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A Response to Effective Strategies for Educating and Engaging Jewish Teens

See this story in eJewish Philanthropy

Today’s teens have so many options, they don’t need to settle for anything less than “wow,” and the Jewish community should settle for nothing less than those initiatives that make “wow” happen. (Matthew Grossman)

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[eJP note: The Jim Joseph Foundation's recently released report, Effective Strategies for Educating and Engaging Jewish Teens, examines and compares the work of twenty-one respected programs serving young people both inside and outside the Jewish world. The study was developed to help inform the Jewish community's collective thinking about community-based Jewish learning experiences offered to teens.

In a series for eJewishPhilanthropy, a variety of stakeholders - including funders, practitioners, teen education experts and teens - will offer their perspectives on the findings in this research report, advancing a conversation about ways to dramatically expand and strengthen community-based Jewish teen education and engagement.]

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by Matthew Grossman

In recent years, several studies have identified the teen years as a particularly challenging time to engage Jewish young people in Jewish activities. Seeking a cause, some studies recognize the post bar/bat mitzvah moment as a “drop-out” point from Jewish life. Providing possible suggestions, others have pointed to the need for better qualified, trained and networked professionals working in this area. Despite these calls to action, there is still a limited investment being made in reaching the Jewish teen audience from all but a few foundations, philanthropists and Jewish Federations. Fortunately, the Jim Joseph Foundation is making a clarion call of its own – investing capital, contributing research and convening others in an effort to impact and deliver the kinds of experiences that shape the lives of young Jews during the critical teen years.

The Foundation’s most recent publication, Effective Strategies for Educating and Engaging Jewish Teens, synthesizes the engagement approaches of several recent Jewish communal initiatives as well as those from other universal or faith-based programs. As I reflect on BBYO’s growth trajectory since becoming independent of B’nai B’rith International ten years ago, several of the nine “Implications for Strategy Development” resonate and inspire further thinking as BBYO continues to position itself as a community-wide platform for fun, meaningful and affordable experiences that enrich the lives of Jewish teens. Here are some thoughts on three of the implications that the Jim Joseph Foundation encourages practitioners to consider:

Skin in the Game

The fact that BBYO has several thousand core teen leaders who believe that BBYO’s future, and that of the Jewish people, depends on their ability to engage their peers is the single greatest reason that the organization has expanded its annual reach from 12,000 teens to close to 40,000 in the last decade. “Skin in the game” is not accomplished by giving teens token board positions or letting them participate in a planning committee for an upcoming Purim Party. It involves giving them the keys to a 90 year-old movement (and a more than 3,000 year-old heritage) and telling them that they are responsible for our well-being. From an educational perspective, this becomes a lesson on peoplehood, communal responsibility and leadership. By virtue of their involvement, the teens become a part of something greater than themselves. If the programming is effective, the teen feels a connection to a world-wide Jewish family and has a desire to explore the common values, history and rituals that they share. When teens feel that they have skin in this game, so much so that they are compelled to recruit their peers to be a part of it, good things happen – at least they have for BBYO.

Accepting Teens as They Are

Teens can be a dream or nightmare audience for any educator. They push boundaries, challenge conventional thinking, speak their minds, lead with their emotions and don’t often consider the consequences of what they do or say. “Accepting teens as they are” means turning these attributes into an educational advantage. When teens challenge and push, it usually means that they are passionate about something. For most good experiential educators this becomes a moment of opportunity for stimulating discourse which can feed a teen’s natural curiosity. In experiential education, we can’t just focus on what we want teens to learn, but rather what we want them to feel. BBYO has been able to do this more and more and the results are very encouraging.

The Business of Doing Business

The Jim Joseph Foundation suggests that the successful teen initiatives must have multiple sources of revenue to be sustainable over the long run. Unlike the college and young adult audiences who are on their own financially, many teens get their financial support from their parents. In fact, many parents budget for their teens to participate in summer experiences and extra-curricular activities, especially those they deem capable of adding value to their child’s life. BBYO is not ashamed to charge for its programs as the demand for fee-based programs is a strong indicator of value. It was with both a sense of pride and frustration that within an hour after opening registration for this year’s International Convention, the servers supporting our registration system crashed due to the amount traffic. Simply put, we could not handle the sheer number of teens who wanted to pay $799 to come together with their peers for five days. The final tally included 1,500 teens participating in International Convention (along with an upgrade to our technology systems). That kind of demand served as a rallying cry for our funders to ensure that we could offer the kind of programming and environment that would make the participants say “wow.” Today’s teens have so many options, they don’t need to settle for anything less than “wow,” and the Jewish community should settle for nothing less than those initiatives that make “wow” happen. People will pay for “wow” and if they can’t, we should make full use of philanthropic dollars to keep things affordable and accessible for all Jewish families.

Since its launch, the Jim Joseph Foundation has established itself as a leading force in the Jewish educational community. The recent release of Effective Strategies for Educating and Engaging Jewish Teens is yet another important body of work contributing to the community’s dialogue about the teen audience. Even more so, the Foundation is notifying all parties – entrepreneurs, practitioners and other funders – that more investment is needed if we are going to effectively reach and inspire Jewish young people. As usual, the Foundation offers a road map of best practices while challenging us all to get out there and get things done. They should expect and deserve nothing less.

Matthew Grossman is Executive Director of BBYO.

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