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Science, Drama, & Rock 'n Roll

Bradley, you’ve said that we need to reenvision the practice of Jewish education by moving more from a “learned Judasim” to a “lived Judaism.”

Rabbi Bradley Solsen (URJ Director of Youth Engagement): That’s right. “Learned Judaism” is a student having a theoretical conversation about something alien to his or her practice or experience, like discussing the roots of Shabbat in the Torah while sitting in a classroom midweek. “Lived Judaism” is having the young person take part in the actual experience of Shabbat; the learning happens when the grandmother covers her eyes during the candle blessing and the grandson asks “Why?” Judaism is meant to be lived, and the learning naturally follows. And synagogues that are incorporating more experiential learning into their religious schools (see “Re-imagining Religious School”) are finding that after b’nai mitzvah, more kids are asking “What’s next?” rather than declaring “I’m done!”

Jonathan, you’ve asserted that “In the 21st century the question is no longer ‘How can we ensure that individuals remain good Jews?’ Today the question educators need to ask is ‘How can we help Jews draw on their Jewishness to live more meaningful lives?’” How can we redesign Jewish education to help young people learn to live more meaningful lives?

Jonathan Woocher (senior professional, educational initiatives, Lippman Kanfer family philanthropies; former Chief Ideas Officer, Jewish Educational Services of North America): First, the learner has to be an active partner in the process. Learners are not passive, empty vessels that we are to fill with knowledge. They’re actively making meaning as they learn. This is something all of us do, not something someone else gives us or can do for us.

Second, the learning environment needs to allow for authentic relationships between learners and mentor-teachers, either as part of a larger group or one-on-one. As the philosopher Martin Buber taught us: “All real living is meeting.” Connected relationships lead to meaningful learning and life experience.

Third, content matters. You cannot derive meaning without rich and relevant content. Note that this content does not have to be exclusively Jewish in nature, but can be interwoven from multiple areas to create new syntheses. An effective educator will work with the individual student’s talents and interests—whether in the arts, journalism, science, etc.—and then infuse it with Jewish ideas, values, and concepts in a community of peers who are similarly engaged. For example, some students may be very interested in living more sustainably on the Earth. For them, learning about kashrut might encompass rethinking kashrut in a 21st century context: exploring how we slaughter animals, definitions of ethical kashrut and what that means to us, and how our food choices may impact the planet. In the hands of a good educator, learning becomes an opportunity to reevaluate our personal choices. Education leads to action in the world, and then, often, back to more learning.

Paul, perhaps the greatest challenge now facing North American Jewish communities is keeping our young students engaged in Jewish life after b’nai mitzvah. Your congregation has a successful engagement program for 14–18-year-olds. How have you achieved that result and what lessons have you learned?

Rabbi Paul Yedwab (Rabbi, Temple Israel, West Bloomfield, Michigan): We take very seriously the finding from the 2010 NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) survey that, after their own parents, teens were most influenced by their youth advisors (83%), who beat out their rabbis and cantors by 16 percentage points!

The research also shows that youth groups are one of the most effective ways to nurture Jewish identity and involvement in young people, along with day school, Israel trips, and Jewish camping—and it is by far the least expensive. So the very first thing we must do is invest in youth workers. Hiring professional, well-paid, long-term, charismatic youth workers is by far the most cost-effective way to instill Jewish identity in teens.

Temple Israel is in the early stages of introducing our “100 Ways In” program. This is our answer to what I call the “winnowing phenomenon” in Jewish education—the general pattern when a family allows a child to drop out after bar/bat mitzvah is that the rabbi, educator, or youth worker calls the young person a few times and, of course, sends a few flyers, but after three, four, five, or six rejections, the teen falls out of the temple sphere. “100 Ways In” guarantees that each student between grades eight and twelve will receive an invitation to participate in 100 high-quality, high-impact Jewish experiences. Some invitations are already being made, such as flyers welcoming participation in our youth group and Israel missions, but many more will be personalized, according to the student’s interests. So, for instance, at the time of a young person’s bar/bat mitzvah, we will make note of the mitzvah projects he or she performed. If, at a later time, our youth group is doing social action in nursing homes, we will make a personal call to every student who spoke about concern for the elderly and ask, “Would you join us?” Or, when we do a Fourth of July program, we might call up the student who plays bassoon in the orchestra and say, “We really need a bassoonist for the Independence Day band we’re putting together." We do not consider someone “out” until he or she has said “no” to us 100 times.

That is a very ambitious goal. It must be costly for your congregation to offer so many different options to engage that many young people.

Paul: It is costly, and that is why last year we applied for a $250,000 Covenant Foundation grant to fund “100 Ways In.” Unfortunately, although we were the only synagogue-based youth program ever to reach the finals, in the end we were turned down. So we did the next best thing: We leveraged the talents of the adults in our congregation. For instance, when I wanted to offer a filmmaking class to meet our students’ expressed interests, I went to a top-level filmmaker in our congregation. He never would have agreed to teach religious school or be a youth group advisor, but he was willing to volunteer eight weeks of his time to help a group of our students create a high-quality music video. (Watch “Temple Israel Sh'ma.”) The kids loved the experience, and it was very impactful. We co-taught it the first year, so I could introduce the Jewish material, but going forward I hope he will be able to lead it on his own. In addition, we sponsored a youth literary magazine; a Jewish investors club; WJEW, the first Jewish teen radio station; an acting workshop; the teen tefillah (worship) team; a singing group; and a Jewish rock ’n roll band called “Yom Sheini,” which spearheaded a successful effort to raise funds for two children who were tragically orphaned in our congregation. For more ambitious projects, such as a theater production, we will need to raise additional funds, which is the only thing stopping us from engaging many more young Jews who are orbiting around but not yet engaged in the synagogue.

Jonathan, you’ve written that a way to deal with limited or underfunded programs is to work in partnership with other institutions.

Jonathan: I believe that we’ve entered into an era where we need to begin to think beyond individual institutions and consider the different ways we can work together. At JESNA we used the word “ecosystem” as a metaphor for the educational landscape. Ecosystems contain many different species that exist in a variety of relationships within their environment. Despite occasional competition, the inhabitants of healthy, vibrant ecosystems work out mutually productive relationships.

Practically speaking, I think synagogues would do well to think of themselves more as platforms than as programmers. Their real strength lies in the relationships they are able to create among their members and in their members’ engagement with Jewish life. However, they’re not necessarily equipped to do all of the different kinds of programming that their members might seek or benefit from. To capitalize on their real strength, synagogues need to see their role within the ecosystem as helping to steward the educational journeys of their constituents by bringing them into contact with educational resources they themselves cannot normally mobilize.

In a place like Detroit, for example, where a number of Reform and Conservative congregations are in geographic proximity, these synagogues could co-create magnet-type programs for Jewish education, and perhaps in other areas as well. Each individual congregation would make its particular area of passion and strength available to a broader population, while allowing its constituents to deepen their Jewish learning in other areas of interest at other congregations. Building on its interests and capabilities, one synagogue might develop a program of intensive Hebrew instruction; another might offer an arts-based approach to Jewish education; a third might run a community-wide mitzvah program.

Another great model is the Jewish Journey Project spearheaded by the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan. Young people and their families design their own curricula or Jewish journeys, and instead of their being taught in one place with one methodology, they learn from teachers recruited from different congregations and parts of the community, many of these instructors teaching in a highly experiential way. Jewish Journeys uses a “scouting model” whereby young people accumulate badges for having attained a certain degree of knowledge or experience. In short, the program interweaves collaboration, innovation, and individualization—three critical pieces of the 21st-century learning environment we wish to cultivate.

Paul: Teens want to be involved in something bigger than themselves, and in something bigger than their local temple youth group. They want to be part of a movement! Unfortunately, in Michigan that movement, for all intents and purposes, no longer exists. Part of the problem is the diminution of NFTY, which I believe is the result of the Reform Movement’s having divested from youth work on the national and regional levels many years ago. We have essentially left the field. In Michigan, and elsewhere, the Movement is only now beginning to hire full-time youth worker staff—hopefully in time to turn things around.

This divestment from youth work is not only problematic for our future; it is also a problem for our present. In the past we depended on teens to lead the adults. Teens were the ones who wrote the music that adults reacted and related to. Debbie Friedman’s Mi Shebeirach, which changed adult worship, came from the youth movement. Our liturgical turn back to tradition was spearheaded by NFTY. Teens led us in social action, from the United Farm Workers to the Sudan. You see, when teens are at the center, everything else gets raised up by their enthusiasm and their vision.

In addition, NFTY has always been a kind of farm league for HUC-JIR. As NFTY dwindles, the people who are most suited to the rabbinate will not be entering the Reform seminary. If we hope to keep our congregations vital and forward-looking, we need to reverse this trend.

Bradley: Paul is absolutely right about the key role of youth in vitalizing the synagogue and our Movement. In my travels and discussions with leaders of Reform synagogues, I’m finding that it’s their youth who are most willing to be creative and try new things. I believe that synagogues that are willing to invest in youth and have youth at the center of their communities will be the most relevant, creative congregations in our Movement. And one of the key ways to engage youth is to first make sure we are investing in the adults who work with them. To paraphrase Jewish education professor Lee Shulman, our programs will be a success to the extent that they are learning opportunities for our adults as well as our youth.

What qualities does a youth advisor need to have to succeed at developing positive relationships with our youth today?

Paul: I don’t think it is different in 2013 than it was in 1993 or 1973. If you make your synagogue the place to be, they will come. We need people who can help create cool Jewish environments which inspire Jewish learning through high school, college, and beyond. In short, youth workers have to be able to make temple seem hip at a point in many kids’ lives when it seems like the least attractive place imaginable. And once the coolness factor is achieved, the youth worker needs to establish himself or herself as someone who the kids trust and will confide in.

Bradley: I would add that teens want to be where they are challenged emotionally, intellectually, physically, and spiritually. I believe we can provide them with something they’re not getting at home, at school, or anywhere else. That’s because the Reform Movement has been built on a commitment to interweaving Judaism into our day-to-day lives in a way that makes the world a better place. Our congregations have the opportunity to help our youth link their big questions to texts, traditions, and practices that will lend meaning to these age-old struggles. They are safe places where our youth can find out who they are while building meaningful relationships and making vital contributions to their communities.

Jonathan: We also need to be very cognizant of the fact that teens lead rich, complex, and busy lives. We’re dealing with the whole person, not just the Jewish piece. Teens are sexual beings, and they’re grappling with who they are as emerging young men and young women. There’s an important role for synagogues to play in the process of young people venturing out, exploring, challenging, and questioning themselves and the world in very profound ways. We have to respect and encourage that questioning and challenging. Teens can spot a hypocrite in a minute—and they’re always testing. At the same time they need a home base, a place they can come back to, a place with their friends where they can be themselves. The real challenge and opportunity is to weave Jewishness into this whole process of human development. And the more we understand that the playing field is not just the specific field of Jewish identity, the more opportunities we will have to have a real impact on young people’s lives