The Reform Movement is focused on youth. The leadership of our movement is worried about disengaged and disinterested kids. Rabbi Jacobs, the incoming President of the URJ, has stated that his top priority is figuring out how to get and keep young people engaged in Judaism. This was the biggest take-away message for me from the recent URJ Biennial Conference.
At the Biennial, Rabbi Jonah Pesner, Senior Vice President for the URJ, unveiled the new Campaign for Youth Engagement (“CYE”). He explained that, if current trends continue, by the time young Reform Jews reach 12th grade, 80% of those who became b’nai mitzvot will be completely disconnected from the Jewish community. The goal of the CYE is to understand more clearly why this happens, and to devise strategies to reverse the process.
In order to solve any problem, the first step is to understand it. So, the URJ wants to collect, analyze, and share data relevant to the recruitment, retention and involvement of Jewish youth in Jewish life. One tool is the establishment of the Teen Engagement Program Bank to find out what other congregations have done and to share successes. If successful congregational and communal efforts to engage Jewish youth can be shared and replicated, this will be one path to success.
It seems clear that immersion experiences for Jewish youth (such as Jewish camps and Israel trips) create positive correlations with continued engagement in Jewish life. This being so, the URJ is also committing to expanding affordable and accessible immersion experiences. Furthermore, the URJ hopes to increase the numbers of adults who teach, mentor and support Jewish youth, particularly via the HUC-JIR Certificate in Jewish Education with a Specialization in Adolescents and Emerging Adults and other training programs that may become available to those who work with youth in multiple settings.
Now, you may be wondering how all of this applies to us at Etz Chaim. After all, continued youth engagement is one of our huge success stories. Between 90 and 95% of our youth continue their religious school education after their b’nai mitzvot through confirmation at the end of 10th grade. When I shared this fact with other congregational presidents, my colleagues were universally amazed. Furthermore, a large fraction of our post-confirmation 11th and 12th graders continue their involvement with temple life, either as volunteer teachers or through Rabbi Cosnowsky’s new and innovative “post-confirmation” class. Finally, lots of our kids go to OSRUI, and to Israel with Rabbi Bob during their high school years.
However, we are not completely insulated from the trends in our movement. We do lose students, and some of our youth are disengaged from Jewish life by the end of their high school years. The Campaign for Youth Engagement, therefore, is an opportunity for us in several ways. We can certainly reach out and share our successes with other congregations, and help them come to an understanding of those features in our congregational culture that result in such high levels of continued youth engagement. We can also seize this moment to try to learn how to improve what we already do well, and keep even more of our young people connected to Jewish life.
To learn more about the URJ’s Campaign for Youth Engagement, click here.