Top 10 Things to Know About the Campaign for Youth Engagement



We’ve been talking about the Campaign for Youth Engagement since the URJ’s 71st Biennial Convention last December. In the four and a half months since, we’re been working on hammering out the details of this exciting and important campaign, and we want to be sure we’re communicating those details effectively along the way.

So what is it? Quite simply, the Campaign for Youth Engagement is a focused, strategic effort to leverage the full strength and talent of every corner of the Reform Movement to engage and retain the majority of our youth by the year 2020.

Here are a few other things you need to know about the Campaign for Youth Engagement:

  1. Campaign for Youth EngagementIt’s unlike anything we’ve done before.
    This campaign is marked by its grassroots nature, the longevity of its scope, and the pursuit of a lofty but achievable goal through diverse strategies developed by and for congregations in every geography and of every size. The Campaign will not send out programs to “solve” the youth engagement challenge. Instead, we’ll collaborate to learn together what works in each region, in each community, and in each congregation.
  1. It’s about revolutionizing b’nai mitzvah:
    We believe the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony can be a meaningful, vibrant moment in the lives of young Jews and their families, not simply a collection of requirements used to enforce school enrollment and synagogue membership. In 2012-2014, we will launch B’nai Mitzvah Revolution, a joint project of the URJ and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion that will work with a pilot group of 10 Reform congregations to explore new ways of deepening the experience of middle school students and their families as they prepare for and celebrate the rite of b’nai mitzvah. As new ideas and models are developed, we will share the successes and challenges of these congregations through our website and through conferences. For participation in the project’s second cohort, beginning in 2015, we plan to recruit a larger group of congregations.
  1. It focuses on Jewish experiences, not just Jewish education.
    We know that the most powerful experiences are hands-on opportunities to build, taste, and explore while nurturing powerful, life-long friendships. Immersive experiences like programmatic weekends, summers, camp, and Israel trips are among the most effective strategies in creating strong Jewish identity. The Campaign will focus on building up and connecting these existing immersive experiences to teens, their families, their congregations, and each other to create a web of interconnected experiences in our youth’s lives. The Campaign will also identify, strengthen, and create a variety of new avenues for youth to meaningfully engage in Jewish life by experiencing Judaism in real-time.
  1. It’s not “one size fits all.”
    Though we will provide various resources about the campaign, we will not create a single document that serves as a guide for all congregations. Instead, we will work with congregations and communities to identify the solutions that best suit their unique needs dependent on size, geography, and demographics. This campaign is not about the URJ telling congregations the “right answer.” Rather, we recognize that congregations and communities have differing right answers – and we want to find and develop them together.
  1. It’s driven by both professionals and grassroots.
    The Campaign was launched initially by a diverse team of teenagers, lay leaders, synagogue professionals and clergy, camp directors, and HUC faculty members – an unprecedented grouping for the URJ. We’ve combined the best of educational thinking, synagogue transformation, and community organizing to work together as one, ensuring streamlined communication and a true joint effort.
  1. It is relationship-centric.
    In 1,000 grassroots conversations with teens, educators, rabbis, youth workers, cantors, administrators, and lay leaders about what engages teens and what does not, one theme stood out: building meaningful relationships and a dynamic and engaged Jewish community is essential for youth and their families to commit to Jewish life. The adults who work with youth (including professional staff and lay leadership) are the primary relationship-builders with our teens and their families. We will invest in the people who do this vital work by providing training, a career path, and a valued staff role, as well as strengthening the status of the field.
  1. It was created by congregations and with congregations’ concerns in mind.
    After a decline in congregational confirmation class enrollment and participation in NFTY, a group of rabbis turned to the URJ and said, “We need to do better together.” The Campaign for Youth Engagement was born out of tension between the way things have become and they way we need them to be; among clergy who care deeply about youth engagement and retention but need partners locally and nationally to create new programs to address it; between understanding the need for youth professionals and the ability to hire, train, and retain those staffers. This tension catalyzed the creation of the Campaign and remains an essential component of the partnership between the URJ and its congregations.
  1. It goes beyond the Reform Movement.
    We commit to partnering not only within the Reform Movement but also to exploring partnerships with Jewish organizations outside the Movement – as well as with organizations that aren’t explicitly Jewish. We will enter into partnerships that challenge us, support us, encourage us to take risks, and help us to rethink what we do and how we do it.
  1. It is the top priority for the Reform Movement’s new administration.
    We commit to prioritizing our youth by building on the millions of dollars with which the campaign was launched so that the effort maintains the financial backing it needs. We will hold ourselves accountable for fulfilling these commitments and will rigorously evaluation of our efforts in order to become as successful and effective as possible
  1. You can get involved. Now.
    The Campaign is in the process of transforming from a vision into an on-the-ground strategy around immersive experiences, investing in people who work with youth, and changing the culture of congregations – and we want to hear from you! If you or a team from your congregation have ideas or would like to learn more about each of these strategies, please contact me.

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Joy Friedman

About Joy Friedman

Joy Friedman is the Lead Organizer of the URJ's Campaign for Youth Engagement. She has extensive experience as a community organizer working with synagogues and churches, as individual institutions and collectively, to pursue social justice.

13 Responses to “Top 10 Things to Know About the Campaign for Youth Engagement”

  1. dcc

    By engaging with hundreds of engaged people over a long period (at least one year at this point, which is clearly a long time) how is this marked by “longevity” or “grassroots?” By your own list this idea was born from the leadership and pushed through by the leadership.

    All that aside, what is it that makes it better? Is it simply an excuse to not provide ideas so to call this a community based non-one size fits all program?

    I have been asking these questions since Rabbi Pesner first posted about this issue before the Biennial during his disingenuous request for questions and concerns about this campaign.

    I have also been trying to add to the conversation since then. We don’t need fancy new or hip things for people become engaged, especially teens.

    We need people to feel responsible to their community. We need be challenged by our leaders. We don’t need to be asked what matters to us as Jews. Those things are written down, in a number of places. (I can think of five good places to start) We need to get away from crowd sourcing new traditions and get back to our traditions.

    These traditions may evolve but they must have meaning to the community. They must be rooted in something and ring true with modernity.

    For too long our congregations have been catering to the lowest common denominator. That is a big turn off for most people and it sure is for me. Jewish community engagement isn’t easy and it shouldn’t be. It is a commitment and we need to move beyond the language of engagement and move into the actions of responsibility.

    But what do I know?

  2. avatar

    Joy, mazel tov, and if you want to speak to one youth, try my daughter, Nessa Orit GoldhirschBrown, who has a Bat Mitzvah January 5, 2013 at Temple Beth
    El in Sudbury, MA, if you want to ask her about changing how Bar/Bat Mitzvah is done, among other things, and if I can help, please let me know. cell: 617 645 0226

  3. Larry Kaufman

    I usually like to respond only to blog posts, and not to the other comments the post stimulates, but Donnie’s observations (dcc) deserve some responses — especially when we consider that he is one of the success stories of the Reform movement’s youth initiatives of the past.

    First, I don’t think it’s fair for him to characterize Rabbi Pesner’s request for input as disingenuous; and as a public relations professional, he should be the last person to be putting down the idea of crowd-sourcing.

    In fact, while sharing some of Donnie’s skepticism about same-old, same-old, I am optimistic about the new Youth Initiative in some measure because of what Rabbi Pesner has already taught us about listening, and about the way we have seen the Just Congregations listening-based initiative, which he spear-headed, revitalize social action programming in so many of our congregations.

    One of the core elements in the Movement’s effort to engage teens has been to encourage congregations to hire full time youth directors, with training and expertise in the work. As part of a congregation which was ahead of the curve in doing so, I agree it’s important – but there are two other elements without which these teen programs cannot succeed.

    1. The rabbi cannot be a bystander, cheering the program from the sidelines. Teens respond when they see rabbis making them one of their top priorities. Hands on, Rabbi!
    2. The parents cannot be bystanders, but have to role model that Judaism and the synagogue are an intrinsic part of the whole family’s life, not just the teenagers’.

    We also have to remember that what happens in our congregations is a reflection of what is happening in the broader society. As our sociologists keep reminding us, we are at a time when people are Bowling Alone http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/DETOC/putnam1/putnam.htm and living alone http://www.ericklinenberg.com/. We all know how engaged our teens are with social media, in a world where texting seems preferable to talking. We need to hear more about how these realities will play out in the new Youth Initiative.

    Finally, Donnie suggests that, “We need people to feel responsible to their community.” No, people either feel responsible or they don’t, and they will not participate in our Youth Initiative out of guilt. We need people to feel wanted, and/or needed (not the same thing as feeling responsible), and to believe they will find fulfillment in what we are offering.

    Let’s help light the candles, rather than cursing the darkness. The Reform Jewish future depends on it.

  4. dcc

    Larry, I have really missed our blogging spats. So some responses to your responses.

    Your two points are spot on. End of story.

    However, as a PR pro, I know the difference between spin and substance.

    I also know that texting, Tweeting, blogging, or even old fashion face-to-face conversations are NOT communication. They are a means of communicating. The content is what is communications. You and I are communicating via RJ.org and we may later take this to email, but the content will remain the same. So, yeah, the texting argument is weak, to say the least.

    There was a recent study that explains that social media has made us feel more alone but that has nothing to do with the means, but rather the by-product of the tool not a direct effect of the process. Easily this argument could have been made with the advent of the telephone, and I believe it was.

    That being said, utilizing these tools to reach people without something of value to say is wasteful.

    Which brings me to my last point on your points: responsibility and guilt are two very different things. Ways to a means, perhaps but you should be proud of taking responsibility. If you don’t do it and you feel guilty, it is because you know there is value in your actions.

    If people don’t have a sense of responsibility to the community, then the actions are taken selfishly and arguably in a non-Jewish manner. Should people get something out of their involvement? Absolutely. But that shouldn’t be the only thing

    If we want to talk about why teens and young adults aren’t involved in great numbers, we should look at their parents.

  5. avatar
    Subie Banaszynski Reply May 4, 2012 at 3:09 pm

    The Campaign for Youth Engagement, while still in its earliest stages, has already had a profound effect on NFTY. The energy and inspiration that has come from this campaign has mobilized the NFTY staff and NFTY board and general members in a way that is invigorating and exciting.

    Staff and teens are looking at engagement in a new light – we no longer measure teen engagement solely based on attendance at a NFTY event, or enrollment in Religious school. Our staff and our teens recognize that engagement includes being involved in any aspect of Jewish life – the teen who sings in the temple choir, the teen who participates in the walk for Israel, the teen that has a personal observance of Shabbat yet may not be visible to the congregation – are all engaged teens. NFTY supports teen engagement on every level.

    As a result of the CYE, all of the Jewish youth movements have joined forces and renewed their commitment to the Coalition of Jewish Teens (CJT). This group brings together leaders of the International Jewish Youth Movements who are connected by their shared desire and passion for tikkun olam on an on-going basis. The CJT had previously been convened to support disaster relief in Haiti, and also Iran’s Nuclear Disarmament, but never before had an issue been so close and personally tied to their experience as the recent attention to bullying.
    Through the Campaign, NFTY has “opened our tent”; going beyond our individual NFTY Regions. We are partnering with HUC for a songleader weekend, we are partnering with the RAC on Social Justice issues, we are partnering with BBYO on local projects in many communities within North America. This opening of the tent was a direct result of listening to our ‘Jews in our Pews’ who moved us in this direction – and have become strong supporters on the ground.
    The Reform Movement, at the urging of the Campaign, is a strong advocate for Youth Professionals. This is already evidenced by the creation of RYPA (Reform Youth Professionals Association) and the addition of more full-time staff people in our NFTY Regions. Congregations have been challenged to review the nature of the youth professional in their congregations – assessing themselves to determine where their own gaps and successes are in their youth engagement efforts.
    Each of the examples above was prioritized, encouraged and supported by the Reform Movement leadership (both lay and professional), congregations, clergy, parents, staff and most importantly, teens themselves.

  6. avatar

    The Campaign for Youth Engagement is a very exciting and monumental campaign that I think will extend to not only Reform Jews, but Jews of all denominations.

    Something very unique to this campaign, that Joy pointed out, was its intense concentration and emphasis on the successful building of relationships from youth to everyone in their congregations. I think for the first time, the URJ and NFTY will begin to measure “numbers” not by how many teens are at an event or Temple program, but if they are contributing members to this movement and really feel a sense of ownership for Reform Judaism. This will undoubtedly build up our communities, and all of our Temples will finally reflect our commitment to Judaism.

    Growing up in my own Temple, I have seen countless peers discontinue their involvement with Jewish life. This had a profound impact on not only my Confirmation class, but the Temple community. I’m ecstatic that the URJ has made youth engagement its #1 priority, and I’m very excited to see where the future takes the URJ!!

  7. avatar
    Forrest Yesnes Reply May 4, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    Ask any NFTYite, and he or she will tell you that cornerstone to their NFTY story is sharing how it is they came to be involved. Much of NFTY’s population comes from our URJ camp community. Others had older siblings who were involved. When I tell my NFTY story, however, I tell people that it was an accident, a fluke that I ended up attending regional events, becoming obsessed with being a Jew, and getting to the place I am today as NFTY’s 62nd President.

    Yes, I went to religious school. I had a Bar Mitzvah and I was confirmed. As a freshman in college, I’ve even attended the occasional Hillel event. I consider myself an engaged Jewish youth, but not intentionally. I was not reached out to in the normative ways that we associate with engagement. I randomly wandered on the path of my synagogue’s youth group more than half way into my high school career before I tripped into NFTY, and fell in love with my Reform Jewish journey. When thinking of my own path, as someone not traditionally engaged, someone even under-engaged as a lifelong congregant, the thought of placing intentionality and meaning and purpose into those actions makes me proud to be part of a Movement that is truly moving in the right direction. To think of the potential we have to influence and engage so many more young people is one of the reasons I am pursuing a degree in Youth Studies. What the Campaign for Youth Engagement stands for is what I will build my life and career around, and I feel so honored to have been part of it from its genesis.

    As a member of the CYE’s Vision Team, I was able to share my story (as well as listen to the stories of other teens that represented the entire spectrum of engagement). We sat on forums at the URJ Board meeting last June and were asked what works to get us to come to temple, what doesn’t work, what intrigues us, what scares us, and what keeps us away. This is one small example of hundreds of different gatherings with people representing the gamut of experiences, with a common desire to bring our young people back into a stronger, broader tent in more meaningful ways. It is through open-mindedness, education, understanding, and patience that this Campaign will continue to grow and permeate all aspects of our Reform Jewish community from the grass roots up. And central to those values are the staff most deeply connected to the Campaign, beginning with Rabbi Pesner, Joy Friedman, and the entire professional staff within our broader Youth Programs at the URJ.

    The touchtone text of Generational Leadership is “da lifnei mi ata omed, know before whom you stand.” Today we stand at a crossroads between leaving behind what was, and moving boldly towards what can be. Change is hard, and even harder is admitting that decisions made in the past were not rooted in visioning a brighter future. What is important to focus on now is working to actualize that future, and engaging with our partners who will help to make this a reality. It is up to each individual to determine what their role might be on this journey, and with that is the realization that some may choose not to join. On behalf of my generation, and the generations my peers and I will work to develop because of the work of the CYE, I ask you to join us on this journey. Should you choose not to, please, don’t stand in our way.

  8. dcc

    “On behalf of my generation, and the generations my peers and I will work to develop because of the work of the CYE, I ask you to join us on this journey. Should you choose not to, please, don’t stand in our way.”

    This is a great engagement tool.

    Feel free to moderate this out.

  9. avatar
    Michelle Zemil Reply May 5, 2012 at 5:56 pm

    As a NFTY Regional President, active youth group member, confirmed Jew, and 16 year old girl I think that the Campaign for Youth Engagement is a huge boost for our youth.
    Until my confirmation last year, I had been in religious school every Sunday since 3rd grade. I didn’t like it much. It wasn’t something that I found fun, spiritual, or important. For me, there was no connection. There was no connection, that is, until I joined my temple youth group, SAFETY. I joined, I was elected to board, I attended kallot, and I found my connection. It started with people, then I connected with the programs, and lastly I found the connection with myself. It was like I had found a missing puzzle piece and I realized what being Jewish meant to me. In my confirmation class, led by my own Rabbi, I joined the discussion. The topics weren’t always about something directly Jewish, but I could now recognize the roots of my own Judaism in not only our discussions, but in everything.
    It’s easy to see that I am a NFTYite and that I love it, but I’ll be the first to admit that NFTY isn’t for everybody. My older brother had once been involved in our temple youth group. It lasted for about a year- he was even our youth group’s co-RCVP with Josh Levin who went on to be NFTY-STR RCVP and eventually NFTY RCVP. NFTY worked for Josh and I, but not for my brother. He honestly tried to be involved and enjoy it, but it didn’t make him happy and why should he continue if it was only a nuisance? After that he lost touch with his Judaism in multiple ways. He still feels a responsibility of sorts, but he does not connect with Judaism. He always leads my family in prayers on holidays, knowing that it’s his responsibility as a Jew, but he doesn’t feel the words that he says. He fasts because it’s his responsibility, but he doesn’t feel the spirit behind it. He sings Shiru Ladonai at the end of services with his arms wrapped around his neighbors shoulders as the congregation sways, but he has yet to feel that he is part of a community. He tries, but he has yet to be engaged.
    This is why we need the CYE. To tell the truth, my brother hasn’t done anything that I just said in a little less than a year. He’s attending NYU Tisch for film, and I’m very proud of him. All the way in New York City, he doesn’t have those responsibilities anymore, and he’s lost that last bit of Judaism in him because he had nothing worth continuing on his own time. He had never been engaged because the only two options he had (religious school and youth group) had not suited him. He’s not the only one. I go to a school with a high Jewish population (I estimate my class is maybe 20% Jewish) and yet I am the only person in my class that is actively Jewish, in any way.
    It’s the kind of connection that I am lucky enough to have discovered and that my brother and classmates have not yet found that makes teens continue in their faith. A religion isn’t something that can merely be set upon teens as a responsibility because soon that’s all they will regard it as. Teens must decide why Judaism is important for themselves. I’m not Jewish because my parents are, or because I became a bat mitzvah, or because my weekly chore of attending religious school became a chore of attending youth group events. I am Jewish because I have found my own spiritual connection that grows daily.
    Old methods work, of course they do! Look at me, look at Forrest Yesnes! We’re proof. There’s proof all over the nation- thousands of teens are involved in religious school and NFTY, and that’s something to celebrate. However, you don’t see the cases where it fails because those teens never do get involved. They go on with their life, ignoring Jewish organizations while Jewish organizations ignore them. The CYE will change this, allowing teens to become involved with their Judaism on their own terms, in their own way. That’s how real connections are made, and youth will only hold on to and grow with their religion if it is by their own choice, in a way that is enjoyable to them.
    Shabbat Shalom!

  10. Larry Kaufman

    Let me react to Forrest Yesnes’s plea to those who choose not to join the journey to please not stand in the way. I cannot imagine anyone opposing this initiative and standing in its way. And I can understand Donnie’s concern that the content, the message, have not been as well articulated as have the tools and techniques.

    My point was not that the mere use of social media was going to have our youth banging at the door — only that failing to properly deploy social media would limit our effectiveness in communicating our message, and would suggest that we are trying to reach people where they are not. And, by the same token, one of the maxims of the advertising business back in the day when I was part of it was that good advertising is the fastest, cheapest way to kill a deficient product.

    If we don’t tweet and text and whatever the next new tool will be, the message will not be delivered. If the message isn’t cogent, relevant, salient, it will not be received — and Donnie is right that if it’s the same old message, it will get the same results it has been getting.

    But if we don’t have a good answer for What’s in it for me, we’ve got nothing, and just saying that it’s the parents’ fault, or the fault of the failure of previous efforts, doesn’t help. The key to the future is not what we can do, but rather what we can think of doing. This has to be about new ideas, spread by sharing what’s working and what isn’t, and enriched by the experiences of candle-lighters rather than thwarted by those of darkness-cursers. And who better to provide those ideas than knowledgeable, creative, experienced near-peers? Rather than carping, carpe diem , seize the day.

  11. avatar

    DCC is so right: “If we want to talk about why teens and young adults aren’t involved in great numbers, we should look at their parents.”

    I have parents who are opting out from their own involvement (and family’s involvement). Recently we sent out a survey to both our teens and parents. We targeted those already involved and those who are disenfranchised/uninvolved. I actually got an email response by a parent asking me to remove his email from future emails because his teens are not involved. The point of our survey was to find out what would help our students and the family get more involved! (side note-I reached out to this parent personally to follow up).

    This is just one of many examples of how I see the parents pulling back and not involved or interested in their connections and/or their student’s connections.

    I’m happy to report that at our synagoue we are aware of this is a challenge and while we support CYE – we are are specifically working on our campaign to get the family unit and parents more connected (not just our teens). Our Religious School and Youth Committee Chairs with our educators and clergy team are behind this mission.

    I hope that CYE and the URJ will take this on as well!

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