Education: Preventing Post B’nai Mitzvah Dropout-itis
A conversation with Rabbi Jan Katzew

Education: Preventing Post BRabbi Jan Katzew, former lead specialist of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Congregational Consulting Group and former director of the URJ Department of Lifelong Jewish Learning, was interviewed by RJ editor Aron Hirt-Manheimer.

You’ve reported that while there are nearly 17,000 annual b’nai and b’not mitzvah in our congregations, only about half remain enrolled in religious school until tenth grade and slightly more than one in ten remain through grade 12.

Yes. For quite some time we’ve observed a precipitous drop in religious school enrollment almost immediately after young people become bar and bat mitzvah. So we conducted surveys of 900 Reform congregations and focus groups in 40 to discern the true extent of the dropout rate and what we could do to reduce it.

We now know that some congregations maintain a very high student retention rate, while others are losing almost all of their young people post-bar or bat mitzvah. The retention figure does increase to 25% when counting teenagers also engaged in other Jewish learning activities, such as camping and Israel programs. On the whole, however, the status quo is unacceptable.

What can be done to stem the high dropout rate?

We can learn from the 7–10% of religious schools—about 50 in total—that retain more than 80% of students through 12th grade. While they vary considerably in size and location, they have several key factors in common.

First, congregations with early childhood programs whose students continue through third grade before beginning bar/bat mitzvah studies have a much higher retention rate than those in which students enter school to start preparing for bar and bat mitzvah in grade four—an approach that practically assures students’ leaving after the seventh grade.

A second factor concerns friendships. Jewish education is intrinsically social. Children who form a close peer group in a Jewish learning environment are much more likely to stay involved.

Third, in congregations with high retention rates, parents overwhelmingly indicate that they either “required or strongly encouraged their children to participate in Jewish learning beyond bar and bat mitzvah.” Inversely, in congregations with a high dropout rate, parents tended to say to their children, “Now you’re finished,” or “It’s up to you.”

Fourth, congregations that offer ongoing family education programs and retreats have higher retention rates. In these synagogues the educational focus is on the family, not the individual student, enabling parents to model for their children the idea of lifelong Jewish learning—rather than learning for a culminating event.

A fifth factor is the degree to which students are active participants in the congregation. Teens who feel they are more than just students in the school—they have a role in synagogue governance, serve as bar and bat mitzvah tutors, sing in the choir, engage in social justice projects, or are active in temple youth group—are more likely to stay connected with the synagogue beyond bar/bat mitzvah.

Sixth, in high retention congregations, temple professionals offer students an ongoing personal relationship. It especially helps when the rabbi gets involved in the students’ religious education in the fifth or sixth grade.

Another finding came as a surprise—parents in high retention congregations are less likely to have been reared as Jews. This may sound counterintuitive, but when parents have made a decision to raise their children as Jews, they see their children’s Jewish education as a sacred lifelong commitment. This is especially significant because approximately one half of the 130,000 students in our Movement’s congregational schools have at least one parent who was not born and raised as a Jew.

Gender is also important. In high dropout congregations, boys slightly outnumber girls in sixth grade, but girls outnumber boys by ninth or tenth grade.

We also believe that Jewish camping experiences increase teen engagement, but the post-b’nai mitzvah retention study did not delve into this dynamic.

Lastly, to involve many more young adults in Jewish life, we need to ask them about what engages them Jewishly.

Did you survey young people to find out what they want and need?

Yes. We learned that an overwhelming number of teens—including those who dropped out—went to religious school in search of “spirituality.” Nowhere else in their lives—not in their homes, schools, baseball teams, etc.—could they think about what it means to be a spiritual being.

Interestingly, though, the parents, rabbis, and educators we interviewed thought that young people came to religious school not to learn about spirituality, but to socialize. We’ve learned that if you talk only to adults about what young people want, you will sometimes get inaccurate perceptions. Now our primary focus is to continuously engage with children and teens.

How difficult would it be for congregations with many dropouts to raise their retention rates to 80%?

I believe every congregation can achieve an 80% plus level of retention at the highest grade level they teach, whether that’s grade 10, 11, or 12. The challenge for those congregations that have yet to reach the 80% level has to do with what I call “creating a culture of expectation”—clearly indicating from the outset that “Jewish learning lies at the heart of our identity; it is our very essence.” When ongoing Jewish education is an articulated, shared vision of the congregational leadership and when the temple’s educational budget reflects this priority, retention rates climb.

What innovative approaches are congregations taking to keep students involved through high school?

One approach that shows much promise is called JIEEP—Jewish Individual Experience Education Plan. Understanding that every person learns differently, and it is advantageous to educate each person in the way he or she learns best, it’s long been the practice in special education to provide students with an IEP (Individual Education Plan). This model can be applied to every one of the 17,000 b’nai and b’not mitzvah in the Reform Movement.

Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Massachusetts is applying one aspect of JIEEP by promising that a full-time congregational professional will develop a personal relationship with every religious school student starting in the fifth grade. Rather than being considered part of a grade or a class, each student will have her or his unique attributes, interests, and learning needs addressed by the congregation in its educational planning and programming. The trusting relationships that develop through this Jewish Journey program, slated for full implementation in the 2010-2011/5771 academic year, should also increase the likelihood that students will want to be connected with the temple on a long-term basis.

Also in line with JIEEP, in Memphis, Temple Israel (TI) b’nai mitzvah students are being paired with a “writing coach,” a caring adult in the congregation who works with them in person, by phone, and by email to develop their ideas and thoughts into a unique d’var torah (text-based bar mitzvah speech)—and, in the process, a meaningful relationship develops. Since they started the program, about two years ago, TI Education Director Barb Gelb says “it’s become clear how worthwhile lay mentoring is. Parents and students feel so connected and want to stay on [post b’nai mitzvah]. The volunteering is inspirational to more marginal or fringe families, and I believe that has helped retention too.”

Having discovered at roundtables that young people in their congregation are craving personal connections with staff, Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Virginia is piloting an intake program in which all seventh through tenth grade students meet individually and offsite with temple professionals under the age of 30, exploring what continuing Jewish education means for them as well as building rapport and relationships.

In the early and mid 20th century, the Reform Movement rejected bar/bat mitzvah in favor of confirmation at an older age. Do you suspect the retention rate was better then?

Yes. If you walk down the halls of many Reform congregations that are more than a generation old and take a look at consecutive confirmation class group portraits, you’ll see much larger classes in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, and then, over time, a steady decline in confirmation. Meanwhile, bar and bat mitzvah gained popularity with the growing migration of former Orthodox and Conservative Jews into our Movement. Thus, bar/bat mitzvah and confirmation classes show an inverse relationship in size over time.

Is it time to deemphasize bar or bat mitzvah and move back toward the later age confirmation model?

I hope that it’s not an either/or proposition. In our Movement bar and bat mitzvah have become norms, not only for young people but for adults as well. Both bar/bat mitzvah and confirmation are significant stages in the lifelong continuum that is Jewish learning.

With b’nai mitzvah being marketed as huge parties with lots of gifts, they’ve become popular events. Even some non-Jews are having them.

True. Bar/bat mitzvah is just one of many phenomena in Jewish life—kabbalah is another—which non-Jews who have no real understanding of Judaism want to experience.

Still, the popularization of Jewish life is not all bad. Think about it: For centuries Jews had to live in ghettos or otherwise keep a low profile for fear of persecution, and now in many parts of North America, Jewish is “in.” At the same time, any virtue carried to an extreme can become a vice, such as when bar and bat mitzvah become, as the hackneyed expression goes, “No mitzvah and all bar.”

What is your goal for Reform religious school retention?

In ten years, our goal is, at minimum, to increase the retention rate in congregational schools through grade ten from the current 50% to 75%, and to at least double the current 25% rate of engaging high school seniors in the array of Jewish learning and living opportunities—schools, camps, youth groups, Israel experiences—the Reform Movement offers. Jewish learning begins at home, and we need to create “homes” wherever our young people spend their time.

Union for Reform Judaism.