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?