NEW YORK (Jan. 29)
Some say it has overtones of Orwell’s Big Brother, but many in the Jewish communal world are hoping a new system to track children’s informal Jewish activities finally provides a way to find empirical evidence of what does and does not engage young Jews.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City, which serves a community of about 20,000 in Kansas and Missouri, started using the “Engaging for Life” system in 2003 to see what informal education activities — youth group events, camps and other activities that aren’t classroom-oriented — were drawing the community’s young Jews.
The federation started tracking its children informally in 2001. When officials realized their rudimentary data was full of overlap, they teamed with the Berman Center of the Jewish Education Service of North America, the Institute for Informal Jewish Education at Brandeis University and a Kansas City-based software development company to create what is essentially an interactive online database.
The development comes as communities across the United States are grappling with the challenge of keeping younger Jews involved.
Larger federations are beginning to follow Kansas City’s example. The federations in Boston, which serves some 250,000 Jews, and Atlanta, which serves more than 100,000 Jews, are both on the verge of adopting the system.
Seven of Kansas City’s nine synagogues now keep records, starting with fifth grade, of every youth group activity their children attend, entering their names whenever they show up at an event. The synagogues follow up with interviews to find out what other activities outside the synagogue the children attend, and enter those into the database. The information is then fed to the federation.
So the Kansas City Jewish community knows, for instance, that “Allison,” a ninth-grader who is a member of the Reform Congregation Beth Torah, attended the Union for Reform Judaism’s summer camp every year from 2003 to 2007, except for 2006.
From Sept. 23, 2003 until Dec. 28, 2006, Allison attended 25 other informal Jewish education events. Among them was a pre-Passover pizza party on March 27, 2004, an eighth-grade retreat on Sept. 9, 2005, and a rock-climbing event on March 25, 2006.
“Joshua,” also a Beth Torah ninth-grader, attended 19 events in the same time frame, including the three mentioned for Allison. However, he skipped a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event on Jan. 16, 2006 that Allison attended, and didn’t go to a Jewish summer camp.
The information is confidential, and while each congregation knows the identities of the children they are tracking, the information they share with the federation is anonymous.
It gives Karen Gerson, director of informal Jewish education for CAJE/Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City, comprehensive data about what Kansas City children are doing instead of relying on the inaccurate anecdotal evidence that most communities use.
This is the first year the congregations have started following what their students are doing on college campuses as well.
Gerson, who spearheaded the development of the system, knows that the number of Kansas City Jewish children attending camps between 2001 and 2003 rose from 109 to 137. She can attribute that to the success of $10,000 grants the federation gave to several congregations to help improve informal education initiatives.
The number dropped to 113 in 2004, which Gerson attributes to an overall decrease in the number of Jewish children in the area as the economy took a downturn and families left Kansas City.
When congregation workers such as Marcia Rittmaster, director of youth and informal education at Congregation Beth Torah, who oversees that congregation’s database, notice a lack of activity from a particular child, they often contact the unengaged child and the family to talk about what might attract him or her.
Rittmaster says the conversations can be awkward, but they’ve paid dividends.
After looking at the data, officials noted a tremendous drop in participation once Jewish children reach high school. After speaking with many of the children, they realized that the dropoff coincided with increased involvement in sports. So this year, one community center in Kansas City will hold a Purim basketball tournament for Jewish kids.
“Sometimes we focus too much on the student who does everything; the ones who are already engaged and are already here and have a connection,” Rittmaster said. “This gives us a bigger picture and a way to look at the situation in a systematic manner.”
The Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston purchased the software and is now working with three congregations to pilot the system, according to David Goldstein, coordinator of YESOD, a project of the Boston Federation’s Commission on Jewish Continuity and Education, as well as an educational consultant for the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Boston.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta is on the verge of signing a contract with the Kansas City federation to buy the software for around $8,000, according to Robyn Faintich, director of Atlanta’s community teen initiative.
Faintich said there has been some reluctance from organizations on the ground that the federation has asked to participate in keeping tabs on kids.
“A couple of people have said it’s like Big Brother,” she said.
But Atlanta, which will try to expand the data entry beyond just congregations, sees the tracking system as a way to enhance an overhaul of the federation’s teen initiative, primarily because it can give potential project funders real information about what activities engage teens.
“The more accurate data you have, the more funding you can get,” Faintich said.
Jonathan Woocher, chief ideas officer for JESNA’s Lippman-Kanfer Institute, said the system has limitations — especially because it still presents no way to track children who are completely disengaged.
Woocher does see it as a valuable tool to identify what resonates with young people who are at least marginally engaged and help tailor more attractive programming for them.
In addition, by engaging other institutions in tracking children and then discussing that information together, it creates a synergy and collaborative effort among community institutions, Woocher said.
“It’s a very innovative effort to try to combine two critically important steps in making Jewish education more effective,” he said.