Launching the Campaign for Youth Engagement at the 2011 URJ Biennial

Boker Tov! Zeh hayom asa Adonai, nagila ve-nismcha bo! This is a day that GOD has given us; Let us rejoice and be glad in it!

I am so deeply honored to stand before you as the next Senior Vice President of the Union for Reform Judaism. I grew up in this Movement. My father was the president of a small congregation; my mother became a bat mitzvah as an adult during Sisterhood Shabbat; my brother was the founder of our temple youth group; and I met my wife at Eisner.

When I was a regional social action vice president in NFTY, I remember coming just miles from here to the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism where I heard the prophetic call of our tradition calling us to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God. And that voice thundered down from above from none other than Al Vorspan, the Vice President of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. I could only imagine then that I would stand before you today and say:


Listen, Hineni worked for Obama, so …. Can I get a Hineni?

I am so honored to take my place in the line of greats – among others Al Vorspan, Alex Schindler, Eric Yoffie, Lenny Thal and my beloved colleague, Dan Freelander. Danny has been inspiring me and all of us with his music and his leadership since my youth. And I am honored to stand with him. Indeed, Hineini.

Thank you Rabbi Rick Jacobs, our visionary new president for issuing this call to me to serve the Reform Movement and to Peter Weidhorn (who I wish could be with us), and to Steve Sacks and to all the URJ board for electing me.


On the eve of his retirement, Rabbi Yoffie in a visionary act of leadership, on the eve of his retirement, has called upon us for a massive, movement-wide campaign for youth engagement, and Rabbi Jacobs has declared this campaign priority number one.  In a few moments, my friends, I will call for unanimous adoption of a historic resolution ratifying the Campaign for Youth Engagement. So let us reflect for a moment on what is at stake.

I need some friends from NFTY to join me here on the stage. Let’s celebrate our leadership! Who in this room was not electrified when President Obama gave a shout out to NFTY and brought the house down?!  Come stand with me. We stand with you, come stand with me.

In addition to celebrating our NFTYites now… (A lot of NFTYites have already headed to the airports for finals.) In order to understand what is at stake for this Campaign for Youth Engagement, we need to be honest.

Natanial, I am going to ask you to do something metaphoric. We have our young people here, let them be a metaphor for all young people. So, some of our young people never come through the doors of our congregation. So, I’m going to ask Nati to go stand over there. Nati represents those young people we never even engage.

There are five young people on this stage. Lets pretend they’re the graduating bar or bat mitzvah class at Temple URJ. We have all celebrated and I’m going to ask Miriam and Elana to leave the stage because they just dropped out.

And now we’re at confirmation. And Danielle and Davia, can you please take the exit and leave the stage?

We are now at high school graduation and Erin is all we have left.

By the time our 12th graders graduate college 80% have left our congregations and communities and we may not see them again until they have children of their own, or at all.  There’s one in five left.

Do we want to bring them back? Do you want to bring them back? Do you want to bring them back?

Will you come back? Please come back! Where are my friends from NFTY? Come back!

OK, come back.  Now we have been honest. We know we want to bring them back and we will bring them back.

Let’s stand together. Let’s stand together with our young people, these incredible leaders of our youth movement, but we’re not going to stand alone with them, we are going to stand as the adult community with them. What we need to do that is nothing less than a campaign.

If we are serious we can’t just do another program, we need a massive initiative, a focused, strategic effort to ensure that we leverage the full strength and talent of every corner of our Movement – the educators, rabbis, cantors, HUC professors, camp professionals, youth workers, community organizers, lay leaders, parents, and teens, and more – to ensure that we succeed, that by the year 2020, we will engage the majority of our young people.

So let me bring our leadership team, our Vision Team for the Campaign for Youth Engagement to join us and stand together on stage.  My friends, what you need to know about this group of 60 leaders, they represent the depth and breadth of our Reform Movement. Every constituent, arm and partner of Reform Judaism is represented on this stage or by the Vision Team. Every geography across North America, small congregations and large congregations, young people and older people, synagogue professionals and lay leaders, all in an incredible team of vision and here’s what they did with us.

In the year that just passed, they fanned out across North America and conducted more than 1,000 conversations in your congregations and institutions and asked at a grassroots level: What will it take for us to succeed and bring them back? What would it take to change the culture of Reform Judaism so that bar and bat mitzvah becomes an entrance and not an exit? We also learned a great deal from hearing your voices. We learned about what the URJ will need to commit to do and what we all will need to commit to.

Let me begin with our commitments. The URJ is committing to…

First: show me the money. There will be no unfunded mandates. Thanks to all of you who have donated in honor of Rabbi Yoffie’s retirement, along with the Women of Reform Judaism, the estate of Rabbi Dick Sternberger, and the newly established Jon Shavell Fund, today, even before today’s official launch, even before we have begun, we have already raised more than one million dollars for this campaign. And we know that is just the beginning. There is an enormous amount of resource and creativity. We will go out into the field and join with you in raising significantly more funding to make this dream a reality.

Second: show me the talent. We will deliver the talent.  We are committing to enhancing and supporting the wonderful frontline NFTY and other Youth Professional staff we already have. We will add more staff, more training, more mentoring and more support, we will have more full time youth professionals across North America and we will deliver to our Movement the very best youth professionals we can imagine that our young people deserve.

And to hold us accountable to that goal, we launched an international search to bring in a seasoned, experienced professional, who has a track record of recruiting the very top talent and mentoring and training them and succeeding and engaging teens. It is my pleasure to introduce you to our new Director for Youth Engagement: Rabbi Bradley Solmsen.

Many of you already know Bradley. He grew up in a Reform congregation, he was a teacher and a trainer with NFTY and then he went off to Brandeis University where he built one of the most effective teen engagement strategies in our North American community, engaging thousands of young people over the course of his decade there and we are thrilled to have Bradley back home here at the URJ.

Third: everybody say camp.  Who went to camp? Whose got a kid at camp? Who loves camp?!

We commit to you that in the years ahead, we are going to expand our camping system, by expanding existing camps or by founding new camps and make sure that in the next few years, 3,000 more young people will attend URJ camps!

And finally, we at the URJ are making this public commitment to invest in you.

We have raised all this money not just to build up our own staff, but to invest in you. In the months ahead, we will announce the opportunity to provide challenge grants for local innovation. We invite you to go home to convene conversations with your rabbis, cantors, youth leaders, educators, lay leaders, synagogue professionals, parents and teens to collectively imagine what we can do at home to put a stop to the revolving door, how we can locally bring them back to our congregations and then come to us and give us your best thinking and challenge us to fund and invest and pay for your work. And if you can dream it, we will build it together. We will change the culture of our congregations.

The URJ is commiting to finding talent, funding programs and investing in you. That’s what we at the URJ commit to today. Now here is what we are asking of you.

In a moment we will vote on the resolution. It is sponsored by over 45 congregations from across Canada and the United States. It is also sponsored by 11 partners, affiliates, and committees of the URJ, including NFTY. I have no doubt it will pass. But before you vote, the real question is not whether you support the resolution.

The real question is: Is this your campaign?

Before we vote, let’s hear from our NFTY leaders.

We have heard the call of hundreds of our young people. One after the other say: this is my campaign!

They are not willing to be the outliers who continue to engage in Jewish life as the years after bar and bat mitzvah pass. They are in a long term campaign to become the vibrant teen community at the center of the Jewish community.  They call to us:

This is my campaign, this is our campaign! Is this your campaign?

We have heard 1,000 voices in conversation, Of parents and grandparents, Jewish professionals and clergy, congregational leaders, all crying out: we must act and act now to make sure bar and bat mitzvah is an entrance, not an exit!  They call to us:

This is my campaign, this is our campaign! Is this your campaign?

My friends, here’s the truth. We can’t succeed unless everyone in this room makes this our personal campaign. And asks the question of how we as leaders in our own communities and congregations are going to make this vision a reality. Because ultimately, there will only be true transformation, real change, when our local congregations and communitie s– yours and mine – succeed in capturing the imagination of the next generation and become the vibrant and dynamic center of Jewish life…

So now I ask you: will you make this your campaign?  Will you join us in this grassroots movement ot transform our congregations and institutions? To become the compelling communities of meaning and purpose that will engage our young people today, tomorrow and beyond? Will you join us to make sure that our children and our children’s children will say of us: we were the generation that captured the imaginations of our young people and inspire them to engage more deeply in Jewish life?

Will you join us and make this your campaign?

[shouts of ‘yes’]

I don’t believe you.  I won’t believe you until you stand up. Stand up. Stand up!  Stand up for our young people!


Mr. Chairman, I now call for unanimous acceptance of the resolution ratifying the Campaign for Youth Engagement!

My friends – if this is your campaign, let us say AMEN!

The AMENs have it – The campaign has been adopted!

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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.


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