I was privileged last week to revisit my past and to have a glimpse at our Jewish future.
I traveled to Atlanta to participate in the Summit on Jewish Teens, which took place in conjunction with the annual international conventions of BBYO and NFTY. Even for an eternal optimist, the positive energy from more than 3,000 teenagers from several Jewish youth groups, all together, gave me an even stronger hope in our communal future.
As I walked around the convention floor observing these proud, energetic Jewish teenagers, my thoughts drifted back to my own term as international president of USY 36 years ago. In the ballroom now, just as there were then, were the future leaders of our Jewish community. I spent a few moments speaking with the USY’s president, Hailee Grey of East Cobb, Georgia, and I was so impressed with her commitment and enthusiasm.
In many ways, the key challenge facing our community today is our need to break down the organizational and denominational silos that have built up over time. We have to collaborate with one another — to respect one another, to listen to one another, to work with one another — even as we pursue our own communal passions and interests. Dozens of teen leaders from BBYO, NCSY, NFTY, USY, and Young Judaea met together to connect with one another and to form a renewed Coalition of Jewish Teens. (NCSY is Orthodox, NFTY is Reform, USY is Conservative, BBYO and Young Judaea are pluralistic.) These leaders sought common ground and stretched beyond their own silos.
While the youth leaders met together to consider their opportunities for collaboration, I participated in a gathering of foundations, federations, and funders, all of whom share an interest in securing our Jewish future through strong, vibrant youth experiences. Many research studies conducted over the years confirm that involvement in meaningful Jewish experiences during their teen years produce a far greater likelihood of active, lifelong Jewish engagement for adults. While this quantitative research is strikingly clear, I know this intuitively, based on my own experiences as a teen, which happened just what-feels-like-a-few-short-years ago. My summer camp experiences at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, matched with my leadership roles in USY, gave me the tools, skills, and desire to become even more active in Jewish life. And I witnessed this all happening once again in Atlanta with another generation of teens.
A central component of the summit was to gain an understanding of how teens think as they make sense of the role Judaism plays in their lives. Each youth group president took time to address our group and to share his or her hopes and dreams for our collective future. We heard their reactions to the social pressures of today (the enormous pressure to juggle the many aspects of their lives, the dominating role of social media, the heightened competition) and yet we were struck by their incredible confidence and optimism.
We could learn much from today’s teens.
One personal highlight from the convening was the chance to learn from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. As one of our generation’s great thought leaders, Rabbi Sacks modeled the notion of learning from everyone. As he responded to a panel of teen leaders, he reminded all of us to model an inclusive environment and to recognize when we’re being exclusive. He challenged us to incorporate the passions of teens in bringing Judaism to life. He observed that Havdalah used to be a quick, functional end to Shabbat; thanks to the teen environment (summer camps and youth groups) Havdalah with music and singing now has captured our joy and ruach and has helped to elevate the entire Shabbat experience. Rabbi Sacks advocated that we redesign Jewish education by asking kids what they want. “Engage teens by firing them up and resourcing them,” he said.
The conversation about Israel gave me further cause for hope. When asked about their connection to Israel, many teens cited the defining role their own teen trip to Israel with their peers had for them. They shared their comfort in traveling with teens with whom they already had a connection through camp or other youth programs. This comfort allowed for more honest and open communication and conversation and allowed them to create an even stronger connection with one another, and with Israel. I truly believe that teen travel programs to Israel — before reaching the college campus — require significantly more communal attention and support.
It is truly rare that Jewish communal leaders and teens get to sit together to share and to discuss the challenges facing our community today. I hope my colleagues and I all listened well and will process what we heard. I hope we can remain open to incorporating the insights and perspectives of our teens today, and continue to encourage and support them to help shape and run successful programs addressing their interests, passions, and needs. And I hope we can all come together to collaborate effectively with one another to address common communal concerns. I do hope that any future gatherings will expand to include some of the Zionist youth organizations which were not represented, including Bnei Akiva, Habonim Dror, and Hashomer Hatzair.
This meeting seems to have been a great start. I hope our communal institutions and funders will continue to invest in and support efforts at strengthening Jewish identity among our teens, who clearly represent our Jewish future.