Conversations with Engagement Innovators: Rabbi PJ Schwartz
- How have you engaged your community around youth? We have always had a successful and vibrant youth program, and it continues to grow. Because youth engagement is a passion of mine, I am very involved in programming, both formally and informally. In some sense, I have become a vessel between generations. Congregants know how much I love youth. They know that they can most likely find me in the Religious School lobby during weekday mornings, greeting our preschoolers, and in the afternoons my office might be filled with kids hanging out before Religious School. At the same time, they know that they can come to me for their own [adult] needs, as well.
- What does inspired engagement look like for you in your community? Inspired engagement is when everyone knows their gifts help make the community whole, and barriers are broken between generations and different groups. Most recently, we created a Shabbat experience called “Shabbat under the Stars.” Congregants from three-week-old babies to 95-year-olds all worshipped together and joined afterwards for a BBQ in one of our outdoor green spaces. One of our older congregants, who has struggled with the idea of offering intergenerational worship experiences, came up to me and said, “You know what, PJ, I felt so much joy this evening. Part of it was the fact that there was life to our service. Maybe we can create prayerful experiences that include our youth.”
- Part of the URJ’s new youth engagement strategy involves the importance of continued learning. Can you share how you continue to challenge yourself as a professional?
- Learn from others, and they will learn from you as well.
- Process them with colleagues and see if they can be applied in your community.
- Take risks. If I don’t try new things, I’ll never be able to grow.
- The HUC-JIR Jewish Education Certificate Program. I hope being a part of this program will help me develop skills to bring “informal” energy to the “formal” classroom.
- Self-care. Find a support team to help you be your best self. Do something outside the “Jewish bubble.”
- Share a new project that you are currently working on. I’m developing a tefilah curriculum for fourth through seventh grade that strives to: (1) foster meaningful worship experiences; (2) enhance personal meaning to prayer; (3) support preparation for B’nai Mitzvah; (4) integrate learning between sanctuary and classroom.
- What do you think is the greatest challenge facing our youth? Young people are increasingly challenged to fulfill expectations set by their schools, parents, coaches, etc. and are taught what success means by someone other than themselves. The standards don’t provide them with opportunities to engage in critical thinking or problem solving. Each worksheet, test, or project they have, is meant to fulfill an “objective” rather than help them become independent thinkers. Our youth are experiencing burn out more than ever before.
- Why do youth need our clergy? Clergy can represent their judgment-free space. My office is in the hallway that divides the Religious School wing of the building from the main lobby, so there is a lot of traffic on a regular basis. I intentionally keep my door open to create a welcoming environment. Tuesdays are my favorite day of the week, because I often have about ten 6th graders come to my office, eat their pizza snack on my couch, and show me YouTube videos of their favorite Ellen DeGeneres interviews. While conversation doesn’t always have to do with me being their rabbi, they feel safe to ask questions and be their best selves. One of my 6th graders said: “If you come to Rabbi PJ’s office, you come as you are and who you are.”
- Why do clergy need our youth? Youth help me stay relevant. Without them, I wouldn’t be able to know who “A” is on Pretty Little Liars, that Olaf is a snowman, or Yik-Yak is an app that led to cyberbullying at the local high school. My kids reinvigorate me and give me fuel to continue the work I do. I’m inspired by them and their curiosity. I feel complete by working with them. I know I am doing good work when my kids leave me notes under my door, text me in the middle of the day just to say hi, or have conversations with me on Facebook about their AP Psychology exam, or who they should go to prom with. The fact they trust me is rewarding and fulfilling.
- If money or time were no object, what’s your “million dollar” idea to change the landscape of Jewish youth engagement? I would like to see more integration between formal and informal education experiences. I think we can turn to the JCC, YMCA, and camp models to create an environment where kids feel like they belong and have access to possibilities. If [school] extracurriculars are preventing them from being involved [in Jewish programs], what if the synagogue were to provide such opportunities? If they feel like they don’t have the time because they have too much homework or are preparing for the SAT, what if the synagogue had a homework hotspot? I think that JCCs, for example, are in direct competition with synagogues, and vice versa. How much stronger would we be if we were to partner together?
Rabbi PJ Schwartz was ordained at the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2013. In addition to his studies at HUC-JIR, PJ also earned a Master’s of Education with a Specialization in Jewish Studies through Xavier University. Currently, he is Assistant Rabbi at Temple Israel in Westport, CT, where a large part of his portfolio includes family engagement and programming. He is also a member of the fifth cohort of the HUC-JIR Certificate in Jewish Education program for Adolescents and Emerging Adults. He is married to his college sweetheart, Michelle, and is the dog-father of two cocker spaniels, Teddy and Penny.