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Engaging teens in Jewish Life

Jewish Connecticut gets serious about post-b’nai mitzvah generation

By Cindy Mindell

This year is shaping up in the Jewish communal world as one focused on Jewish teen engagement. The call to action was a theme of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) annual board meeting in January, as well as JFNA’s meeting of Intermediate Federation Presidents and Executive Directors.

James Cohen, CEO of United Jewish Federation of Greater Stamford, New Canaan and Darien (UJF), attended both, where participants heard presentations from representatives of various organizations working on teen engagement, including Hillel International CEO Eric Fingerhut, and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“It hit home to such a degree that I realized that, if we don’t address this issue and get it right, we’re going to lose a whole generation of Jews,” Cohen says. “If that happens, everything else in the American Jewish community is meaningless.”

Cohen called his board president, Ellen Weber, from the airport while waiting for his return flight. “I said, ‘We have to talk about teen engagement’ and she agreed,” Cohen recalls. “Even if a community agency doesn’t deal with it directly or specifically, the issue really does affect every person and every organization in our community in some way.”

A month later, more than 3,000 Jewish teens from around the country and across the globe converged on Atlanta for the international conventions of BBYO and NFTY, two of North America’s most popular Jewish youth groups.

With so many engaged Jewish teens and lay and professional leaders in one place, three philanthropic foundations – Jim Joseph, Schusterman, and Singer – seized the opportunity to convene the first-ever Summit on Jewish Teens.

At the same time that the summit was bringing together 250 Jewish philanthropists, foundation professionals, and communal leaders to focus on teen engagement and education, the leaders of major Jewish youth movements ran a concurrent Coalition of Jewish Teens Summit, setting shared goals and presenting a coordinated plan for engaging and educating as many teens as possible about Jewish life and leadership.

“These summits come at a time when we more fully understand the positive, long-term impact of engaging teens,” the three host foundations wrote in “Investing in Jewish Teens: A Golden Opportunity for Action,” a joint op-ed published on eJewishPhilanthropy.com on Feb. 9. “Indeed, the good news is that study after study proves that when young people are involved in meaningful Jewish experiences during their teenage years, they are much more likely to be active, lifelong members of the Jewish community. They participate in Jewish life, take on Jewish professional and lay leadership roles, and build a strong connection with Israel and the global Jewish people. What’s more, they often directly credit the organizations and programs they participated in as teens for shaping their Jewish journeys throughout adulthood.”

The piece calls on Jewish communal leadership across the U.S. to take seriously an alarming finding cited by the authors: some 80 percent of teens drop out of Jewish communal life after their b’nai mitzvah.

Teen engagement is not new to Connecticut Jewish communities, who each boast a wealth of opportunities for that population. The question has always been how to attract and retain participation.

The foundations lay out several key findings that are tried-and-true responses to that question, and note a number of national and international Jewish organizations as being among the most successful in this area.

Among them is BBYO (formerly B’nai B’rith Youth Organization), an international pluralistic youth movement for 8th- to 12th-graders held up by the authors as an example of peer-led programming.

Indeed, throughout the BBYO Connecticut Valley Region’s 15 chapters, membership is at 700, up from 200 since 2007, when Josh Cohen became regional director. “We have so many teens coming in that we are having a tough time finding enough adult advisors to work with our chapters,” says Josh Cohen, who is one of only two full-time staff members in the otherwise all-volunteer organization.

BBYO is funded by membership dues, private donations, and allocations from the Jewish Federations that serve the communities where chapters exist. In Connecticut Jewish communities, as elsewhere, the organization is one of many options open to Jewish teens, and often partners with other youth groups and programs.

While each Jewish Federation in the state allocates money to local teen engagement initiatives, funding priorities and beneficiaries differ according to the needs and makeup of each respective teen population.

In Stamford, for example, James Cohen and his UJF leadership convened a new communal Advisory Council whose first task was to explore ways to increase teen engagement. “We chose the ‘long game:’ preparing our b’nai mitzvah kids for Jewish life with particular emphasis on dealing with rising antisemitism on college campuses and with Jewish disengagement,” Cohen says. Members of the council, who represent all local UJF beneficiary organizations, will collaborate on community-wide teen programming.

The new council represents a shift from the decade-long Kulanu, UJF’s community-wide after-school Jewish educational program for teens that closed last year due to dwindling enrollment. (Two Kulanu offerings survived: the Kuriansky Teen Tzedakah Corps and Speak up for Israel.)

UJF’s commitment to teens is also reflected in its 2015 allocations, which saw very large percentage increases to BBYO, the public high school-based Jewish Student Connection, Hillel, and area day schools, Cohen says.

In the op-ed, the three foundations also applaud Jewish teen philanthropy programs for “attracting more and more participants by putting teens front and center, empowering them to make strategic philanthropic decisions that have direct impact on their local communities.”

This is the approach adopted by UJA and JCC Greenwich, whose teen engagement initiatives are headed by JCC assistant director Leah Schechter, who arrived in 2013. Her appointment reflects another key finding by the three foundations: “Talented Jewish youth professionals make a difference.” Schechter was selected by the UJA Greenwich board because of her professional background in youth engagement and Jewish education.

At that time, teen engagement was scattered among the several area synagogues and a BBYO chapter. Schechter was tasked with creating a central focal point for teens. She built on the UJA/JCC’s successful PJ Library program for younger children, creating a Teen Action Committee that offers informal hands-on service learning opportunities. In addition to helping out at JCC events like PJ Library, participants are also involved in the Areyvut Jewish teen philanthropy program and Midnight Run missions to distribute food and clothing to homeless people on the streets of Manhattan.

UJA/JCC Greenwich also runs the Israel Club at Greenwich High School, and provides Israeli Young Emissaries and other speakers for school classes and events.

The experience is meant to be social and community service-oriented all at once, according to Schechter. “It’s community service, and through community service we are allowing kids to cross all boundaries of affiliation and the various public and private schools and to come together and have social experiences that also benefit others,” she says. “Our teens come from across the community and across the denominational board, which is the whole point of JCC Greenwich: it’s unaffiliated, it welcomes everybody, it crosses some of the other organizational boundaries. Our teen programming allows for middle school and high school kids to interact, which provides leadership and mentorship opportunities for the older kids and allows for the younger kids to see what they can grow into.”

Teen leadership is also a focus of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford’s allocations process.

In her role as associate vice president of Jewish Education & Leadership, Anna Elfenbaum works closely with area synagogues and the religious school principals. “What we hear from them is that there is a strong teen component when it comes to teaching and assisting in the religious schools,” she says. “Almost every synagogue in the community has a very strong showing of teens who are there on Sunday mornings, involved in some combination of teaching, learning, and leadership. So, one of the things our Federation is doing is helping the synagogues and schools to provide better leadership and professional development for their teens – working in the classroom, assisting kids with special needs, leading their own portions of lessons, or those who want to become leaders in their youth groups.”

Among other teen engagement organizations, Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford also funds Jewish Teen Learning Connection (JTConnect), a community-wide, after-school program that meets in various locations throughout the area. Five years ago, when Heather Fiedler took over as director, the program was moved out of Beth El Temple and onto the more centralized Zachs Campus, home to several other Jewish communal organizations.

“We had been asking kids to come to us and saying, ‘That’s how you engage Jewishly,’” Fiedler says. “We realized very quickly that the world has changed and we can no longer assume that people are coming to us. So, we started going out into the community and offering all sorts of different types of things to a diverse range of teens. We had to get kids where they are, as opposed to telling them, ‘This is where we are; you should be here too.’”

Another key finding is that service and Israel play crucial roles in teen experiences, an emphasis of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut, which runs junior and senior youth groups, as well as a Jewish high school and a fledgling BBYO chapter. “We want to help our kids become Jewish individuals who have a strong Jewish identity and a strong connection to Israel,” says Youth Director Marcia Reinhard. “I’m all about ‘stand up for Israel and your Jewishness.’”

For the small Jewish community of Eastern Connecticut, “the most important thing is just getting these Jewish kids together, which makes any event ‘Jewish,’” Reinhard says. “They’re never together; they’re scattered all over the area, some in NFTY and USY – so if we can get them to bond, we’ve accomplished something.”

Connecticut Jewish communities are all savvy to the fact that creating partnerships between the various organizations is what builds a strong teen-engagement network, another key finding of the three foundations, who emphasize the need for increased Jewish communal commitments of funding and sweat-equity.

Fiedler puts it this way: “My future plans with JTConnect have less to do with JTConnect and more to do with the broader community because it can’t be just about putting tushies in seats on a Monday night or a Sunday morning or any other time,” she says. “It has to be about putting the teens in the center and focusing on them and what their needs are – across the community.”

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