A Songleader’s Journey

by Rabbi Ramie Arian

Throughout the nearly four decades of my career, I’ve been privileged to serve the Jewish people in a variety of non-congregational rabbinic roles – national director of NFTY, the Reform Jewish youth movement for most of the 1980s, as well as vice president of the Wexner Heritage Foundation, national director of Young Judaea, and founding executive director of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. The Jewish journey of my life has been shaped and molded by many influences; NFTY was among the most important. Read more…

The Power, Growth, and Continued Success of Mitzvah Corps

“Dad, this is amazing,” my daughter exclaimed on a phone call home from Mitzvah Corps Nicaragua this summer. “There are so many kids on my program who have never heard of NFTY before!” You may think this comment would’ve been discouraging to me: What are we doing wrong that these kids have never heard of NFTY?! To the contrary, I felt the complete opposite.

As the High Holidays approach, I’ve been reflecting on my foremost dream for the URJ’s Campaign of Youth Engagement: to exponentially increase the number of teens who are engaged in Jewish life. We had an incredible summer, and one of our strongest accomplishments was the skyrocketing success of Mitzvah Corps, which offers hands-on opportunities for teens to pursue advocacy, adventure, and relationship-building in locations such as Costa Rica, Israel, Nicaragua, New Orleans, Portland, Washington, D.C., and New Jersey. Read more…

“You Say You Want a Revolution”

By Mark S. Anshan

I had the privilege of serving as the National Federation of Temple Youth’s president from 1970-1971. In those years, my wife Brenda (from Bradford, PA) and I (a Torontonian) belonged to NELFTY (North Eastern Lakes Federation of Temple Youth), where I had served as president from 1968-1969.

We were witness to many historic and life-changing events during our years in NFTY. During the height of the Vietnam War, as NFTY’s first vice president, I had the unique opportunity of representing NFTY and giving testimony before Senator Edward Kennedy. Many of my friends were dealing with the draft, worried about the numbers they’d receive, and hoping for student deferment (as college students) to avoid serving, rather than going to fight in a war of questionable objectives. Read more…

Reform Leaders Commend President Obama’s Commitment to Stopping the Spread of ISIS

In response to President Obama’s announcement of an expanded military effort against ISIS, Reform Movement leaders issued the following statement:

We commend President Obama’s commitment to stopping the spread of ISIS, which has imposed terror in the Middle East and beyond and whose actions are appalling and offensive to all who value freedom. Already, the Administration has rightly taken action to protect beleaguered religious and ethnic communities suffering under ISIS’s domination. Recognizing that the threat from ISIS is not limited to the region it currently occupies, we applaud President Obama’s leadership in recruiting a global coalition to, in his own words, “degrade and destroy” ISIS. The spread of extremism anywhere is a threat to human rights everywhere, and we pray for all of the victims and their families who have been affected by the ISIS regime. We pray too for the safety of American and coalition troops on the front lines of this effort.  As the U.S. continues to lead the international community in addressing the threat from ISIS, we encourage the President and Congress to work closely together to ensure a united front in this vital effort.

Read more…

Teen Talk: What We Can Learn from the Marketing Techniques of the Ice Bucket Challenge

The Journal of Youth Engagement is an online forum of ideas and dialogue for those committed to engaging youth in vibrant Jewish life and living. Join the discussion and become a contributor.

The reality of today’s online participatory culture, is that teens (and yes, adults, too) like to show what they’re doing. While sometimes this can be a “for better or worse” situation, when it comes to raising awareness for a good cause, you can’t find a better place to rally for attention than on the stream of your Facebook mini-feed. We saw this rapidly unfold with the enormously successful ALS Ice Bucket Challenge fundraising campaign. The challenge was successful for a multitude of reasons—but what’s significant to us is the way in which some of these Ice Bucket Challenge marketing tools can be used to help us better understand and engage our own teens. Read more…

A New Vision for Youth Shabbat

The Journal of Youth Engagement is an online forum of ideas and dialogue for those committed to engaging youth in vibrant Jewish life and living. Join the discussion and become a contributor.

Nearly four years ago, I walked into the youth lounge at The Community Synagogue, excited to spend one of our monthly “lounge nights” with a small and mighty group of POWTY (Port Washington Temple Youth) teens. I observed the members of our program as they sat, surrounded by the embrace of our safe and cozy space, happily expressing their thoughts and feelings over shared snacks and treats. I saw them laughing and enjoying the company of Jewish friends, developing their identities as people, and as Jews.

While reflecting on our small community that met one Tuesday per month for “lounge night” – bonding time that supplements our larger youth events and programs – I saw an opportunity to expand and enrich programs we were already providing our members. If the teens were happy to spend their evenings with their Jewish friends, committing their personal time to a relaxing evening spent breaking bread and learning and laughing together, why was I hosting a lounge night on a Tuesday? Why wasn’t I able to find a way to adjust these evenings so that they provided more Jewish content, more meaning, and more fun?  Why shouldn’t I be hosting a POWTY Shabbat program on a Friday? Read more…

“Ruach Rock” Tefilah: Engaging Teens in Creating Meaningful Prayer Experiences

The Journal of Youth Engagement is an online forum of ideas and dialogue for those committed to engaging youth in vibrant Jewish life and living. Join the discussion and become a contributor.

Are you an educator or youth professional seeking an innovative approach to teaching teens about prayer? Project-based learning is a great way for teens to explore their own spirituality and create meaningful prayer experiences for themselves and their fellow students.  My advice would be to start by sharing what you find meaningful, as a role model to inspire your students.

Last year, in partial fulfillment of the requirements for my Master of Arts in Religious Education (MARE) program at HUC-JIR, I completed my Capstone Curriculum, titled “Ruach Rock” Tefilah: A Creative Prayer Curriculum for Teens.” Designed specifically for 7th-10th graders, I used my “Ruach Rock” Tefilah as the kickoff session for a semester-long exploration of the reform service liturgy in which teens are encouraged to learn more about the prayers in order to create their own interpretations of them. Read more…

Mitzvah Corps: The Power of Community, The Power of Self

By Alex Rogers, Avra Bossov, and Matt Liebman

As a central tenet of Reform Judaism, tikkun olam – repairing the world – can seem overwhelming. How does one take on such a task as an individual? For over 50 years, Mitzvah Corps has empowered Jewish teenagers across the continent to infuse this concept into their daily lives. Mitzvah Corps has impacted numerous communities and has thousands of alumni that continue the work that started during their Mitzvah Corps program.

With the Campaign for Youth Engagement’s growing focus on new entry points for teenagers to engage in Jewish life, this summer Mitzvah Corps expanded to include eight sites with over 190 participants. In other words, record levels of engagement. The beauty of Mitzvah Corps is that each summer, around the world, groups of strangers come together to build a kehilah kedosha, a holy community. We pray together, make difficult decisions together, and find the best versions of ourselves while being surrounded by bustling communities moving through their day. In essence, it brings the best of Jewish immersive experiences into the day-to-day experience of cities across the globe. Read more…

The NFTY Alumni Gap

The Journal of Youth Engagement is an online forum of ideas and dialogue for those committed to engaging youth in vibrant Jewish life and living. Join the discussion and become a contributor.

As someone who has worked with NFTYites for nearly 20 years, I cherish the long term relationships I continue to have with my former youth groupers. I try to keep an eye on their progression through college, their entry into the work force and eventually their weddings, the birth of their children and all of the various life moments, happy and sad, that occur. No matter what their age or stage in life, I always think of them as “former NFTYites.”

I am continually amazed at the impact of NFTY and NFTY friendships on these individuals. It is their NFTY friends who keep appearing in photo albums as the years go by.  I am touched at the number of these former NFTYites who reach out to me, and other youth group advisors, for guidance and advice as they move through life.  I am flattered that these now college students and young adults want to keep up with my life and know my family as it grows along with theirs. Read more…

Now Introducing Bonim Kehilah for Jewish Young Adults

Much has been written about millennials and how they’re constructing adult lives: They live at home longer, marry later, and are less likely to affiliate with political and religious institutions than ever before.

It follows that those young adults looking for sustained, meaningful Jewish engagement find few entry points into the current communal landscape. Without parents or Hillel to lead the way into Jewish social, educational, and leadership opportunities, many young adults who grew up engaged in Jewish programming lack a Jewish outlet in their adult lives. While many plan to join congregations once they start their own family, the road to significant Jewish engagement in the years between college and parenthood is less obvious. Taglit-Birthright Israel, Moishe Houses, and many other “next-gen” outreach programs provide introductory opportunities for young adults to engage Jewishly, but what do we offer those seeking higher-level opportunities for learning and leading? Read more…

A Force to be Reckoned With

by Cantor Ellen Dreskin

I remember the first time I met Debbie Friedman. In the fall of 1974, I was a college freshman. Rabbi Sam Karff from Congregation Beth Israel in Houston (my home) let me know that Debbie would be spending a Shabbat at Beth Israel, presenting her new Hanukkah service, “Not by Might, Not by Power,” complete with youth choir, dancers, and guitar. He wanted to know if I would come home from Austin and play the flute… Read more…

Achieving Excellence by Pursuing Excellence in our Early Childhood Center

For the past 18 months, the URJ supported three “Communities of Practice,” cohorts of congregations that came together to learn, discuss, and experiment in a specific field. Members from participating congregations have been asked to reflect about their process.

by Dr. Paula Sayag

As an early childhood consultant with Washington, D.C.’s central Jewish education agency, I had the privilege of interacting with Jewish educators on a national scale, learning about trends in Jewish communal involvement, and helping congregations respond to large-scale concerns. Still, I didn’t have the opportunity to put into practice the advice I was offering other educators – or, more importantly, to build close relationships with the families that educators serve. So I decided to become a school director.

I started working at the early childhood center in Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, MD, in July 2009. Unfortunately, it was the first time in 20 years that classes weren’t filled. It was challenging to learn the ins-and-outs of a new community, gain their trust, and begin to envision the future for a school with decreased enrollment, a declining economy, a reduced budget, and changing neighborhood demographics. Read more…

The Challenges of Teaching about Israel

by Jack Wertheimer

With the new school year nearly upon us, Jewish educational leaders are scrambling to prepare their teachers to discuss this summer’s Gaza War. The most pressing challenge is to design age-appropriate conversations: At which grade level might classroom discussions include potentially frightening topics, such as the wounding of non-combatants, kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets? And how should teachers address the tough issues of civilian casualties in Gaza and the flagrant hostility toward Jews and Israel that has erupted in many parts of the world? Read more…

Engage Jewish Youth During the High Holiday Season

With the High Holidays approaching, congregations are considering new ways to effectively connect to more youth at this vital time in the Jewish calendar. If your synagogue is among those looking at new approaches this year, consider the following variables:

  1. Make sure the program content is varied. Teens need spirituality, but are also drawn to the arts, service, current events, and connections to their own passions, hobbies, and commitments.
  2. Consider the program location. It’s important that teens feel comfortable in the synagogue, but by utilizing different locations, we will open programming to a broader group of teens.
  3. Timing, schedule, and duration make a huge impact. It’s essential that what we are offering takes place at different times of the day, and for a variety of durations, in order to connect with the greatest number of young people.
  4. Tap older teens to help plan and recruit their younger peers. We all respond best to personal invitations, and younger teens are always excited when personally invited by an older peer.

Read more…