Asking Big Questions: Applying Design Thinking to Working with Teens

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.

We are asking big questions in Boston and we are inviting, encouraging and supporting our teens to ask them with us. This spring a group of teens asked, “How might we create a meaningful spiritual experience for those coming of age?” This was not a question that was handed to them on a piece of paper; this was a question that evolved out of some very meaningful work in the Design Lab pilot.

The Design Lab is an innovative model of teen engagement that is a partnership between the URJ, Combined Jewish Philanthropies and the Brandeis University Office of High School Programs with partial funding from the Jim Joseph Foundation. It is a wonderful new example of collaboration as we all work together to engage a larger group of teens to delve more deeply into Judaism, and to support and enable them to engage their friends and be co-creators of their own meaningful Jewish experiences. It is an experiment in bringing the principles of Design Thinking to our work with teens. Design Thinking was first articulated and developed by a Silicon Valley design Firm, IDEO, as a framework to design physical objects. However, its applications are growing, and it is now being used in a number of settings as a way to design experiences of all sorts.

Design Thinking is a mode of problem solving that has several steps, including:

  1. Empathize/Understand/Immerse
  2. Frame/Define
  3. Ideate/Imagine
  4. Prototype
  5. Test

Our belief is that by teaching teens design thinking, and providing them time, space and support, they can and will engage their peers and develop experiences for change in their communities.


For the pilot this spring we worked with consultants from Upstart Bay Area to help us in our thinking and learning. Our pilot group included teen cohorts from Temple Shir Tikva. Wayland and Temple Emanuel. Newton – two communities who enthusiastically experimented with us. Although the time framework for our pilot did not allow the 18 teen participants to fully answer the question that evolved  – “How might we create a meaningful spiritual experience for those coming of age?” – it did allow time and space for a substantial amount of reflection and learning from one another using the principles and stages of Design Thinking.   Design thinking by nature is often ambiguous, and learning to live with that ambiguity, without a known result, was an important learning for all.  The process is a winding and weaving road, not necessarily visible from the start.  It is a continuous looping through the stages.

Each step of our process was taught and experienced through design “sprints” as well as through deep questioning, exploring and testing of our assumptions. One of the primary tenets of Design Thinking involves developing empathy and understanding (of the “user”) and connecting that empathy and understanding to the design of objects and experiences. In our first meeting we designed wallets. Designing a wallet might sound simple, but as we reflected on our needs for a wallet, then shared our thoughts with a partner and listened to how they used their wallet, the ways in which their wallet could be improved and what their wallet meant to them (many were gifts and had meaning beyond what one could imagine), we were struck by the simplicity with which we had first seen the issue. After deeply exploring the many issues, we began to imagine a new wallet for our partners that truly reflected what we had learned about them.

We followed up by making wallet prototypes for our partners using play dough, pipe cleaners, feathers, glue sticks, yarn, construction paper, duct tap, etc. Very few of the prototypes looked anything like what we had initially assumed a wallet should be. Some had multiple slots, some had places for keys and/or phones to attach, one was built into a pocket of a pair of pants, one had modules that could be taken apart.  That exercise began to truly expand and change the way many in the room viewed designed objects and experiences.

Throughout the five sessions we continued to link back to the issue of spirituality and what that meant to each individual. Participants began to reflect on times, spaces and experiences that felt spiritual and began expanding their thinking about what it means to come of age. The participants filled the room with photos and post-it notes of all colors with thoughts, questions, ideas and musings that related to spirituality.

We also learned a lot about words.  We focused on the concept of “and” rather than “but.” “And” is additive while “but” can be restrictive. In many ways, this related to our learning that it is possible to expand on someone’s idea, rather than to narrow or eliminate it if we thought we had a better idea. We used words like “might” as in “how might we create an experience?” By using the word “might” we did not have to be constrained by practicalities.

The energy, enthusiasm and variety of ideas generated through these exercises were extraordinary. We spent time thinking about ways to create interfaith meals and dialogues into our communities, we expanded our thinking about youth group activities and ultimately focused on an idea called Torah Trek. This is a concept that brings nature and physical movement, among other things, into each Torah portion and ultimately to the B’nai Mitzvah experience.

Although the five sessions allotted and committed to by the participants did not allow enough time to fully flesh out this idea, follow-up to the pilot is an important piece of our model. We are hopeful that a group of these teens will continue to work together with us to apply design thinking to their communities and to continue to develop ideas. We still have many unanswered questions about the best ways to refine and grow this model. However, in keeping with Design Thinking we are OK with that. We know that by continuing to listen, learn, immerse, frame, imagine, prototype and test we will enhance our toolbox in Boston and have an opportunity to greatly impact the community. We are excited about our continuing to work with this group, while simultaneously cultivating a new cohort of teens and communities to work with us, and continuing to ask big questions.


How to Get Youth Into Your Synagogue

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.

Millennials. We’re all grappling with similar questions: How do we get them to go to Hebrew school? Or go to Hillel once they’re in college? Or services after that?

I can only answer from my own (millennial) perspective, but my experience has been profound. It is not unique and it is, in fact, deeply rooted in Torah.

“The worship of God,” wrote Mordecai Kaplan, “though desirable as an end in itself, can somehow never be in the right spirit unless it impels one to the service of man.”

Kaplan seemed ahead of his time, but he was just drawing on Torah–a trailblazing force of social justice. The oft-quoted “justice, justice shall you pursue” (D’varim 16:20) says the word twice because, according to commentators, the first time deals with laws of what is right, while the second time refers to the system of how we achieve it: the Torah’s commandments of fair courts and procedures for judgment.

So when, as young people, we do see injustice in the world—when we see violations of the Torah’s vision of not unfairly favoring one person over another, or not “hearing the small just as the great” (D’varim 1:17), it’s a very Jewish thing to react.

What has motivated me as a Jewish young person is that in every issue I’ve worked on, I encountered the particular injustice of society not hearing the small and the great alike. Let me explain. My journey has taken me from starting a Jewish environmental group in college, to volunteer lobbying with American Jewish World Service, to directing communications for a homelessness non-profit. My homeless services and housing agency was constantly getting its government funding cut despite its incredible success in helping the homeless become contributing, permanently housed, members of society thus saving taxpayers money on incarceration, health care, and foster care. While we didn’t have money in the state budget for these services, somehow lawmakers found a few hundred million dollars here or there in special tax deals to hand out to well-connected corporate lobbies. In my experience, more often than not, the “small” are the vast majority of people using their common sense, and the “great” are using their outsized influence to sway public policy away from the public interest and towards their own narrower interests. And this, to me, is a direct violation of what we learn in Torah.

As a Jewish young person upset by injustice, I decided to take action in my own community. I joined my synagogue’s social action team to meet more community members. I officially joined the synagogue, and soon thereafter gave a d’var Torah on how affordable housing in our neighborhood was being gobbled up and flipped by developers who had an “in” with the alderman, to whom they’d made campaign contributions. Three people approached me immediately afterwards, concerned about what is happening in our backyard, and I took that as a sign that the community may want to do something.

One of the congregation’s rabbis, a fellow millennial, took it upon himself to organize a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of action. About 80 people attended and we held five break-out sessions with organizers of different campaigns. I led a session on the intersection of civil rights, over-incarceration, and the campaign contributions of private prisons, all of which leads to harsher sentencing for non-violent drug offenders, at taxpayer expense.

From that session, we found a leader who helped organize a future demonstration. From a subsequent event, we found a student who wanted to intern. At all of these events, millennials were well represented and deeply interested and engaged with the issues. They were looking for an outlet for their social concern, and they found it in a synagogue.

The Torah may have blazed a trail for justice, but other traditions have learned and are expanding on the model of how, as religious people, we can continue that tradition. Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), the international interfaith youth movement, figured out why young people weren’t showing up at interfaith gatherings. These gatherings largely consisted of self-congratulatory panels and ceremonies, with no meaningful action steps available. So Eboo Patel created IFYC to provide young people of diverse religions the opportunity to do service together. The organization grew, and soon, each young person was not only attending these service opportunities, but also taking a renewed interest in his or her own religion.

I believe that the best way to ensure a strong future for the Jewish people is simple: provide opportunities for youth to engage deeply in an important part of our tradition. The Jewish environmental group I co-founded at Hillel attracted Jews who otherwise would not have stepped into the building. Scores of millennials here in the city of Chicago—myself included—have become paying members of congregations where we feel like worship and service go hand-in-hand.

If you’re nervous about activism on core Torah principles of justice, such as giving voice to the small and great alike, remember—God created the world using the power of the word. If we want the next generation of the Jewish people to take on the responsibility of tikkun olam, helping complete God’s creation, they cannot do so without expressing their voices.

And, quite appropriately, their voices can find a natural home in our own synagogues.

Benjamin D. Singer is the Campaign Director for Common Cause Illinois and serves on the Na’aseh social action committee at Anshe Emet Synagogue. Previously, he co-founded ECO Hillel at Northwestern before directing communications for A Safe Haven and then consulting for U.S. Senate candidates while living in Moishe House Chicago.


Natan Sharansky Speaks to URJ Camp Staffers About the Conflict in Israel

by Hanoch Greenberg

The URJ’s shlichim (Israeli emissaries) were privileged last month to participate in a webinar with Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, in which he discussed the ongoing Operation Protective Edge and its implications for the shlichim, who were working in the Diaspora as conflict escalated in Israel.

For me, an Israeli and a 13-year staff member at URJ Camp Coleman, this summer has been one of the most challenging I’ve ever faced – and I know many of my fellow shlichim feel the same way. Being at camp while our friends and families struggle at home is devastating. The webinar was helpful for the shlichim because it addressed the main questions and struggles that we find ourselves grappling with: how to do our daily job in camp while we worry about everything transpiring back home; how to explain and educate campers and staff about the ongoing situation in Israel; and how to cultivate a support system in and outside of camp. Read more…

Encouraging Leadership with Both Hands

By Celia Tedde and Jeremy Cronig

Da lifnei mi atah omeid–know before whom you stand.” This quote from Talmud B’rachot 28b has been the central focus of our experience in the Leadership Academy at the URJ Kutz Camp.

This summer, we spent four weeks in Warwick, NY learning and developing our leadership skills. The URJ Kutz Camp gives teens the opportunity to study by choosing from a variety of majors and minors, including some that focus on growing as Jewish leaders within the community.

Read more…

Unanimous Vote on Iron Dome Funding Vital to Israel’s Security; Hamas Violation of Ceasefire Condemned

In response to the unanimous U.S. Senate vote authorizing emergency aid for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, issued the following statement:

The news this morning that Hamas violated the agreed upon 72 hour humanitarian cease fire, killed two IDF soldiers, and kidnapped Givati Brigade Officer Hadar Goldin is as outrageous as it is predictable. Our thoughts and prayers are with Officer Goldin and his family, as well as the families of the all the IDF soldiers who have been killed since the start of Operation Protective Edge. We also pray for all the innocents who have suffered throughout the past several weeks of warfare. It is tragic that Hamas’ unwillingness or inability to abide by the terms of the ceasefire to which it agreed has now led directly to renewed bloodshed. Read more…

Sing Unto God, Sing a New Song! A Reflection from the Kutz Songleading Major

By Eva Turner

This summer at URJ’s Kutz Camp was the second year I chose the Songleading Major. Many people asked, “why do the same major again?” to which I always responded, “I need new music.” In truth, I decided to participate in songleading for a second time because I believe you can never learn everything and there is always room for improvement. And I was completely right. The most important lesson I’ve learned in my two years as a songleader I learned this past summer. That lesson is as follows: The most important part of songleading is education.

Read more…

Reform Rabbis Travel to Israel in Show of Solidarity

On July 27th, a group Reform Rabbis from throughout North America representing the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) plan to begin a mission to Israel in an expression of solidarity and support.

Says Rabbi Richard Block, senior rabbi of the Temple-Tifereth Israel in Beachwood, Ohio, who is president of the CCAR and a leader of the trip,

We know that the timing of this mission may not be convenient. But we also know this: Our presence in Israel, at this critical juncture, as North American Reform Rabbis, especially our interaction with some of those most directly impacted by recent events, will demonstrate more eloquently to the people of Israel than anything else we could say or do that they are not alone in this struggle, that the Central Conference of American Rabbis stands with the State of Israel and all its citizens in good times and bad.

Read more…

NFTY Alumni Profile: Jason Cohen

If you watched the Academy Awards this year, the film title Facing Fear may sound familiar. If you were in JFTY in the late 1980’s, the film’s producer/director’s name – Jason Cohen – may sound familiar. Either way we caught up with Jason (JFTY ’90) to chat about his work as a filmmaker, his exciting release of this powerful piece, and how his time in NFTY continues to influence his work.

JCindiaA New Jersey native, Cohen shared that growing up his Jewish community was NFTY. Regional conclaves opened his eyes to a bigger world and his role in making a difference.  NFTY was the place where he was introduced to and felt compelled towards social action. This new perspective remained at the forefront of his mind through college at University of Wisconsin and into his professional career. Through his career, Jason has been traveling the world uncovering stories and helping to open others’ eyes to new issues.FF

Now, partnering with the Fetzer Institute, Jason has released a film full of references to his Jewish background. Facing Fear is a story of a chance meeting of a victim of a gay hate crime and his neo-Nazi attacker 25 years after the attack. Both lives have been shaped by the event and the meeting sparks a journey of forgiveness, collaboration, and eventually (and surprisingly) friendship. Facing Fear is screening at film festivals and select theaters/events across the country.

Favorite NFTY memory: NFTY represented some of Jason’s best times in high school. He remembered feeling like he was, at times, living a double life from the guy his high school friends all knew when he would escape for the weekend to catch up with NFTY friends during conclaves. The things he did in NFTY always felt like they had a little more meaning.

Advice to NFTYites and NFTY alumni interested in the film industry: Always look for compelling stories and people. Jason seeks out subjects that he is interested in learning about so that he can learn through the process and along with his viewers. He suggests taking advantage of all of the tools that are out there – and there are many (!) – film making is much more accessible than it was when he first started.

Check out more about Jason’s film including a trailer and screening dates.

Eight Ways Your Congregation Can Be More Welcoming for the High Holidays

The High Holidays are a special time in the Jewish calendar, a time when many unaffiliated Jews (those who are not members of a congregation) may feel the need to connect to the broader Jewish community. Even if they don’t attend synagogue throughout the year, the High Holidays may inspire these individuals and their families to find a congregation where they can attend services or special holiday programming.

There are several ways to leverage your congregation’s communications tools and human resources to make your synagogue more welcoming to unaffiliated Jews, especially leading up to the High Holidays. Read more…

NFTY in the early 2000s: Years of Change and Engagement

By Hope Chernak, RJE

The early 2000s provided many opportunities for teen voices and NFTY,the Reform Jewish Youth Movement initiatives to be implemented in the Reform movement. I joined the NFTY staff in 1999 and witnessed incredible moments during my eight years with NFTY’s teen leadership

The first time I saw firsthand how our teens could influence our Reform Movement was in 2001 when NFTY President Ashley Habas established teen task forces at Kutz Camp to work on NFTY programming. The topics covered globalization, teen issues, Israel, and life after NFTY (i.e., college life). The task forces presented the opinions of teens from across North America to the adult leadership of the Reform Movement, which impacted their decisions and shaped NFTY programming. At the same time, NFTY began to use online list servs; monitored by the regional officers, they collected the content to create a NFTY website which became a forum for all Temple Youth Groups to post and share resources. Read more…

An Update on “Stop the Sirens”

As you know, the conflict in Gaza has intensified. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the Israeli soldiers killed in action, with our brothers and sisters in Israeli, and with all who are in danger.

When the conflict began, the Reform Movement made a decision to join Stop the Sirens, a community-wide campaign, coordinated by Jewish Federations of North American (JFNA), to provide relief and support to the most heavily impacted Israeli communities. We did this rather than creating our own campaign to support our Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ) congregations and the vital work the IMPJ itself is doing because we thought it was important to show support for the larger communal effort.

The campaign has already allocated $8 million for “respite and relief.” Read more…

Colleagues, friends and family gather to remember Rabbi David J. Forman

By Terry Hendin

Some 65 people ranging in age from a few months to 95 years old gathered in Jerusalem’s Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood on Monday, May 19, 2014 at the Kehilat HaDror Community Garden.  The Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood was the home to our colleague, mentor, teacher and friend, the late Rabbi David J. Forman. Rabbi Forman was the long time Director of NFTY in Israel programs who passed away in May, 2010.  A human rights activist, author, lecturer and gifted teacher, David’s memory is cherished not only by his loving extended family, including his wife Judy and daughters Tamar, Liat, Shira and Orly, but also by a devoted group of former classmates, colleagues and friends.

Forman Fund May 19, 2014 Activity Day

Rabbi Shaul Feinberg, Terry Hendin, and Rabbi Stuart Gellar join together for work in the garden.

The occasion was the 3rd Annual Activity Day organized by the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund based in Jerusalem.  The multi-generation friendly project included work at the garden, clearing the ground to lay a path, pruning trees, weeding, planting flowers and creating mosaic markers naming the various species growing in the garden. Rabbi Ezzie Ende, a former NFTY in Israel group leader and educator who now serves Kehilat HaDror lead us in a brief study related to the counting of the Omer, tying this in to the history of the Kiryat HaYovel neighborhood and Rabbi Forman’s deep commitment to human rights, tolerance, democratic and Jewish values, youth and the nurturing of pluralistic communities. Some of those present briefly spoke about social justice projects they are involved in.  This was very much in the spirit of Rabbi Forman who always was involved in social justice and human rights initiatives.

Throughout the year, this area is used by the school and general community and particularly by members of Kiryat Hayovel’s fledgling Reform congregation, Kehilat HaDror which began as an offshoot of the veteran congregation, Kehilat Kol HaNeshama.  Kabbalat Shabbat, holiday services and activities take place here during mild weather.  Summertime movie nights, children’s birthday parties and hands on environmental education all occur in this charming ‘pocket’ garden in a neighborhood whose population is for the most part invested in preserving a balanced well-integrated pluralistic community.

Four generations of the Forman-Haberman family were present and 3 generations of Rabbi Forman’s friends and colleagues many of whom had been or continue to be professionally affiliated with NFTY and NFTY in Israel.

Courtesy of the family of Rabbi David Forman

Courtesy of the family of Rabbi David Forman

The Rabbi David J. Forman Fund was established to perpetuate the legacy of David’s Jewish social activism, leadership in Jewish education, promotion of justice as a rabbinical vision, and the need to work indefatigably and without illusion for peace, justice, and human rights.  The Fund is devoted to activities that demonstrate a passion for the Zionist enterprise, helping to build a more just Israeli society, and the enhancement of Jewish Peoplehood.   The annual Activity Day, Human Rights Awards and Scholarships are some of the areas sponsored by the fund. For more information about the Rabbi David J. Forman Fund email:

The Walkman Generation – NFTY in the ‘80s

By Rabbi Roxanne J. Schneider Shapiro

More than the Jewish people have kept the Sabbath; the Sabbath has kept the Jewish people. – Ahad Ha’am

When I reflect on NFTY in the ‘80s, I would revise Ha’am’s quote to:

More than Reform Jewish teenagers have kept NFTY; NFTY has kept Reform Jewish teenagers.

I cannot speak for all who were involved in NFTY in the ‘80s, but for me, NFTY was a holy sanctuary – it was what I would refer to as a beit midrash (house of study), beit t’filah (house of prayer), and a beit k’neset (house of meeting), all in one.

Teens in the ‘80s were learning about Judaism ‘on the go.’ We were the “Walkman generation.” Finally, we could take music with us. This represented more than just music on the go ― for us it was the beginning of portable Judaism. I practiced for my bat mitzvah service with a cassette tape in my Walkman. I could play my tapes of NFTY I, II, III, IV, V, and my MoVFTY mix tapes over and over in the car, on a walk, and at NFTY events. Our music and our experiences were not limited to places where a music box could be plugged in; rather, they were everywhere. We were learning that Judaism was not limited to our homes and synagogues―it could be taken with us. Read more…

Saperstein: Recent Spate of Anti-Semitic Incidents Prompts Alarm

In response to recent anti-Semitic episodes in Los Angeles and Paris, as well as incidents across the United States and Europe, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, issued the following statement:

“We are deeply disturbed by the recent violent anti-Semitic and anti-Israel uprisings. Over the weekend, rioters, wielding bats and chairs, tried to break into the Don Isaac Abravanel synagogue in Paris while worshippers were blocked inside. In Los Angeles’ Westwood neighborhood, a peaceful demonstration was violently disrupted by agitators, leading to shots being fired. In Frankfurt, a local synagogue was attacked as an anti-Israel rally turned violent. In Bastille Square, demonstrators held signs that read ‘Death to Jews.’ Read more…