Rabbi Jonah Pesner: We’re Taking Youth Engagement Seriously

By Kate Bigam, URJ Social Media and Community Manager

Originally posted on the Reform Judaism Blog

In this week’s Jewish Chronicle of Pittsburgh, Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the URJ’s Senior Vice President, lays out the ideas behind the Reform Movement’s new Campaign for Youth Engagement, a major effort to bring young Jews (back) into the fold.

[Rabbi Pesner] said 80 percent of the Reform Jewish b’nai mitzva fall away from Jewish life by the eighth grade.

“The crisis is most of those kids will disappear by 12th grade, and they will bring their families out the exit [of the synagogue],” Pesner told the Chronicle in an exclusive interview. “So somehow the bar and bat mitzva has become an off ramp rather than an on ramp, which is ironic because it’s a complete reversal of Jewish history.”

But this crisis, Pesner noted, also poses an opportunity to revamp the movement to engage, not only teens, but young adults before they have kids of their own.

In the piece, Rabbi Pesner explains the four-pronged approach behind the Campaign for Youth Engagement: “retraining youth professionals to show teens how to build their own peer networks; increasing ‘immersive’ experiences such as camping, Israel trips and service projects to pull in more youths; engaging young Jewish adults in their 20s and 30s, outside the synagogue if need be, to help them connect to Judaism before they marry and have kids; and changing the culture of synagogue life.”

The Campaign for Youth Engagement launched to much fanfare at the URJ’s Biennial 71st Biennial Convention in December. You can watch Rabbi Pesner’s Biennial address below, then learn more on our Campaign page, where you’ll find archived webinars on youth engagement, introductions to the Campaign staff, videos from NFTY participants and Reform Jewish professionals about the need to engage teens, and more. Perhaps most importantly, you’ll learn how you can support the Campaign.

How much does the Campaign for Youth Engagement mean to the Reform Movement? Rabbi Pesner sums it up in the last line of his interview with the Chronicle“The Jewish future is too much at risk to mess this up. We’re taking it really, really seriously.”

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