Stronger Together: The Story of a Community’s Regrowth
By Ivy Cohen
Five years ago, the three Reform Synagogues in the Metropolitan New Orleans Area, each with their own unique, rich and glorious histories faced a common problem: their youth groups had shrunk to an unsustainable size. Touro Synagogue, Congregation Gates of Prayer and Congregation Temple Sinai, which each had thriving youth programs at one point, were operating with less than ten members. The synagogues each had a volunteer advisor who worked diligently to recruit and publicize their events. However, they were unable to get critical participation numbers, and the investment was outweighing the returns. There were some teens actively participating, those who were the true foundation and heartbeat of the youth group that would show up to anything branded by their respective acronym. Despite the eager few, though, the reality of the situation was grave. The congregations could no longer justify operating independent youth groups. The synagogues each agreed that they wanted teens to have access to some kind of Jewish experience, ideally grounded in the Reform community. Although there were other options in New Orleans for a post b’nai mitzvah experience, the congregations wanted to ensure that their teens had access to a uniquely Reform Jewish experience.
A committee formed to explore new models and ideas to create the best possible program for the Reform Jewish teens of New Orleans. The religious schools had previously collaborated on an education partnership called, Bagrut for their older students, which provided an opportunity for teens from different congregations to learn together. Could the youth group use a similar model? Clergy, lay leaders, parents and community philanthropists met for a year to explore the feasibility of a community youth group. The committee felt that it was crucial to maintain a specifically Reform teen program, built on the values that the teens learned at camp (many of them attend URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp) and throughout their religious school days. With that in mind, JewCCY, the Reform Jewish Youth of Crescent City was born.
The big caveat to forming a sustainable youth group was finding the funding for a paid youth professional. The community realized that while the volunteer advisors were working diligently to maintain the status quo, bringing on a paid professional could encourage unparalleled growth and commitment to JewCCY’s future. Volunteer advisors were faced with the challenge of having to balance their careers, raising their families (as some were parents), and the moral obligation they all felt to wholeheartedly support the youth groups. By transitioning to a paid professional, the teens and members of the Jewish Community had someone who could truly commit the necessary time to build relationships with the teens, recruit and market JewCCY programs, and knit together a diverse community. Within the first year, teens in JewCCY had the opportunity to interact with 35-40 other teens from the Reform synagogues.
JewCCY, now in its fourth year, operates similarly to other temple youth groups. We have one youth-led board, although we try to ensure each year that one board member is from each of the three synagogues. Meetings are held on a rotating schedule, so each of the three congregations has the opportunity to host an equal number of meetings or JewCCY events. As an organization, we strive to make sure each congregation is heard at all times. The buy-in and continued support of our lay leaders, clergy and community partners help JewCCy to thrive. JewCCY has not only built relationships between teens in our community, but also created a cohort of partners amongst our adult leaders who collaborate with JewCCY on strategic plans and future programs.
There are many small communities in similar predicaments with their youth programs that do not have the funding or resources readily available to bring on someone full-time. Neither did New Orleans. The most important step was starting the conversation and being intentional about who was and is involved in the dialog. Youth programs need advocates. We welcomed teens, parents, lay leaders, clergy and community leaders to share their thoughts, experiences and insights so that each of the players had the opportunity to maintain the integrity and history of their own institution while forging this new model. The New Orleans youth group was built on the foundations of, and with tremendous respect for, the legacy of the three congregations.
As we all know, funding can be a tremendous obstacle. In our current economic world, it can be challenging to convince lay leaders of congregations to add a new budget line for anything, but especially a new program which involves the hiring of a full-time professional. Researching outside funding was integral to JewCCY’s creation, and a major factor in being able to convince the lay leadership to support a community professional.
Ultimately, congregations within a close geographic proximity are constantly competing for members in order to help their respective communities thrive. By bringing all of the youth programs in the community together, we were able to remove them from being a pawn in this “competition.” By making every teen eligible to receive the same access to post b’nai mitzvah programming across the city, the conversation about congregation membership is no longer focused on, “Where will my teen get the best high school youth group experience?” but rather, “I want to make sure my teen is part of this experience.” In New Orleans, the uniting of congregations and community dialogue are imperative in building a sustainable Reform Jewish future. By working together, our congregations – especially in smaller communities –pooled their minds and resources to create a future where every Jewish teen has a Jewish community that is their own to shape them into the movers and shakers that sustain our movement.
Ivy Cohen is the Director of Youth Engagement for the Reform Synagogues of Greater New Orleans. Prior to her move down south Ivy worked in Westchester, NY and spent many summers at the URJ Eisner Camp. Ivy was a member of the inaugural cohort of HUC-JIR’s Certificate in Jewish Education for Adolescents and Emerging Adults. Ivy is looking forward to her first summer at the URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp as their Staff and Program Director.