Slam Dunk: Fantasy Sports as a Portal to New Youth Group Models
By Beryl Trauth-Jurman
Fantasy Basketball. That is how Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation in Reston VA, decided to solve two problems.
I had just started as the Youth Activities Coordinator here at NVHC and after our first two or three events, I noticed that there was a certain group of kids who were never coming to events. These kids were interested in sports, but the synagogue was not able to host sports activities. That meant these kids never came to events. We knew we weren’t going to reach them with our existing menu of programming, and I wanted to find a way to include them in something, meaning we would probably need something new.
I had a conversation with the education director and the rabbi, and we decided to start a fantasy basketball league—the logic being that, if we could not hold actual sports activities the next best thing would be fantasy sports. The idea worked: the league is made up entirely of kids who do not come to other events and one kid who is unable to attend other events at the synagogue due to scheduling conflicts. The league has given us some common ground—a Jewish community for these young teens who do not otherwise participate in one, and an opportunity for me to connect with them, even remotely. The league now accounts for twenty percent of the total participants in youth programming. That is the first problem that fantasy basketball solved.
The second problem was about advertising. In addition to my regular job at the synagogue I am also participating in the URJ Service Corps Fellowship, a program designed to promote URJ summer camp participation in congregations. I knew how I wanted to promote my regional camp, Camp Harlam, but I was at a loss for how I was going to promote one of our specialty camps, 6 Points Sports Academy. I was thinking about this problem right around the time we decided to start our fantasy basketball league and I thought, “Why not use the league to advertise for 6 Points?” The camp agreed to let us use their name and to provide prizes. This collaboration has created name recognition within the congregation and has helped me to identify potential campers, as well as giving me a platform to discuss the camp with them. So far, three of the kids in the league are looking at going to 6 Points this summer. By thinking a little differently about what constitutes a youth program, the fantasy basketball league has helped us solve both of these problems in just a few months.
I will not pretend that the fantasy league is perfect; it was hard in the beginning to register people and that affected the number of kids who chose to participate. I have also had trouble organizing the participants and I’m still struggling with getting them to come to in-person events. Still, even with these difficulties, I have learned some important things from this league. Not about advertising or the importance of sports-related activities but about the way we interact with our students. At NVHC, this league was the first step for us in questioning the way we think about youth programming. We’ve considered questions such as:
- Do we create more harm than good by holding monthly youth events if only a few students come?
- Should the number of participants affect the frequency of programming?
- How can we interact with and engage kids who cannot or do not want to be physically present, but still want to be involved in their own way?
These questions have led us to reconsider our youth programming and to think about what is most effective. We have found that for us, the model of monthly events (the success of which is based largely on participant numbers) seems to attract fewer kids than more frequent events where the number of participants is less important. This may mean we move to a model with more online activities like this fantasy league and look for in-person events that work for just a few kids. A youth group model with more frequent, smaller in-person gatherings is different than anything we’ve done, but if it gets kids interested, what is the harm in exploring it? We are looking for new ways to engage more kids on a more personal level than we have before. For us, that means moving away from the “traditional” youth group model. What does it mean for you?
Beryl Trauth-Jurman is in his first year as Youth Activities Coordinator at Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation. He is a member of the URJ Service Corps for 2013-2014 and has worked as a counselor and unit head at URJ Camp Harlam since 2007.