Reform rabbis hope youth engagement effort will reverse teen drain
For approximately 80 percent of children in the Reform movement, celebrating a bar or bat mitzva will be the last connection they will have to their Jewish community throughout the rest of their teen years.
For some, it will be their last connection for the rest of their lives.
Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judasim, and other Reform leaders, local and national, are trying to reverse this startling trend.
The centerpiece of their efforts is the URJ’s new Campaign for Youth Engagement, aiming to help congregations throughout North America get teens and young adults to remain involved in Jewish life.
The campaign, which was unveiled at last month’s URJ Biennial convention in Washington, D.C., by URJ President-elect Rabbi Richard Jacobs, will be headed by Rabbi Bradley Solmsen.
“The campaign is a mass movement in the Reform movement, and beyond,” said Pesner, who, with a background as a community organizer, is one of the campaign’s principal leaders. He believes that organizations like Hillel on Campus, B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, and local Jewish Federations will all need to partner in order to ensure the next generation of Jews remains tied to its heritage.
The aim of the campaign is an all-encompassing, movementwide effort to engage a majority of Reform Jewish youth by the year 2020.
“There has to be a true revolution of culture, and a real commitment of local people, ” Pesner said. “We will have to show our youth that synagogue life is about deep engagement in living and learning, and not just about preparation for b’nai mitzva. The question is, ‘How do you do that?’”
One problem congregations face in keeping their youth involved is the competing demands for the kids’ time, said Rabbi Jessica Locketz, associate rabbi and temple educator at Temple Emanuel of South Hills.
“We are feeling the results of the added pressures our teens are facing,” Locketz said. “There is decline in involvement. They are still signing up to be involved in the youth group and in educational programs, but they cannot always make the events. It’s not for the lack of them wanting to; it’s just that they are so incredibly busy. Sometimes, school comes first.”
The Campaign for Youth Engagement will help congregations focus on three spheres that have been proven to help maintain youth involvement, according to Pesner: early integration into synagogue life; attendance at Jewish camp or other immersion experiences; and, professional training of youth workers.
“We know that families who are integrated through early childhood tend to stay after bar and bat mitzvas,” he said. “We know that families whose kids go to Jewish summer camp, or other immersion activities [like trips to Israel or social action programs] stay engaged.”
The URJ also will be supporting more professional training of youth workers, and will work with community partners like local federations to professionalize the field.
“There is a heavy turnover with youth workers,” Pesner said. “And kids get engaged in synagogue life because of relationships, not programs. They get connected to the adults who mentor them, and they get connected to robust relationships with their peers. If there is a high turnover, relationships get severed and kids drop out.”
To reverse the trend of losing kids after their bar or bat mitzva, said Rabbi Ronald BB Symons, director of lifelong learning at Temple Sinai, communities need to “put more boots on the ground in terms of trained youth workers.”
Symons met with 30 URJ leaders about 18 months ago to address the issue of disengaged youth and come up with solutions. He has been working locally with the Agency for Jewish Learning and the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh to garner funding for a NFTY (North American Federation of Jewish Youth) Pittsburgh coordinator, whose job would be to help and advise all local Reform youth groups, and to organize citywide, multigroup events. Symons has approached the URJ for funding as well.
“We have already made a concerted effort to get the teen leaders [from local Reform congregations] to work together, and to plan events together,” Symons said, citing a recent combined “latke fry-down” Chanuka event that drew 25 kids from all over the city, and an upcoming social action shabbaton in February.
“We are committed to strengthening our own youth groups in our synagogues, while strengthening teens’ connections to each other,” Symons said.
“It’s all about relationships,” he added. “We love our teens. We want them to know each other, and to know us.”
The URJ has already garnered considerable financial support for its Campaign for Youth Engagement, and has over $1,000,000 in seed money to enhance its youth staff and provide synagogue innovation grants.
Relationship building has worked at Temple Sinai, where the congregation has mixed formal and informal education — religious school and youth group — and typically draws 70 to 80 participants to its Monday night teen programs.
Even in smaller congregations the fostering of positive, personal relationships with teens is key to keeping them involved, according to Rabbi Audrey Korotkin, of Temple Beth Israel, in Altoona.
The spiritual leader of the 75-family Reform congregation says that the teens of Temple Beth Israel do remain engaged in synagogue life through their high school years.
“In a lot of larger congregations, there are problems with post-bar and bat mitzvah retention,” she said. “Some rabbis have called their own congregations ‘bar mitzvah mills.’”
But at Temple Beth Israel, where Korotkin personally tutors and develops a relationship with each b’nai mitzva, the teens all go on to confirmation, she said. While at the recent URJ Biennial, she advised Jacobs to take a look at her model.
“I said to Rabbi Jacobs, ‘Please visit Altoona,’” she said, “Because we are not a b’nai mitzvah mill. All our kids stay through confirmation, and a lot stay through high school. You can’t be anonymous in a 75-family congregation. I said, ‘you need to come to places like Altoona and see another model. There are other models you need to take a look at. Personal connections can go a long way.’ ”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)