by Joy Friedman
Lead Organizer, Campaign for Youth Engagement
Originally posted on the Reform Judaism Blog
We’ve been talking about the Campaign for Youth Engagement since the URJ’s 71st Biennial Convention last December. In the four and a half months since, we’re been working on hammering out the details of this exciting and important campaign, and we want to be sure we’re communicating those details effectively along the way.
So what is it? Quite simply, the Campaign for Youth Engagement is a focused, strategic effort to leverage the full strength and talent of every corner of the Reform Movement to engage and retain the majority of our youth by the year 2020.
Here are a few other things you need to know about the Campaign for Youth Engagement:
- It’s unlike anything we’ve done before.
This campaign is marked by its grassroots nature, the longevity of its scope, and the pursuit of a lofty but achievable goal through diverse strategies developed by and for congregations in every geography and of every size. The Campaign will not send out programs to “solve” the youth engagement challenge. Instead, we’ll collaborate to learn together what works in each region, in each community, and in each congregation.
- It’s about revolutionizing b’nai mitzvah:
We believe the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony can be a meaningful, vibrant moment in the lives of young Jews and their families, not simply a collection of requirements used to enforce school enrollment and synagogue membership. In 2012-2014, we will launch B’nai Mitzvah Revolution, a joint project of the URJ and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion that will work with a pilot group of 10 Reform congregations to explore new ways of deepening the experience of middle school students and their families as they prepare for and celebrate the rite of b’nai mitzvah. As new ideas and models are developed, we will share the successes and challenges of these congregations through our website and through conferences. For participation in the project’s second cohort, beginning in 2015, we plan to recruit a larger group of congregations.
- It focuses on Jewish experiences, not just Jewish education.
We know that the most powerful experiences are hands-on opportunities to build, taste, and explore while nurturing powerful, life-long friendships. Immersive experiences like programmatic weekends, summers, camp, and Israel trips are among the most effective strategies in creating strong Jewish identity. The Campaign will focus on building up and connecting these existing immersive experiences to teens, their families, their congregations, and each other to create a web of interconnected experiences in our youth’s lives. The Campaign will also identify, strengthen, and create a variety of new avenues for youth to meaningfully engage in Jewish life by experiencing Judaism in real-time.
- It’s not “one size fits all.”
Though we will provide various resources about the campaign, we will not create a single document that serves as a guide for all congregations. Instead, we will work with congregations and communities to identify the solutions that best suit their unique needs dependent on size, geography, and demographics. This campaign is not about the URJ telling congregations the “right answer.” Rather, we recognize that congregations and communities have differing right answers – and we want to find and develop them together.
- It’s driven by both professionals and grassroots.
The Campaign was launched initially by a diverse team of teenagers, lay leaders, synagogue professionals and clergy, camp directors, and HUC faculty members – an unprecedented grouping for the URJ. We’ve combined the best of educational thinking, synagogue transformation, and community organizing to work together as one, ensuring streamlined communication and a true joint effort.
- It is relationship-centric.
In 1,000 grassroots conversations with teens, educators, rabbis, youth workers, cantors, administrators, and lay leaders about what engages teens and what does not, one theme stood out: building meaningful relationships and a dynamic and engaged Jewish community is essential for youth and their families to commit to Jewish life. The adults who work with youth (including professional staff and lay leadership) are the primary relationship-builders with our teens and their families. We will invest in the people who do this vital work by providing training, a career path, and a valued staff role, as well as strengthening the status of the field.
- It was created by congregations and with congregations’ concerns in mind.
After a decline in congregational confirmation class enrollment and participation in NFTY, a group of rabbis turned to the URJ and said, “We need to do better together.” The Campaign for Youth Engagement was born out of tension between the way things have become and they way we need them to be; among clergy who care deeply about youth engagement and retention but need partners locally and nationally to create new programs to address it; between understanding the need for youth professionals and the ability to hire, train, and retain those staffers. This tension catalyzed the creation of the Campaign and remains an essential component of the partnership between the URJ and its congregations.
- It goes beyond the Reform Movement.
We commit to partnering not only within the Reform Movement but also to exploring partnerships with Jewish organizations outside the Movement – as well as with organizations that aren’t explicitly Jewish. We will enter into partnerships that challenge us, support us, encourage us to take risks, and help us to rethink what we do and how we do it.
- It is the top priority for the Reform Movement’s new administration.
We commit to prioritizing our youth by building on the millions of dollars with which the campaign was launched so that the effort maintains the financial backing it needs. We will hold ourselves accountable for fulfilling these commitments and will rigorously evaluation of our efforts in order to become as successful and effective as possible
- You can get involved. Now.
The Campaign is in the process of transforming from a vision into an on-the-ground strategy around immersive experiences, investing in people who work with youth, and changing the culture of congregations – and we want to hear from you! If you or a team from your congregation have ideas or would like to learn more about each of these strategies, please contact me.