Why We Made Our Junior Youth Group Event Less “Like NFTY”

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By Jen Whitman

The congregation I work for has been hosting the JOSTY Shul In, a region-wide 7th and 8th grade junior youth group event, longer than I have been alive.   After the event last year, I was disappointed to hear from some of my own students that they spent most of the shul in feeling uncomfortable, overwhelmed and bored, or worse – that they never wanted to be at a NFTY event again.  And this was coming from the kids who already knew where the bathroom was when they got to the event.

One of the primary goals of our junior youth group event is to encourage high school NFTY engagement, and it was clear that this was not being met.  “NFTY style” wasn’t working for our potential future NFTYites, and we were in trouble.

Upon reflection, I realized I had been trying to treat my middle school students exactly like high school students, which I would never do in the classroom because the two age groups are so different.  Why would I treat them the same at a youth group event?  Our middle school students were no more ready for high school youth group programming than they were for high school.

To get more JOSTY Shul In attendees to join NFTY in high school, we needed to make the event less like NFTY.  So this year, we focused on ways to make sure the shul in was age appropriate. We focused on strategies for improving key areas of the program:

JOSTY Personnel: The most important component of the event is the teen leadership. The event is led by a combination of our congregation’s high school students and twenty 10th-12th graders from around our region that are chosen by the regional board for this event. One of the most wonderful things about the JOSTY Shul In is that it doubles as an additional regional level leadership opportunity for teens!

With some email and conference call prep, our personnel group lead activities and prayers, and most importantly, develop connections and set a positive Jewish example for potential future NFTYites.  Our 7th and 8th graders spend the day learning from and connecting with “insert string of positive adjectives here,” current NFTY teens.  These older teens are literally saying to them, “Come to NFTY with me next year.  Let’s be friends.”

If this tactic sounds familiar to you, that’s because it is!  This is the same sort of inspiration we see counselors providing for their campers at summer camp. Cue the future NFTY involvement!  Our personnel truly make this event what it is.

(By the way, a few of my teens choose to help behind the scenes instead of group- leading.  They are my undercover MVPs!)

Chunking Program Groups: We used to randomly assign participants to groups for the programs, just like at high school NFTY events.  For each program, participants would be assigned with a new group of random people.

At such a self-conscious age, there was nothing more discomforting for our 7th and 8th grade participants than being in a new place separated from the only people they knew.  Participants were not engaging in programs, secretly switching groups, and approaching their youth group advisors on the verge of tears. This was not the positive Jewish experience we had envisioned.

This year, we “chunked” participants into program groups.  Each participant was placed with 1-3 other participant from their own youth group.  They stayed with these groups for all of the programs. Sorting students into these groups was surprisingly quick to do, and the group-related issues we had been seeing nearly disappeared.

Youth Group Check-In Time: By the time we found out that someone was struggling, it was usually too late to turn things around.  Most of the 7th and 8th graders didn’t yet have the schema of looking to their youth group advisor or chaperone for support; these middle schoolers are still getting to know and understand the role of their advisor.

This year, we added two 15-minute check-in periods during which participants were required to check in with their youth group and chaperone.  Whether their chaperone was the senior youth group advisor, junior youth group advisor, or another teacher, it was dedicated time for this adult to catch problems before they started, get to know their students better, and do anything else they wanted to do.  This was especially helpful for chaperones who were still getting to know their students, and again, issues decreased almost entirely.

More Fun Games: We always told the personnel to play games with their breakout groups if they finished early.  But this year, we went a step further. We added in purposeful small group games, larger competitive games, and all group games. These middle schoolers are still kids, and need to move around and loosen up!

These changes were easy to make, but the quality of our event skyrocketed because we gave our participants the comfort and security they needed to have a fun, positive Jewish experience. Our participants weren’t ready for NFTY this year, and they weren’t supposed to be.  Now, they’ll be even more ready and excited for NFTY when they hit high school.

Jen Whitman is the youth educator and youth group advisor at Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline, MA. Read more about planning a 7th and 8th grade shul-in on the JOSTY Blog.  

Journal of Youth Engagement

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