Facing the Worst-Kept Synagogue Secret

Do you want to know the worst-kept synagogue secret? It is not about politics at the pulpit or the fact that most Jews do not regularly attend Shabbat services. No, the worst-kept synagogue secret is that almost 90% of the young people who become bar or bat mitzvah in our synagogues are absent from our programs by the time they graduate high school.

Elsewhere, I have written about Congregation Or Ami’s recent attempts to rethink the whole enterprise of youth engagement. We have kvelled about early indications that our efforts are raising our community’s youth engagement by 20% (and we await results from this year’s re-registration to be able to gauge the real effects).

We have counted successive achievement. The Future Coaches, A.T.M., and Madrichim tracks meld with the Triple T and 4th-6th grade retreats interwoven with LoMPTY, NFTY regional events, and Jewish summer camping to create seamless synergy. Yet that dastardly data point – 90% drop off – still haunts us.

Perhaps that’s really why I flew up to Berkeley, CA. The Reform Movement’s Campaign for Youth Engagement team – including URJ Senior Vice President Rabbi Jonah Pesner and Director of Youth Engagement Rabbi Bradley Solmsen – invited us to participate in a thought process to test the viability and advisability of new and renewed ideas about youth engagement. It might have been Or Ami’s quick and effective embrace of the URJ’s Campaign for Youth Engagement that led to an invitation.

Fortunately, the strategic thinking consultancy offered multiple ROI (returns on investment) for Or Ami: The opportunity to share reflections with the movement’s leading thinkers might help them design the future of youth engagement as well as trend-spotting prospects for Or Ami for our never-ending quest to reinvent ourselves and our outreach to Jewish youth.

So there we sat: a Jewish camp director, a NFTY North American director, a URJ district rabbi, a Jewish camping foundation leader, a very articulate NFTY regional president, leaders of the Campaign for Youth Engagement, a synagogue rabbi, and the principals from two strategic thinking centers. The principals shared their research on current Reform youth engagement and the ideas that bubbled up. We group-processed the ideas, searching out strengths and weaknesses of each idea, and the opportunities each presents and the threats each poses to the current situation.

I came away with a number of insights:

  • Our youth engagement needs to be about more than events and classes;
  • Relationship-building and Jewish “evangelical” outreach are the current challenges;
  • Seamless synergy between projects, programs, efforts, and outreach is the name of the game (i.e. breaking down silos);
  • We do not know a lot about the youth who are involved in our programs, but we know even less (drastically little) about the youth who are not in our programs (and that such information could be critical to designing meaningful outreach to them); and
  • Prioritizing youth engagement requires placing our youth in decision-making positions on the boards of the “adult movement arms.”

The strategic thinking process of the URJ may or may not embrace these ideas; too many factors play into the process. Still, the discussions were rich and the energy was infectious, and I return to Congregation Or Ami energized to explore next steps in our efforts to chip away at that 90% post-b’nai mitzvah unaffiliated rate.

Which leads me to ask: What would you suggest are the ideas and ideals which should animate our synagogue’s campaign for youth engagement?

Originally posted at Or Am I?

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Rabbi Paul Kipnes

About Rabbi Paul Kipnes

Rabbi Paul Kipnes the spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA. He serves as rabbinic dean at URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, CA, and as vice president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Rabbi Kipnes and his wife Michelle November co-wrote Jewish Spiritual Parenting: Wisdom, Activities, Rituals and Prayers for Raising Children with Spiritual Balance and Emotional Wholeness (Jewish Lights). He also co-edited a national CCAR Journal issue on New Visions for Jewish Community. Under his leadership, Congregation Or Ami has won national awards for social justice programming, for innovative worship programming, for outreach to interfaith families, and for engaging family education, and for best overall use of technology in a synagogue. Or Ami also wins the hearts of its families for its Henaynu caring community, which reaches out during times of need. He serves on the Rhea Hirsch School of Jewish Education clinical faculty at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. His writings can be viewed on his blog, Or Am I? He tweets @RabbiKip.

5 Responses to “Facing the Worst-Kept Synagogue Secret”

  1. avatar

    It starts with the parents not the kids. If you know why the parents are not involved or not encouraging/requiring the kids to be involved, you can start working on the solution.

  2. avatar

    You need to improve the Hebrew School 4-7. If a kid has a negative experience in Hebrew School no way will he be involved post Bar Mitzvah. The quality OF the teaching must be improved to engage students. Some old fuddy duddy with 1950’s teaching methods will not engage the students and thus the kids will be out the door right after the Bar Mitzvah service never to return.

  3. avatar

    Our youth start as soon as they enter our Early Childhood programs. We must engage our parents, get families to make early connections, have clergy create lasting relationship with our young families and if and when this happens we will see a big change at the other end. We have a think tank for youth and family engagement at our congregation, every cohort sites around the table. We are working together to create life long Jews. Where was early childhood at the meeting in Berkley?

  4. avatar

    Hebrew school twice a week plus Sunday School? For four years? And then come back for more? The typical kid is not going to be overjoyed at this prospect, particularly if they are dedicated to other activities. The education professionals don’t realize this because, well, they enjoy the field of Jewish education and were probably the ones really involved with NFTY or Hillel back in the day. Unfortunately, these youth activities do not appeal to every child and we have to accept that.

  5. avatar

    I’ve directed community theatre at the secular and paid level for many years. A similar decline in participation for both youth and adults has been felt there as well. In one small TN town, we found that asking college kids, not traditionally involved in theater to help choose a season’s shows, making certain that shows required huge cast, crew, musicians, and support roles increased ticket sales to unimaginable levels – and pulled from a broad spectrum of the community.

    The same can be applied to Temples: find out what younger folks enjoy, ask them to commit to the responsibility of sharing their skills – in every service – the more that participate in the actual service, the more seats you will fill in the Temple. Give them, and their extended family, a reason to part your Temple Doors.

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