement has been successful when rather than being the exception it becomes the norm that Reform Jewish teens experience social, emotional, spiritual, moral, and intellectual growth within the context of a vibrant, caring, and inclusive Jewish community.

Therefore, the Reform Movement resolves to:

  1. Place full-time Jewish Youth Professionals throughout North America, in accordance with the policy adopted by the URJ Board of Trustees (adopted June 11, 2010) and designate a senior leader at the URJ with responsibilities for youth engagement.
  2. Increase camp enrollment significantly by the year 2020 and recruit a substantial number of new participants in the Parent/Grandparent Ambassador Program who will advocate for camp and other Jewish immersion experiences for youth.
  3. Champion the HUC-JIR Certificate in Jewish Education for Adolescents and Emerging Adults and develop training programs for Jewish professional and volunteer leaders who mentor Jewish youth, including a continuing education track through professional affiliates.
  4. Provide recognition for congregations that integrate Jewish youth into their communities in exemplary ways and advocate for the inclusion of Jewish youth in meaningful roles throughout the Reform Movement.
  5. Expand the innovative curricular and programmatic resources available for youth and their families beginning in early childhood and continuing throughout the life cycle in congregations, day schools, camps and other Jewish educational settings.
  6. Support the future launch of the Reform Youth Professionals Association (RYPA).
  7. Lower the financial barriers that currently prevent the involvement of some Jewish youth in immersion experiences (including early childhood education, camp, day school, L’taken Seminar, Mitzvah Corps, and Israel experiences).
  8. Collaborate with organizational partners within and beyond the Reform Movement that are dedicated to the aim of engaging youth in Jewish learning and living.
  9. Provide annual reports on the status of the Campaign for Youth Engagement.
  10. Implement a long-term development effort in order to provide the funding that will enable all items listed above.
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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.

10 Responses to “The Campaign for Youth Engagment: A 2020 Vision”

  1. dcc

    Some questions:
    a.) Place full-time Jewish Youth Professionals throughout North America, in accordance with the policy adopted by the URJ Board of Trustees (adopted June 11, 2010) and designate a senior leader at the URJ with responsibilities for youth engagement.
    How is this different from the program in the mid-90s that was later stopped? Will all of the URJ supported and placed JYP also have the certificate that we are “championing” according to “C”?
    In “B” what does significantly mean in this case? If we do not have a concrete bench mark, our success is guaranteed but also meaningless.
    What body will be responsible for creating, testing and implementing the “innovative curriculum” outlined in “E”?
    Some suggestions:
    I believe “H” is a very slippery slope and should include language that notes we will partner with organizations with which the Union shares values or something to that effect.
    I think the use of “diffusion” in the Youth section dilutes rather than furthers the message; it is too passive and seems as if you are intentionally obfuscating your end goals.
    A thought:
    I am completely supportive of this engagement concept. Of course aside from my family, Reform Jewish institutions were the most important aspect of my development as a person and a Jew. But this resolution does not outline anything revolutionary nor does it push anyone to do anything new. The only actionable item that is not already being done by the URJ, its camps, NFTY or congregations is to raise money to support these existing programs.
    I know this is a just a draft and this process is arduous (and this resolution will most likely pass without objection during the Biennial) but if we expect our youth to be engaged we need to provide an outline that is different and new as opposed to something that is rehashed and filled with vapid language regarding engagement. We have an opportunity during this transitional period in our organization to try new and power things for all of us…let’s use the young people to test it out…we like that sort of thing.

  2. avatar

    URJ affiliate PARDES: Day Schools of Reform Judaism is expected to endorse this resolution formally in the next few weeks. Readers should know that the resolution is backed by a robust Campaign for Youth Engagement process guided by a Vision Team comprised of leaders and supporters from every corner of our movement. This is likely very different from the efforts launched in the mid-90’s, though others can comment to that specific question.

  3. avatar

    I applaud the work of this resolution. The youth are our future. I continue to see firsthand, through my daughters, the impact of the synagogue life, the opportunity to attend a URJ camp as well as participate on a NFTY trip to Israel on their Jewish identities.
    However, what stands out to me in this Campaign for Youth Engagement is the lack of mention on how we are to outreach to our youth who have a disabilities. There are no provisions or an action plan to engage this population youth.
    How do we as congregations ensure that ALL are given a place in our community? It is important to recognize and accept that we all have differences and to make an extra effort to include all members of our community in all facets of synagogue life, worship, community and education.
    I worry about how we will reach out to the members of our community who may not feel “counted”–who many not feel their children can participate–because of some disability.
    We are obligated to ensure that even those with disabilities will be the among the majority of Reform Jewish teens that you hope engaged actively in the Jewish communal learning and living by 2020 in order to guarantee a vibrant and dynamic Jewish future.

  4. avatar

    I am part of the youth. I am the president of NFTY-SW and could not love being jewish more. I absolutely love this. LOVE IT. But
    1. from a first hand experience, I think the problem is that teens don’t want to stay “religious” therefore they sway away from judaism. They don’t understand that to be active in a jewish community takes a toll and it isn’t fun. Well, I’ll be honest. I am not religious at all but I sure am proud to be a jew. You need to help them realize this if that is even possible
    2. The most pivotal years for jewish engagement are the 4-5 years after your bar mitzvah. Especially the year or tw after. So why don’t we target them instead before there mind is corrupted with the thought that they must stay religious and read hebrew to stay active in the jewish community. But I am excited to see what the future brings. See you at Biennial

  5. avatar

    The goal is, of course, admirable and essential. I wonder why there is not a more central role portrayed for NFTY in this draft? Camps and one-time (or, shall we say, “one-off”) experiences like Birthright are intermittent, even when well-conceived. A constant involvement in Judaism emerges in NFTY and in Hillel that tends to (1) enhance the effects of all one-off experiences, (2) encourage longer-term commitment to Jewish life and practice, and (3) lead to adult friendships that themselves strengthen the Jewish community of the future. (We also note the indubitable success of the movement’s penchant for paying and employing NFTY songleaders, so many of whom have eventually become cantors, rabbis, and leaders of the Reform movement itself.)
    I also wonder about the lack of emphasis in the proposal on the fine role the RAC has played in involving Jewish youth in social action issues. This is a stem which should be nurtered even more. Here, too, the movement has past success which can build into future greatness.
    Last, but surely not least, the proposal does not seem to address the centrality of Jewish literacy to the issue of Jewish youth retention. Encouraging greater learning for Jewish youth leaders is obviously included and cited several times, but I am missing a strong statement on the development of a curriculum that uses informal experiences as a place to implant greater Jewish knowledge in our youth. They surely need to be prepared for encountering and responding to inevitable threats to their identity stemming from proselytizing from the Jewish far-right and Christian missionaries and anti-Israel sentiment on campus. In these cases, and others like them, we need to “teach to the test” because the test is inevitable.
    I wish you the best of luck with this initiative and stand ready to help in any way I can.

  6. avatar

    Appreciate your sharing this. Being youth supporters and cheerleaders for camp and NFTY, Ed and I read it with great interest. Knowing what jewish youth involvement did for our Aaron and Sara, I cannot help but be excited for the possibilities to come. However, Ed did raise a thought which made me think of others. I love the idea of a jewish youth professional being raised in status (indeed, the outcome may have been different for my own son had times been different), what happens when we have a cadre of wonderful youth workers who cannot get jobs? I believe we have seen this happen with other jewish professionals. Our synagogues are having difficulty affording some of the basics (I think this should be one of them). We have the ability as a movement to do amazing things; it has been shown time and again and I would like to see all of the points in the vision come to fruition. Enthusiastic trained professionals will help as long as congregations are part of the process of engaging. I want to see other kids get what my kids did, see them involved in every aspect of congregational life, have it be an important part of a synagogue’s mission. The proposed vision will help to ensure all of that. Now let’s see how we can get our communities and all its stakeholders on board too.

  7. avatar

    I’m glad to see Rabbi Pesner’s emphasis on the above being a draft resolution, because there is one word that is conspicuous by its absence: rabbi.
    As part of a congregation with a full-time youth director, I’ll attest to the important role that youth professionals can play — but their role needs to be buttressed by the direct involvement of the senior rabbi in the teen program. The resolution should call on our congregational rabbis to be “hands-on” in teaching, nurturing, and caring for the post bar mitzvah community.
    I don’t know if the absence of the name NFTY from the document was inadvertent or purposeful. The name is not as important as is a structure for bringing a critical mass of teens together beyond the limits of a single congregation. (Maybe, in parallel with WRJ and MRJ, we should have TRJ or YRJ.)
    And, riding my pet hobby-horse, the Movement should be following our teens onto the college campus.
    With those addenda, I urge the delegates to the Biennial to pass the resolution by acclamation, and the leaders of our congregations to give it life in the field.

  8. avatar
    Christopher Roberts Reply November 9, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    As a father of three girls (11, 8 and 6) in Hebrew School, and speaking as someone who was raised in a totally non-religious home — indeed, in an anti-religious home — I am pleased to see the URJ taking a serious approach to this issue.
    I have no idea how a resolution like this moves from being a piece of paper (or a web page) to being a set of systematic practices, but I note one possible disconnect in the draft document: there is a mention in the first set of bullet points to “collect, analyze and share data” relevant to this effort, but there are in fact no specific action points in the “Be it resolved…” section to support this.
    I would think no meaningful, data-based policies could be “resolved” and implemented without the core knowledge generated by studying the myriad reasons young people “drop out”.
    One more thing: as important as it is to focus positively on young people and their free will in choosing or not choosing a Jewish life beyond 13, I find it slightly surprising there isn’t more content in this draft about the role parents play in keeping kids positively engaged. Perhaps, in the talk of camps and after-school programs, it’s implied that parents are playing a role in those decisions. But doesn’t it go without saying that one reason (granted, just one of many) kids stop participating in Temple life/Jewish life after 13 is that their parents also lose interest? In our Temple, it is certainly an issue that families join when the kids are little, and leave when the youngest turns 13. The modeling starts with the parents.

  9. avatar

    I agree with Susan Wiener, as a mother of a teen with an ASD, there needs to be specific language reaching out to this underserved population. The synagogue should be a place where they can be involved in a caring, inclusive and safe enviroment. I recently found out about Camp Kutz’s Mitzvah Corp Program, where a child with an ASD can be included. All URJ affiliated groups should have that info, I wish I would have known it 3 years ago.

  10. avatar

    I am totally committed to cultivating the youth of our movement, and of the Jewish people, no question…
    I still see limited actual potentially effective material/support/programming/outreach from the CYE especially for those communities on the geographic/demographic outskirts of our community….
    What plays in the big city and metropolitan areas does not work (actually, cannot work) in smaller, isolated areas, especially those with a complete skew to older populations and precious few (if any) young people, young adults….

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