For many Jewish teens, the culmination of their involvement in Judaism comes at the age of 12 or 13 when they read their Torah portion and celebrate at their bar or bat mitzvah party. While some teens will go on to complete confirmation classes and may be involved with a Jewish youth group, many will cease to be engaged with Jewish life at all.
Nearly two years ago, the Jim Joseph Foundation, a San Francisco-based organization that strives to foster compelling Jewish learning experiences for Jews ages 13 to 30, began a study in hopes of finding new and innovative ways of keeping these teens actively involved in their Jewish communities.
“The foundation funds Jewish education for youth and young adults and after looking at the success we’ve had in the college and young adult space, we felt that we wanted to push the envelope in the teen space as well,” said Josh Miller, a senior program officer at the foundation. “We did some analysis and found that in most communities the penetration rate in the teen market is 15 to 20 percent which is quite low. So, we set out to ask the question of how we can work with communities to increase the number of teens having effective learning experiences in their communities.”
Collaborating with consulting firms BTW Informing Change and Rosov Consulting, LLC, the foundation put together a research advisory group comprised of funders, key experts and practitioners and a group of six teen advisers from geographically and ethnically diverse backgrounds.
“Bringing together advisers really helped shape and reshape the research project to see what was happening in both the Jewish and non-Jewish world to see what kind of strategies and programs seem to be resonating with young people today,” explained Miller. “We also wanted to have teen advisers because if you’re going to write a report about an age population that can speak for itself, by all means bring them into the conversation. It’s one of the smartest things we did.”
The researchers spent February-May of 2012 studying both Jewish and non-Jewish youth and leadership groups; the official report was published this past March.
While a number of important findings are detailed in the 17-page report, Miller highlighted three that he felt are the most important for the Jewish teen community. The first, he described as “location,” meaning that it’s important to create experiences that are normative for teens in places they go to on a day-to-day basis.
The second he termed “people, people, people,” explaining that an essential part of keeping teens engaged is having effective leaders who can form relationships with the teens, making them want to return to the group and therefore be engaged in Judaism.
“The critical element of how and what the adult role is, is really important,” explained Deborah Meyer, executive director of Moving Traditions, a Philadelphia-based organization that was profiled in the report and works to focus a gender lens on Jewish learning and practice. “Having the right adults as staff and volunteers to engage with the teens is the single most important element in successful work with teens.”
The third essential finding was the need for organizations to create low barrier programs that allow teens to be casually engaged at first, and make the decision on their own to attend more events or become more involved.
Upon completion of the report, the foundation worked with eJewish Philanthropy to run a blog series, encouraging discussion amongst those involved in the study, and those who read the study and wanted to contribute.
“We wanted those who work in the teen space and even teens themselves to weigh in with their reactions to the report. It was really extraordinary to see the comments and discussions, and it really became a rich online conversation for the sake of our learning and advancing the field,” said Miller.
He added that an important finding from the post-report online discussions was the emphasis on programs reaching out to preteens and the empowerment of teens to recruit their younger peers to get them excited about what they could be doing in their teen years. Additionally, an emphasis was placed on parent education and having parents encourage their teens to be a part of their Jewish communities.
While doing research and publishing an in-depth report is a huge undertaking, those involved hope that it doesn’t “gather dust” but rather inspires communities to take action on behalf of their Jewish teens.
“I would like to see conversations within communities around teen engagement and communities taking the topic seriously to try and address it head on,” said Jeffrey Kress, associate professor and academic director, Experiential Learning Initiative, JTS, and a research adviser for the report. “Sometimes it’s a challenge, and communities need to rise to that challenge and ask the question of how are we meeting the needs of our youth and taking a collective responsibility for the development of our youth for their embarking on the next phase of their Jewish development.”
Meyer praised the work of the foundation, adding, “They’re not just saying that there is a problem, but they want to do something about it which is really important and they are doing that as a lead funder.
“We’re hoping that we raise awareness about the importance of teens as an age cohort and get the attention of Jewish policy makers and Jewish funders,” said Miller, who added that the foundation has plans to host a Jewish webinar series discussing the organizations that are highlighted in the report. “It’s such an important developmental stage and it’s a great opportunity for the Jewish community to enrich young people’s lives in a complicated time.”
Perhaps Lucas Lendenbaum, 18, from Silver Spring, and a member of the teen advisory board said it best.
“It’s important to keep teens engaged because it’s a prime time to get Judaism imprinted in their brains and to know that this is something important that could be with the teens for the rest of their lives.”