Youth Engagement is Not a Curriculum – It’s THE Curriculum

by Rabbi Fred Guttman and Rabbi Andy Koren

Here in Greensboro, N.C., we at Temple Emanuel have devoted much thought, time, and resources to youth engagement for more than a decade. The results have been impressive: We retain around 80% of our B’nai Mitzvah students though the end of 12th grade. Of those retained, some 75% will travel to Israel prior to graduation.

Based upon our experiences, we’ve compiled a dozen suggestions as to how congregations can increase youth engagement.

  1. Stop taking about curriculum and instead use the words “engagement” and “learning.” Every month, someone contacts us asking what our curriculum is. This is the wrong question! According to nationwide statistics, 80% of b’nai mitzvah students cease involvement in Jewish life by the time they graduate high school. There is no magic one-size-fits-all traditional curriculum that will solve that problem.
  1.  Think of engagement from b’nai mitzvah to the end of 12th grade. If possible, move confirmation to the 12th grade to avoid providing an exit point with 10th-grade confirmation. Do not be satisfied with having both 10th grade confirmation and 12th grade graduation unless it can be demonstrated that the retention rate from one to the next is over 90%. In our experience, the greatest resistance to moving confirmation to 12th grade comes from Jewish educators rather than parents or students. Among the latter, experience has shown that resistance is lessened by means of a compelling program.
  1. Avoid the somewhat schizophrenic “religious school/youth group” dichotomy. Rather, adopt a holistic approach that sees all Jewish experiences, including learning, as curricular. If possible, hire a dedicated staff member to facilitate your program.
  1. Treat teens as young adult learners. If you are successful, they will learn the other topics that you think are important later in life; for now, try to ask (and answer) the question, “What do the kids want to learn?” Ours, for example, are interested in Jewish/Christian/Muslim issues and our popular yearly program titled “Choosing a College Jewishly.” Look into programs for younger teens like the URJ’s Sacred Choices program and gender-specific programs like Moving Traditions’ Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing and Shevet Achim.
  1. Don’t write off the boys! The success of the URJ’s 6 Points Sports Academy in attracting boys is noteworthy. Our congregation’s New Orleans program (mentioned in a later bullet point) consistently attracts significant male participation.
  1. Make Israel trips a big part of what you do, and raise money to help kids afford them. Approach your local Federation for funding and don’t be afraid to suggest that allocation money should be shifted from “overseas” (i.e. the Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee) to support sending teens to Israel. As wonderful as Birthright is, sending students to Israel prior to college has a larger “bang for the buck” in terms of college activism.
  1. Make the RAC’s L’Taken Social Justice Seminar a yearly event open to all high schoolers and find donors help subsidize the cost.
  1. Require a short-term pre-course prior to every group trip. For example, before L’Taken, our congregation holds four to five such sessions.
  1. Hire teens as religious school madrichim and, if you can raise the money to do so, pay them with “Jewish activity credits,” which can be used for Jewish camps, kallot, L’Taken, or Israel trips.
  1. Plan tikkun olam activities both locally and elsewhere. Our teens work in local social service agencies and take a yearly trip to New Orleans to work in home building and bayou restoration.
  1. Be open to building coalitions within your community. Partnerships with BBYO, the March of the Living, and other congregations can help create a herd mentality, especially in smaller congregations and places where NFTY is not historically strong.
  1. URJ camps continue to be a laboratory for Jewish engagement and involvement. They are training grounds for our future, the perfect supplement and complement to all that we’ve outlined above. All of our camps, and most notably Kutz Camp, provide venues for Jewish growth and leadership development; some of Temple Emanuel’s best madrichim have called Camp Coleman and now 6 Points their summer homes. They are not, however, substitutes for ongoing, year-round Jewish involvement.

Because psychological research has shown that the last two years of high school and the first two years of college are prime for adult identity development, our failure to keep children engaged during these crucial years is a negative indicator as to our future as a people and as a movement. The main thing is to realize that your overall curricular goal is four years of engagement, not a preconceived idea by adults as to what kids need to learn. Lists of well-intentioned requirements often serve as obstacles that weed out all but the most committed. Our “curriculum” is that, through a variety of activities including learning, we aim to keep our children involved in congregational/Jewish life though the end of 12th grade. It can be done!

Rabbi Fred Guttman and Rabbi Andy Koren serve Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, NC. If you’d like “Oral Torah” on their youth engagement strategies, please feel free to contact Rabbi Koren at (336) 292-7899.

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6 Responses to “Youth Engagement is Not a Curriculum – It’s THE Curriculum”

  1. Larry Kaufman

    Just one thing is missing from this excellent list (and I suspect that, in practice, it’s already there. That is the active engagement of the clergy, and especially the senior rabbi, in the Youth program.

    I still remember how irate (and wrong!) the president of my congregation was when the rabbi “played hookey” from a meeting the Chicago Board of Rabbis had set up for local Jewish clergy to meet with the new Archbishop, giving precedence to the weekly meeting of the high school/TYG. Those kids knew that they were the rabbi’s first priority, and they reciprocated by giving the temple a similar high priority in their own lives.

    This is not to denigrate the importance of interfaith relations in the rabbi’s portfolio — but rather to stress that teens will respond to knowing how their rabbi puts them first.

  2. avatar

    Thanks Larry. What you say goes without saying. Both of us are very committed to this. Fred

  3. Rabbi Paul Kipnes

    Great list! Great Torah!
    I thought Rabbi Guttman was off his rocker a few years back when he pushed 12th grade Confirmation. We have since adopted this chochma (wisdom).

    • Larry Kaufman

      I think we may have pioneered 12th grade confirmation at Temple Sholom back in 1990 with the blessings of Senior Rabbi (a title he did not use) Fred Schwartz z”l, but the change was pushed by Associate Rabbi Donald Rossoff, who called my attention — I was then president of the congregation — that the kids, all of whom had had b’nai mitzvah and were planning to stay on anyway couldn’t see the sense in the intermediate and redundant ceremony. A board that was usually very reluctant to make changes approved this one almost unanimously — the dissenter was nervous that word would get out in the community that high schoolers were making policy at the congregation.


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