What Does “Youth Engagement” Even Mean?
by Lindsey Morgan
Youth Advisor A asks, “Are you going to the URJ’s Youth Engagement Conference?”
Youth Advisor B answers, “Well, I’m not entirely sure yet. I haven’t talked to my temple, board and it hasn’t been approved. To be perfectly honest, I also have no idea what ‘youth engagement’ really means and whether there’s a comprehensive enough understanding of what it is to meaningfully present a program I’ll get something out of.”
Confession, full-disclosure: I was Youth Advisor B.
For weeks, I talked with other youth advisors in my area about whether they were planning to attend this conference. I vacillated about whether these four days would be a meaningful addition and the right way for me to allocate not only the monetary investment on my temple budget line, but the time investment in an already-packed February calendar. In the end, though, I decided to attend.
After just 24 hours of this conference, I have been proven so wrong that I’m actually finding it difficult to put into words just how much I’ve already absorbed. I can’t wait to return to my congregation and share with them – with new and invigorated passion – ideas for strategies and ways to expand our points of entry for teens in our temple community.
I have always been a big believer in the reality that youth group (in our traditional understanding of the concept of a NFTY-affiliated temple youth group) is just not for everyone. As much as we want them to love it, and as much as they may honestly give youth group a shot, many teens will simply not find a connection to the teen Jewish community through that outlet. I have always seen it as my responsibility as a congregational youth director to make sure that these teens, the “unaffiliated,” feel as though they do have a connection to our congregation, that it can be a comfortable place for them, regardless of their youth group affiliation. The first 24 hours at the Youth Engagement Conference, spent establishing a common understanding for exactly what “engagement” means for our community, has already helped me feel like I am no longer on an island when it comes to finding a place and a space to really be there for these teens –not just to know that they love dance, play varsity football, or volunteer with an amazing community organization in their spare time, but to truly connect with them and provide them with a meaningful experience.
I know we’ve just begun to scratch the surface; there is an incredible amount of work to do. However, I am so thrilled to know the next three days will provide countless opportunities for personal development, professional development and beginning to develop and entirely new vocabulary for what it means to be an “engaged teen” in the vibrant life of North American Reform Jewish youth.
Lindsey Morgan is the youth director of Congregation Schaarai Zedek in Tampa, FL.