Last week, I participated in the second Summit on Jewish Teens, which took place in Baltimore in conjunction with BBYO’s annual international convention.
Convened by five major funders — the Jim Joseph Foundation, Maimonides Fund, the Marcus Foundation, Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff Awards Committee, and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation — the summit attracted a large and diverse group of philanthropists, practitioners, lay leaders, federations, movements — and of course teens. The objective, to which I fully subscribed, was to identify innovative ways to reach and engage more teens in meaningful Jewish experiences post b’nai mitzvah.
Certainly the atmosphere at the summit was enhanced by the presence of more than 2,400 enthusiastic and energetic teens from around the world. The deliberations of the summit were made all the more real by our surroundings. Coming together in one place with great pride and spirit, these teens represent our dreams for the future of our Jewish community.
How can we encourage even more teens to participate actively in Jewish life?
My work at the Foundation for Jewish Camp has been focused on this question. I am proud to report that over the past five years, Jewish Camp has continued to grow the number of teens enrolled in camp. In fact, in summer 2015, more than 39,000 teens attended Jewish overnight camp; since 2010, we have seen overall growth of almost 50 percent in enrollment of high school students. That is three times the growth rate of the overall field. We credit much of this success to new specialty camps, expanded leadership programs, and ongoing improvements at traditional Jewish camps.
Yet there are many teens who are not engaged Jewishly. We must continue to do more to try to reach them.
As I am experiencing at home with my own two teenagers every week, the adolescent years can be filled with anxiety and discovery, challenges and opportunities. We acknowledge the pressure of juggling many different aspects of their lives, and the heightened competition they face socially and academically. For our Jewish community, we should deepen our learning about how to help these teens make appropriate choices in the complex environment in which we live. We need to offer Jewish opportunities that grow skills, develop interests, and build confidence.
Part of the experience in Baltimore involved learning from experts in the fields of technology, media, and marketing — and from teens themselves — about the choices they make, their current interests, and the activities in which they are engaged.
I came away with three main lessons.
First, today’s teens belong to the world’s first mobile generation. They have grown up with their heads down, facing their mobile devices. This is not necessarily by choice. As parents, it seems that over time we have limited our children’s social interactions — instead of having them take the school bus, we drive them to school; instead of meeting up with friends, we drop them off, and so on. They crave social interactions, but in many ways they are very lonely, uncertain, and stressed. And although the summit offered a lot of advice on how to reach our teens through technology, our job is to find ways to support young people today and help them find new ways to engage with each other to create memorable experiences, express empathy, and demonstrate resilience. Jewish camp provides a safe, technology-free space, where teens can build friendships, develop specific skills, and experience vibrant Jewish learning.
Second, we heard reinforcement of the idea that “nothing with teens, without teens.” In the past, too many solutions have been developed without input and counsel from teens themselves. We must engage and involve teens in designing opportunities and experiences that will be meaningful to them. Many camps long have embraced this approach, creating opportunities for teens to be active in developing programs in their peer-led environments.
Third, role models play a critically important function in today’s 24/7 online world. Role models can provide mentorship, friendly support, and a trusted resource. We know that as they lead by example, role models exhibit important and effective influence over our teens. Camp counselors play that trusted relationship for many campers, and our ability to provide the counselors with more training on the intentionality of that role remains critical.
A lack of compelling, attractive Jewish options may drive parents and their teens to choose from many secular options. We must remain competitive and continue to refresh and reinvigorate our program offerings to meet the needs and interests of today’s teens. We seek to present a positive, joyous Jewish experience, an experience that will inspire them throughout their lives.
As our community urgently explores strategies for connecting with this mobile generation, Jewish camp continues to provide a compelling answer for our teens as it focuses on experience, meaning, and engagement.