The future of Jewish youth: hope, challenge and double espressos

Want to feel hopeful about the future of the Jewish people? Spend a weekend like I did recently at a Jewish Youth Summit of the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY). Feel old and proud as you watch 5,000 Jewish teens celebrate, learn, pray, sing and nearly blow the roof off the hotel with their energy, joy and conviction.

Last month, fellow Rodef Sholom board member Hali Croner and I joined staff and lay leaders from seven other Reform congregations at this inspiring weekend in downtown Atlanta. We went to acquire new tools that might help us chart the course for the next generation of youth programming — and, as one of our members drolly observed, to try to wrench ourselves out of America’s youth program mentality of the 1990s.

I’m still processing what I learned, but here are five big takeaways.

Let’s get this branding thing right — and start ’em early. Watching from the sidelines, I was awed by the fierce, loving and clearly life-long bond between these kids, their Judaism and a worldwide community of Jewish friends. Dancing jubilantly before us was a crystal clear manifestation of how it works: Jewish camp equals involvement in Jewish youth groups like NFTY and B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, which equals lifelong membership in an identity-defining, magical world of Jewish life.

Even as a Jewish day school graduate with a strong Jewish identity, I’ve never seen anything like it. And frankly, I couldn’t feel more remorse at my own choices. Had I witnessed this scene 10 years ago, our kids would have gone the Jewish camp route, no opinions asked.

Congregations need to work even harder to communicate this message: Jewish camps build Jews and mensches like nothing else. A parent’s choice to send kids to Jewish camp builds an almost foolproof on-ramp to a world of love, grounding, acceptance and lifelong connection to a powerful trifecta of Jewish living, Jewish values and Jewish friends.

We are not alone. New York City. Dallas. Charleston. What we found was, no matter how large or small the Jewish community, no matter how assimilated or unified, we lay and professional leaders still struggle with the same question: How do we engage our Jewish youth long-term? One answer for sure is that we need to build stronger networks among ourselves. We need to share program models and stop trying to reinvent the same wheel in every community. We need to spend more time innovating together.

The enduring dilemma: relationship-building vs. Jewish content. How do we balance the need to teach Jewish content with the reality that, for many kids, hanging with friends is the main draw to religious school or youth group? How far do we go with the current trend of putting more focus on social engagement at religious school? How enduring will our children’s commitment be to Jewish living and learning if they aren’t meaningfully educated about their history, religion and language? We learned — surprise, surprise — that there are no easy answers here. But identifying the right questions is key.

“Design Thinking” and beyond. When it comes to creating successful youth programming, we’d be smart to look to the corporate world. We can’t just speculate about what turns kids on. We need to learn tools to help us get into their brains. Let’s use the problem-solving protocol “design thinking” to help us identify the barriers to entry and innovate those barriers away. It takes creativity. It takes an understanding of social currency and how to achieve it. It takes recognizing the role of family context in Jewish involvement. It means tapping members of our community to share the latest thinking on customer service and understanding the market. It means getting out of the 1990s.

Let’s take a cue from the kids. We adults had to laugh at the difference between ourselves and the kids at the conference. Each morning as we made our way to our respective learning sessions, the teens were buzzing with clarity, optimism and petitions to end gun violence. Us? We were standing semi-stupefied in the 2-mile line at Starbucks, hoping our double espressos would help wake up our brains.

We adults get a little tired, a little daunted at the task at hand. But let’s take heart. Let’s gather strength from the promise and energy of our kids, no matter where our programs are in their development. At my San Rafael congregation, sure, sometimes we worry about our numbers. But all we need to do is look at the kids we do have, and know our potential.

And maybe that’s what all congregations need to do. Just look at that group of kids in your social hall or pouring out of classes. See how they’re kinetic with energy, life and love for one another? That’s not just youth or hormones. That’s Jewish connection.

That’s the joyful energy, the power — and the potential — of the next generation. 

Julie Fingersh is a writer and a board member at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael.