Engaging Jewish Teens (part 2): Decline of Youth Groups Forces New Thinking for Teen Outreach

Margarita Beznosov thought about enrolling in her temple’s confirmation class after her Bat Mitzvah, but it conflicted with a dance class she wanted to take.

Now 15, Beznosov, of West Hartford, Conn., performs in plays at her local Jewish community center and will be working this summer — for pay — as a technical assistant on the JCC’s children’s shows.

While her rabbi speaks a little mournfully about never seeing Beznosov at her Reform synagogue, the experience of this teen can be read two ways.

Some will say that without continuing her formal Jewish education or participating in a youth group, Beznosov is "at risk" and will be lost to the Jewish community.

Others will see the opportunity that institutions like the JCC, which appeal to interests that are not specifically Jewish, have in keeping teens engaged — at least on some level — in Jewish life.

Synagogue high schools and year-round youth groups, long the mainstays of Jewish teen programming, today appeal to a limited audience of teens. Leaders in both the Reform and Conservative movements estimate that fewer than 25 percent of the teens whose parents are synagogue members participate in youth groups.

Although no comparative figures exist, those working in the field say they have a strong sense that Jewish teens today are less interested in year-round youth groups than their predecessors were.

Over the past few years, as the American Jewish community has focused on promoting "continuity" and renewal, local federations, the Jewish community centers movement and the religious movements are trying to find new ways to reach teens.

Although no one plans to eliminate the year-round youth group, which attracts a small, committed cadre, those involved with the new initiatives are finding the majority of Jewish kids more likely to participate in shorter, more intensive experiences such as summer camp and Israel trips, as well as ones tailored to their interests.

Rabbi Art Vernon, the staff person at the Jewish Education Service of North America responsible for teens and informal education, has an explanation for the declining interest in youth groups.

"Kids are busier, with many other things to do and they’re prioritizing activities," he said.

Rabbi Allan Smith, director of the youth division of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said, "We’re talking now about points of contact as opposed to an ongoing club."

To that end, the UAHC is implementing a national effort called the Youth Initiative.

Through the initiative, still in its early stages, synagogues are exploring different kinds of offerings for teens who might not be interested in committing to membership in the movement’s National Federation of Temple Youth, which currently attracts some 10,000 students.

Some projects under discussion are community service days, Scholastic Assessment Test prep courses in which teens also talk about how to stay connected to Jewish life while in college, camping trips and wilderness retreats that also involve Shabbat celebrations, guitar lessons focusing on Jewish music and a regional Jewish youth choir.

"We need to engage youth, instead of demanding they fit our model, and we need to go to where they are," said Jonathan Cohen, one of the staff people involved in planning the Youth Initiative.

"We believe that all kids in a congregation would like to have something Jewish in their grand portfolio of life and we haven’t offered it yet," said Cohen, now the director of the Reform movement’s Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, Miss.

The Youth Initiative, like other new efforts, uses what JESNA’s Vernon calls a "boutique" approach: programs that have Jewish content but use other activities as a "hook" to attract teens.

One of the largest of such efforts is the Jewish Community Centers Association’s Maccabi Games, an annual olympics of sorts that attracts more than 6,000 teens, many of whom do little else under Jewish auspices.

The JCCA, which is now talking about creating year-round teen sports programs that build on Maccabi’s momentum, also runs Israel trips specifically for Jewish athletes, with sports training and competitions.

"The carrot is the sports," said Lenny Silberman, continental games director for the Maccabi Games. But when kids were asked what the best part of the trip was, they didn’t say "this game or that game, but they said planting trees and seeing Masada."

Sarah Nedwick, 18, a varsity athlete from suburban Chicago who still keeps in touch with her companions from her Maccabi trip three years ago, said she probably wouldn’t have gone to Israel if it hadn’t been for the basketball component.

"I didn’t want to just be hiking all day," said Nedwick. "I wanted to tie something else to learning about our religion."

Among the other programs that use the hook approach are Genesis, a summer school at Brandeis University that combines academic courses and art classes with Jewish programming, and the Jewish Civics Initiative, a program in which teens learn about social action and community service from a Jewish perspective, travel to Washington for seminars, then develop a social action project in their own communities.

Through the civics program, which is sponsored by the Washington Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, teens in South Palm Beach County, Fla., organized a "homeless fair" to collect household and personal hygiene products for homeless people. Teens in San Antonio, Texas, got involved with a campaign against a state school voucher bill.

Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, the Washington Institute’s founder and director, describes the strategy of the civics program as well as a shorter seminar on social justice he runs called Panim el Panim as an "outside-in approach to Jewish learning."

Instead of sitting down just to learn about Jewish philosophy or texts, he said, "you start with an issue they have an interest in, like abortion or refugees, and then look at what does Judaism have to say about it."

Long-standing youth groups are also trying to look beyond the core of kids who take leadership roles and attend every event.

The National Conference of Synagogue Youth, which is sponsored by the Orthodox Union and serves 30,000 to 40,000 teens per year, half of whom are not Orthodox, offers a range of activities — including Shabbat retreats, sports activities, summer camps, trips to Israel and Israel culture clubs in public schools.

And today, the group expects most kids to pick and choose which activities they’ll attend.

"I was an NCSY-er in 1968, and the loyalty factor was all- encompassing," said NCSY’s national executive director, Paul Glasser.

There are still kids like that, he said, "but the majority are not as loyal," with most coming only from time to time.

But some youth organizations prefer to fine tune the year-round club rather than developing a different approach.

Jules Gutin, director of the Conservative Movement’s United Synagogue Youth, said the clubs work when synagogues make them a financial priority and that USY is focusing on persuading more kids to become members at younger ages, rather than providing alternative activities.

"When you take certain programs out of a year-round context, the long-term impact is not as successful or enduring," said Gutin.

While Gutin says membership in Kadima, USY’s pre-teen division, is now at an all-time high of 10,000 participants, it is not yet clear how this will affect the older group.

Young Judaea, which is sponsored by Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, has seen its numbers jump for Israel trips and camps over the past decade, but has had "limited success" with its year-round clubs, said Doron Krakow, the group’s national director.

Young Judaea has 12,000 year-round members, but 5,000 are college students and young adults, rather than teens. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, it had more than 18,000 members.

Krakow, who chairs the North American Alliance for Jewish Youth, a coalition of organizations offering informal Jewish education, believes the decline in Young Judaea’s year-round clubs, where teens are expected to invest time organizing educational activities, is because today’s "kids are not taught responsibility and obligation in the same way."

Some youth workers at a recent conference of the alliance questioned the hook approach, and its value in offering activities that teens can also do in a non- Jewish venue.

Robin Shrater, the teen coordinator at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, said, "The activities the kids plan are fun and flashy, but I wonder where the Jewish part is."

Rabbi Eve Rudin Weiner, the director of NFTY, disagreed.

"Once we get them in the door, we know what to do with them," she said. "But getting them in the door is difficult. It’s better to go bowling with Jewish kids than do nothing Jewish."

But 15-year-old Ariel Postone, who goes to a Hebrew high school once a week and applauds the idea of Jewish wilderness retreats and social activities to draw in new kids, warns that special programs should have "more Jewish content than let’s say an SAT prep class."

"I don’t think that kids will be drawn to that more than a regular one just because they are there with other Jews," said the Berkeley, Calif., teen.

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