Creating Community Leaders From Teen Leaders

by Samantha Pohl

There have been no greater influences on my life than my temple youth group, NFTY-GER, Urban Mitzvah Corps, and NFTY in Israel. My participation in these programs as a teenager led me, as an adult, to become a Jewish professional and an active participant in the New York City Jewish community. While a student HUC-JIR’s School of Jewish Communal Service (now Jewish Nonprofit Management), I had the opportunity to explore how the top teen leaders of the Reform Movement connect—as volunteer leaders and in professional capacities— to Jewish life today, several years after their teen involvement.  In my master’s thesis, “Building a Base of Reform Jewish Leadership: An Impact Study of Three Youth Programs,” I examined the impacts of Kutz Camp, NFTY North American Board, and NFTY Regional Board on young adult alumni (ages 22-39).

In the course of my study, I created a survey that produced 228 respondents among young adults who were active in NFTY. Of these active NFTY alumni, 123 respondents attended Kutz Camp, 111 served on Regional Board, and 14 served on North American Board. Many of these respondents participated in at least two of these leadership experiences. I also interviewed several alumni from these programs.

What I found can profoundly affect the way we understand the programs within our youth movement. It became clear that NFTY has greatly influenced Kutz Camp and Regional and North American Board alumni. The individuals I interviewed reflected on the specific ways they have benefited from the leadership techniques they learned while at camp and on Board. They learned the art of public speaking, the skills needed to work with diverse groups of people, as well as how to run a group discussion, create an agenda, and establish buy-in from peers.

Interestingly, these leadership skills do not appear to translate fully into significant Jewish involvement in college or beyond. That being said, alumni of Regional Board are more likely than other NFTY alumni to pursue certain college activities such as working in Reform movement summer camps, participating in Hillel, and overseeing youth groups. Similarly, Kutz alumni are more likely than non-leadership program alumni to work at Kutz and be song leaders while North American Board members are also more likely to work at Kutz.

Post-college, there are a few notable differences for leadership program alumni. For instance, NFTY Regional and North American Board alumni are more likely than other NFTY alumni to work for the Jewish community and the Reform Movement. Kutz Camp alumni are more likely to go to HUC’s Schools of Education and North American Board alumni are more likely to go to HUC’s rabbinical school. However, the involvement that alumni demonstrate in high school, and selectively in college, does not translate into higher levels of either attendance or leadership in synagogues or communal organizations such as Jewish Federations, JCCs, Birthright NEXT, or Israel, educational, or social justice organizations. It also does not translate into extensive financial contributions to Jewish institutions. In some cases, leadership program alumni are even less likely than their non-alumni equivalents to participate in Jewish life when it comes to donating to Reform synagogues, for example.

Though it is true that this group might be predisposed and trained for ongoing involvement and leadership in the Jewish community, these results corroborate the general data about Jewish 20s and 30s—mainly that young Jews are largely uninterested in attending and joining formal membership organizations. At the same time, young alumni want to feel connected to other alumni and to the Reform Movement.

So where do we go from here? Recently, the Reform Movement launched its Campaign for Youth Engagement, which I hope will transform the ways in which high school students and their families participate in Jewish life together. But this issue goes beyond high school. In looking at the next stages of program development for its most engaged teen leaders, the Reform Movement and its synagogues ought to consider creating a stronger network of programs for NFTY Board and Kutz Camp alumni. By developing alumni networks in major metropolitan cities—to host social, cultural, and spiritual or religious activities—the Reform Movement could better position itself to involve young people in their 20s and 30s in their institutions. For a demographic that is known to move often to pursue career and graduate school opportunities, the 20s and 30s cohort could well benefit from the consistent connections NFTY and Kutz can provide.  These efforts could be volunteer-led, with staff support. If cultivated properly, the possibility exists for alumni to make financial contributions to these organizations. badge-leadershipIn this way, the Reform Movement can maximize the engagement and leadership potential of its most promising teens throughout their lives, promoting a symbiotic relationship between them and the Jewish community that fostered their growth.

Samantha Pohl, MPA/MA, a Wexner Graduate Fellow/Davidson Scholar, is Program Executive for Leadership, Recruitment, and Placement in the Volunteer and Leadership Development Division at UJA-Federation of New York.

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3 Responses to “Creating Community Leaders From Teen Leaders”

  1. Larry Kaufman

    The trends that Samantha’s research confirms have of course been visible for a while — the discomfort of Jewishly-committed young adults with identifying denominationally or institutionally. I wonder how many of the subjects of her research — Kutz and NFTY leadership alumni — have found their way into the new world which she doesn’t mention, that of the independent minyan, a hot topic a few years ago that seems to have faded from media view, but probably not from the social or spiritual lives of the minyanaires.

    As the immediate past chair of the URJ’s Syngogue-Federation Relations Committee, I see Samantha as uniquely poised to make the things happen that she suggests — facilitate cooperation between synagogues and the secular central community planning institution in convening camp, NFTY, USY, alumni and then getting out of their way so they can design new modes of being Jewish together that fit their needs and theri style.

  2. avatar

    I wonder what the study would have found if the control group were a random selection of Jewish you rather than NFTY alumni who didn’t go to Kutz and weren’t on North American or regional NFTY Board. We need to know the impact of involvement at all levels. No matter what we do, only a small minority are going to be NFTY regional or N.A. Board members or Kutz attendees.

  3. Larry Kaufman

    Rabbi Block is looking for a totally different study than the one Samantha conducted. She, as I understand her report, was looking at how youth leadership translates into adult participation in Jewish life. With the rabbi’s scenario, we’d presumably be looking at no involvement leading to no involvement — or involvement stimulated throush some other channel.

    What I am no inferring from rereading
    Samantha’s report is that our Reform youth leadership tracks either succeed big-time, by producing Jewish professionals, or fail big-time, by leaving the “alumni” as passive as if they hadn’t been in the program.

    That is precisely why it’s so critical to keep hold of this conditioned cadre and make it easy for them to “do Jewish” not necessarily the way we did it, but in a way that works for them.

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