One Congregation’s Journey to Youth Engagement
In a drash he wrote a couple of weeks ago, Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth has this to say about B’midbar:
B’midbar takes up the story as we left it toward the end of Shemot.
The people had journeyed from Egypt to Mount Sinai. There they received the Torah. There they made the Golden Calf. There they were forgiven after Moses’ passionate plea, and there they made the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, inaugurated on the first of Nisan, almost a year after the exodus.
Now, one month later, on the first day of the second month, they are ready to move on to the second part of the journey, from Sinai to the Promised Land.
Yet there is a curious delay in the narrative. Ten chapters pass until the Israelites actually begin to travel (Num. 10: 33).
First there is a census. Then there is an account of the arrangement of the tribes around the Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting. There is a long account of the Levites, their families and respective roles…
A lengthy series of passages describe the final preparations for the journey. Only then do they set out. Why this long series of seeming digressions?”
One answer to Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ question can be found in the efforts of the Youth Engagement Think Tank at Congregation Beth Israel (CBI) in San Diego, which was convened last August after Tammy Vener, president of ECE-RJ and the early childhood director at CBI for more than nine years, returned from a URJ Campaign for Youth Engagement Vision Team meeting. The CBI Think Tank comprises members and colleagues from the congregation, and seeks ways to enhance member families’ experiences and increase an already outstanding post b’nai mitzvah retention level.
Tammy could have launched new programs to engage families at CBI on her own. But, like the Israelites, she needed to postpone the start of the congregation’s journey toward those programs until she had arranged for a team of leaders to join her.
Once the group was formed, Tammy could have asked the Think Tank to dream up new approaches to family and youth engagement. But, again, like the Israelites, the CBI journey toward a promised land of family and youth engagement couldn’t begin without an accounting of the interests and wishes of a large swath of CBI families.
Although the members of the Think Tank could have issued a survey about family and youth programming, like the Israelites, they delayed their planning in order to explore firsthand what matters most to members about their children’s and families’ Jewish education and experiences. In fact, they rolled up their sleeves to take a census and accounting of the community’s passions and needs, sounding a call for families to be counted. Hundreds of parents responded and the Think Tank met with them, face-to-face, town hall meeting style.
As Joellyn Zollman and Amy Lieberman, co-chairs of the Think Tank wrote:
You answered the call. We heard you. Now we’re taking action. CBI’s Think Tank for Youth and Family Engagement thanks everyone who participated in our recent Town Hall Meeting. The meeting introduced the Reform movement’s Campaign for Youth Engagement, and asked congregants to make this campaign local by considering youth and family engagement at CBI. The Think Tank has been meeting regularly to discuss the feedback we received from the event. We’re excited to report that the following programs, events, and new ideas are in the works, as a result of input received from congregants: B’nai Mitzvah Boot Camp, Tuesdays in the Park, Family Camp, and a redesigned Religious School orientation. This is the just the beginning of a process of promoting connectedness and community among the youth and families in our congregation. Stay tuned for more opportunities to think about, discuss and act to promote family and youth engagement.
Indeed, this endeavor has been anything but a digression from the congregation’s journey; rather, it is an essential way to begin the process of enhancing youth and family engagement within the CBI community. Perhaps more important, Tammy, Joellyn, and Amy—together with the members of the CBI Think Tank, clergy and congregational members—have taken up the charge put forth by URJ Senior Vice President Rabbi Jonah Pesner when the Campaign was launched to make the Campaign for Youth Engagement their own.
Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah