Rabbi Pesner: We’re Taking Youth Engagement Seriously

In this week’s Jewish Chronicle of Pittsburgh, Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the URJ’s Senior Vice President, lays out the ideas behind the Reform Movement’s new Campaign for Youth Engagement, a major effort to bring young Jews (back) into the fold.

[Rabbi Pesner] said 80 percent of the Reform Jewish b’nai mitzva fall away from Jewish life by the eighth grade.

“The crisis is most of those kids will disappear by 12th grade, and they will bring their families out the exit [of the synagogue],” Pesner told the Chronicle in an exclusive interview. “So somehow the bar and bat mitzva has become an off ramp rather than an on ramp, which is ironic because it’s a complete reversal of Jewish history.”

But this crisis, Pesner noted, also poses an opportunity to revamp the movement to engage, not only teens, but young adults before they have kids of their own.

In the piece, Rabbi Pesner explains the four-pronged approach behind the Campaign for Youth Engagement: “retraining youth professionals to show teens how to build their own peer networks; increasing ‘immersive’ experiences such as camping, Israel trips and service projects to pull in more youths; engaging young Jewish adults in their 20s and 30s, outside the synagogue if need be, to help them connect to Judaism before they marry and have kids; and changing the culture of synagogue life.”

The Campaign for Youth Engagement launched to much fanfare at the URJ’s Biennial 71st Biennial Convention in December. You can watch Rabbi Pesner’s Biennial address below, then learn more on our Campaign page, where you’ll find archived webinars on youth engagement, introductions to the Campaign staff, videos from NFTY participants and Reform Jewish professionals about the need to engage teens, and more. Perhaps most importantly, you’ll learn how you can support the Campaign.

How much does the Campaign for Youth Engagement mean to the Reform Movement? Rabbi Pesner sums it up in the last line of his interview with the Chronicle: “The Jewish future is too much at risk to mess this up. We’re taking it really, really seriously.”

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Kate Bigam

About Kate Bigam

Kate Bigam is the URJ's Social Media and Community Manager. Prior to this, she served as a Congregational Representative for the URJ's East District and at the Religious Action Center as Press Secretary and as an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant. Kate resides in Northeast Ohio.

3 Responses to “Rabbi Pesner: We’re Taking Youth Engagement Seriously”

  1. avatar

    Rabbi Pesner has correctly identified the problem, but unfortunately his solution is completely wrong. In fact, it is 180 degrees reversed from what is needed.

    Rabbi Pesner is correct that the key is “changing the culture of synagogue life”. But the trouble is that the current culture has reduced Judaism to pediatric Judaism. That is, the current culture focusses on kids and bar/bat mitzvahs. So it is no surprise that once kids have reached this point, so many families leave.
    The adults get the message that Judaism is directed towards kids, so they quite naturally conclude from that that Judaism has nothing to offer adults, and they drop out.

    The solution is not to focus on teenagers. That is just slightly older pediatrics.

    Rather, the solution is for synagogues to focus on adults. Judaism has deep spiritual meaning and a deep intellectual tradition to offer adults (and the point of the Reform movement is to ensure that these stay meaningful and engage modern people, rather than to ossify and turn their backs on the outside world). If the culture of Reform synagogues changes to emphasize what Judaism has to offer adults, then they will naturally stay. If not, it’s hopeless.


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