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Youth Groups Collaborate to Get Teens Involved

Read this story in Arizona Jewish Life

We probably didn’t need the recent Pew study on Jewish practice and behaviors to know that many Jewish youngsters end their Jewish education with a bar/bat mitzvah. Some pick up again when they go to college; many more wait until they have children of their own before they re-engage. Others never return to the Jewish community.

Jewish educators and communal service workers know that if they can keep children and teens involved, there is a much better chance these young people will retain their Jewish connections and, in turn, pass on the heritage to their offspring. “This is an area we need to work on as a community,” says Rebekah Rubenstein, the Mountain Region BBYO director housed in Scottsdale. “BBYO is the largest pluralistic organization for tweens and teens, but there are a number of other organizations working with those ages groups as well. We are making a conscious effort to cooperate, rather than compete.” To this end, Rebekah, who has been in the position here for three years, is working with Lynne Butner, regional director of NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth), which is under the umbrella of United Reform Judaism.

Lynne, who lives in Salt Lake City where she has been involved with NFTY for 13 years, says nearly three years ago at the URJ Biennial their staff initiated a campaign to strengthen youth engagement. They started to look at the relationship NFTY had with BBYO, realizing that the organizations were competing for a small group of youngsters, while the majority was not at all engaged. (Recent studies show less than 4% of Jewish teens are involved with Jewish organizations.) Believing it is imperative to get Jewish teens involved, Lynne and Rebekah started a conversation, which then included the advisors and now has led to cooperative programming.

The first joint program was a Hanukkah Dance held at Temple Chai in northeast Phoenix in December of 2012. Knowing there was significant competition between the members of the organizations as to “which was the best,” Rebekah was a little nervous at first. But she was thrilled with the outcome! The dance was a big success and led to another dance, this time for Purim at the JCC this spring, as well as a cooperative J-Serve Day: A Day of Jewish Youth Service to the Community. More than 200 youth from across the Valley participated in the day to reach out and assist others in need. Participants from USY (United Synagogue Youth, the Conservative teen group) and NCSY (the teen organization of the Orthodox Union) joined with those from BBYO and NFTY.

“For awhile there was a Jewish Youth Alliance in the Valley,” says Rebekah. “It was a great opportunity for all of us who work with youth to get to know each other and devise ways to work together. But that organization isn’t around anymore, so it’s up to the individual leaders and organizations to spearhead cooperative events on their own.”

A historic first took place when representatives from NFTY attended the first two days of the BBYO International Convention in Dallas over Presidents Day weekend in February 2014. There they were all treated to taped greetings from President Barack Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and a BBYO alum. This was the first time teen leaders of the two youth groups had gathered together in such a setting. As they worked as a unit, they began to see that they were not so different after all. Both youth groups were committed to social action and to living Jewish lives. By the end of their time together, they began to see that, as one NFTY member put it, he was “a Jewish teen first, a NFTYite second.”They agreed that it is more important to get other teens involved in some aspect of Jewish life than to tout one organization over the other. Options are key to a young person trying to decide where he or she best fits. In fact, some teens enjoy membership in more than one Jewish organization.

Getting the young people to join is only half the battle. “It’s difficult to keep teens involved; they have so many demands on their time,” says Rebekah. “Yet we know that colleges, perhaps more than ever, want young people who are not only good students but also involved in their communities, who have spent time ‘giving back,’ who have embraced what the Jewish community calls tikkun olam, repairing the world. Plus BBYO and the other groups are heavily involved in teaching and developing leadership skills, which help teens in whatever direction they go.”

Rebekah has been planning events outside of the traditional weeknight meeting times in an effort to attract more teens. “We just had a dodgeball tournament on a Sunday afternoon, for example,” she explains, “and held a parent information session at the same time.”

Aware of how “tweens” can fall through the cracks, Rebekah also oversees an active BBYO Connect program at the Valley of the Sun JCC, aimed at those in 6th to 8th grades. It is open to all and has 40 members. The group held a chocolate seder in April in collaboration with Or Chadash of the Northeast Valley’s USY tween group.

For years, BBYO was the teen organization under the B’nai B’rith banner. But over the years, B’nai B’rith has gone through significant changes, and in 2002, BBYO became an independent organization. It no longer receives funds from B’nai B’rith. The Mountain Region includes greater Phoenix, Tucson, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and the beginnings of a chapter in the Tahoe/ Reno area. About 300 teens are involved in Arizona, with the majority of those in the Valley. There are five chapters that meet in Scottsdale and two in the East Valley. There have been chapters in the West Valley before, but none is currently active. Tucson is in a regrowing mode right now with two chapters.

Since B’nai B’rith no longer provides funding, BBYO has launched local Friends and Alumni Networks. These FAN groups are responsible for raising money to support local programs, raising awareness about BBYO and supporting the teens when needed. All money raised for a local region stays in the region and directly impacts the local community. To become involved in FAN throughout Mountain Region, connect with Jayme David, director of community engagement, at jdavid@ bbyo.org.

To find out more about BBYO, contact Rebekah at rrubenstein@bbyo.org. You can also check with any of the Reform temples about NFTY (nfty.org); Conservative synagogues for info on USY (usy.org); and Orthodox synagogues for NSCY (ncsy.org). Chabad also runs CTeenPhoenix (chabadaz.com).

The leaders agree: it’s less important where Jewish teens are involved than it is that they are involved somewhere.

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