A Jewish Junta

By Rabbi Jonah Pesner

Who recruited you into NFTY?

Who invited you to your first event?

Who tapped you on the shoulder, and suggested you should become involved in a Jewish youth group?

I remember them. They called themselves “The Junta.” Sometimes they were referred to as a “gang of four.” They were the four high school seniors who were the founders of the Village Temple Youth Group back in 1983. To those of us who were younger, they were the coolest kids you could imagine. And because of their efforts, an entire generation of Jewish teens found a home in Jewish life.

My older brother, Ben, was a member of “The Junta.” He and his friends were approached by the NFTY regional board (OK, for those who remember it was called CRaFTY – a great name that stands for City Region, a Federation of Temple Youth; great because it assumed everyone knew which city!). They were asked to start a TYG (Temple Youth Group) at their congregation, which to our knowledge had not had one during their 35-year history. And so “The Junta” was born. They called themselves that so they would all share leadership equally.

Ben and his friends worked with our temple’s rabbi and adult leadership to hire a part-time advisor. They attended leadership trainings run by the NFTY region. They organized events and activities. But the most important, visionary thing that they did was to invest in a group of younger teens — including me. They knew that all of their efforts would only be sustainable if they developed a cadre of younger teens to share their passion, vision, and excitement about building a vibrant, Jewish youth community. They had great programs, but at the same time, they all knew that it wasn’t about the programs — it was about building relationships. In retrospect, I think it’s remarkable that those teenage leaders weren’t limited by their own self interest. As much as they wanted to build a community for themselves, they cared about the next wave of teens; and I think they cared about the waves and waves of teens who would follow.

Their great insight is applicable today: teens still have a critical role in sustainable, growing youth engagement through mentoring. Many Jewish young people can name the older teen who invited them to their first event, recruited them into leadership, and guided them as they grew as leaders. We know that adults have a critical role to play in Jewish youth engagement, and we need to invest in youth workers, rabbis, and educators; but we also know that teen mentors have a critical role to play. And the earlier we can encourage 11th and 12th graders to convince their younger peers to get involved, the better.

Across North America, NFTY is launching NFTY6, an effort to recruit and engage sixth graders to participate in the kind of fun, exciting Jewish programming that will hook them for life. This strategy is critical, because it reaches teenagers before they become b’nai mitzvah, when they are still involved in congregational life, and before the dangerous time when so many young people drop out. The key to the strategy is the role older teens play — reaching out and tapping younger peers on the shoulder and inviting them personally to programs — modelling Jewish engagement for them.

We hope that as NFTY focuses on 6th through 8th graders, leveraging the creative energy of older teens, congregations across North America will make the same decision. Building on the robust madrichim programs run by many synagogues, one way to keep 11th and 12th graders fully engaged is by having them mentor younger teens. This strategy is a win-win, as it reaches both populations.

I am still grateful to the Village Temple Youth Group “Junta” for mentoring me and my friends. Especially since many of us were the annoying, younger siblings, their commitment to us was really remarkable. Let’s encourage all of our younger teens to make the same investment in the future.

Rabbi Jonah Pesneris the senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism . Named one of the most influential rabbis in America, he has been an inspirational leader, creative entrepreneur, and tireless advocate for social justice.

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