Join a Jewish Youth Group: Case Study — USY/Noam

Jewish identity during Young Adulthood is being challenged more than ever.

  • Teens report unprecedented levels of stress – e.g. self-esteem issues, coping with academic pressure, dealing with disappointments, and managing degrees of anxiety or even depression.
  • On Campus – BDS and other assaults on Jewish Peoplehood [ages 18+]
  • Post-College – Young Adults no longer marry early, have children, settle early on career, and quickly establish roots in a community. Ages 22-39 have been renamed “the Odyssey Years,” with identity formation in flux.

Fortunately, more and more parents provide Jewish education and healthy socialization for their offspring as much as possible during formative years.

  • Jewish preschool
  • Elementary years in either a Jewish Day School or synagogue supplemental school

While most Jewish children experience a Bar or Bat Mitzvah milestone, many STOP Jewish involvement before their teen years. This gap in pre-college identity concretization is risky.

Powerful Impact of Youth Groups

The impressive track record of adolescent teen informal education has been demonstrated quantitatively [data] and qualitatively [statements] by a recent “GenZ” survey of the Jewish Education Project [JEP]: among 17,000 Jewish teens currently engaged in a YSO [Youth Serving Organization], e.g. a Jewish youth group [USY, NFTY, NCSY, Bnai Brith Youth Organization, Young Judea, etc., Jewish day school and/or Jewish camp] .

Teens [ages 13-19] involved in YSOs reported higher scores on all of the GenZ “desired outcomes” [e.g. Jewish identity, connection to Israel, pride in being Jewish, forming Jewish friendships, sustaining Jewish family values, also feeling good about themselves, deepening relationships with family, friends, and mentors, and feeling empowered to make change in the world etc.]

USY/NOAM: Case Study

The JEP data indicate that teens who participate in USY/Kadima are in the top tier of the 17,000 GenZ adolescents surveyed.

These results are amplified by comments from USYers in my synagogue/community.

Socialization and Self-Esteem

The JEP results indicate that 87% of USYers indicate forging strong friendship. Some of these bonds will last a lifetime. Some will resurface at college, on Israel trips, and in the business world.

  • USY Teen: “Rabbi, in USY I make a whole other group of Jewish friends.”
  •  USY Teen: “Rabbi, summer retreat is a week-long bonding session.”
  • USY Teen: “Rabbi, USY Encampment is THE place to go to meet new people.”

Furthermore, 80% of USYers feel connected to their various synagogue communities. Given strong connections to peers and to a shared identity, JEP statistics reveal that 77% of USYers exhibit “a stronger sense of self.”

Jewish Content Makes a Difference

The JEP survey reported that ‘Jewish stuff [content]’ in activities predicted higher ratings across the GenZ Outcomes, including social/emotional ones.… e.g. a positive relationship between Jewish content and making Jewish friends, between Jewish content and feeling good about yourself, between Jewish content and feeling equipped to make change in the world.”

Jewish content is overt in the USY experience.

  • “Rabbi, USY is a way to keep to in touch with my Judaism, even if I am not a regular shul-goer.”
  •  “Rabbi, in USY, I experience Shabbat as a youth community, attending services and singing zemirot with people at my stage of life in an informal setting. I cannot fully put into words the amazing feelings.”

Affinity Toward Israel

Jewish communal leaders, rabbis, and parents worry about the affinity toward Israel among adolescent sons and daughters. The JEP survey found that YSO teens “are interested in Israel and believe that as Jews they have a special connection to the land and the country [the people].” An impressive 71% agree with or strongly agree with the statement: “I feel a strong connection to Israel.” Most of the remainder express a “connection” to Israel albeit not a “strong one.”

  •  USY Teen: “Rabbi, USY has solidified my bonds with Israel.”

Israel Travel – “Travel to Israel as part of an organized group predicted higher ratings on most Gen Now Outcomes, including social/emotional ones. “Teens who have visited Israel describe it as a peak experience. Teens who have not been to Israel would like to go.”

In this regard, JEP data tell us that more USY respondents have already visited Israel during their teenage years than respondents in virtually any other youth organization.

  •  USY Teen: “Rabbi, USY Israel Pilgrimage has given me a life-time of memories.”

“The Conflict” – By and large, YSO teens are “inclined to see the Israel-Palestinian conflict through the lens of that foregrounded the Israel perspective.” Nevertheless, they seek additional content as preparation for college years. Youth advisors are key to this desire. YSO teens “want to be able to ask trusted adults ways to address peers questions about Israel.”

USY chapter meetings, shabbatonim, encampment, convention, and especially Israel pilgrimage provide the opportunity to learn “context” both from peers and from accessible staff.

  •  “Rabbi, in USY I have opportunities to discuss Jewish issues both with friends and with staff.”

Jewish Peoplehood

YSO teens indicate that they learn to “feel very close to the Jewish People worldwide.” This sense of Jewish Peoplehood is prevalent more and more as USY increases its bonds with NOAM Israel and NOAM Olami [global]. These connections intensify during USY Israel [and Europe] Pilgrimages and at the USCJ International Convention.

  •  Dana Prottas, USCJ Senior Director of Teen Engagement: “I attended the NOAM international convention in Barcelona this past year. I was surprised how much overlap there is between the work we are doing with USY and the work being done in NOAM.”

Israel NOAM (acronym for No’ar Masorti or Masorti Youth) is a 3,000-member strong national youth movement, where children between the ages of 10–18, are educated in the Masorti values of egalitarian Judaism, Zionism, democracy and pluralism.

Israel NOAM operates 21 branches throughout Israel as well as an 800-person summer camp.

NOAM Olami [Global NOAM] embraces 4000+ young people in its chapters, summer camps and Tikkun Olam projects around the world.

Europe: Spain, France, Germany, Ukraine, Sweden, UK

Africa: Kenya, Uganda

Latin America: Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru plus Uruguay [Hazit HaNoar]

Australia: Sydney, Melbourne

Jewish pride

The JEP survey report that YSO teens “shared that they felt a strong connection to their Jewish heritage…. Being Jewish was something that teens feel good about and feel pride in and that matters to them. … YSO Teens are particularly proud of Jewish accomplishments throughout history, Jewish survival in challenging times, Jewish success in the secular sphere, and Jewish contributions to Western culture. To be Jewish means to be associated with these features, which YSO teens saw as both positive and special…”

  • “Rabbi, USY is a place in which I feel that I belong, not just my household, but me.”
  •  “Rabbi, USY becomes another home, another community besides school… a refuge from the other routines of life.”
  •  “Rabbi, in USY I have gained a greater appreciation of my Jewish heritage.”
  •  “Rabbi, USY made me very proud of the achievements of Jews throughout the world.”

Tikkun Olam – Making the World A Better Place

In USY, young people intensively engage in what is called SATO [Social Action-Tikkun Olam]. They have internalized lessons learned in fulfilling “Mitzvah Projects” in connection with Bar and Bat Mitzvah. They pro-actively seek ways to assist people in need.

  • USY Teen: “Rabbi, in USY I see that we can make a difference in creating a better world.”
  • USY Teen: “Rabbi, SATO opens our minds to countless possibilities for doing good.”
  • USY Teen: “Rabbi, being on the Board develops my leadership skills for later in life.”

In sum, USY/NOAM ranks very high in the GenZ “Outcomes” for members of a YSO [Youth serving Organizations] listed below:

“[YSO] Jewish teens have a stronger sense of self.

Jewish teens feel a sense of pride about being Jewish.

Jewish teens have experienced learning that has been both challenging and valuable.

Jewish teens have learned things that enable them to be more active participants in Jewish communities.

Jewish teens learn about and positively experience Jewish holidays and Shabbat.

Jewish teens establish strong friendships.

Jewish teens develop strong and healthy relationships with their families.

Jewish teens develop significant relationships with mentors, role models, and educators.

Jewish teens are able to express their values and ethics in relation to Jewish principles and wisdom.

Jewish teens develop the capacity (skills and language) that allows them to grapple with and express their spiritual journeys.

Jewish teens feel connected to their various communities.

Jewish teens develop the desire and commitment to be part of the Jewish people now and in the future.

Jewish teens develop a positive relationship to the land, people and State of Israel.

[YSO] Jewish teens are inspired and empowered to make a positive difference in various communities and world in which they live.”

To best prepare your son or daughter for Jewish Young Adulthood, teen engagement is essential:

  • Have them join a Jewish Youth Group – whether or not they attend Jewish Day school and/or Jewish summer camp.

Keep in mind that “Multi-impacts” are powerful:

  • Have them join the YSO of their choice: USY, NFTY, NCSY, Young Judea, BBYO and so forth.

Neither you nor your teen will regret the decision to do so!

About the Author
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD has been the religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, New Jersey since 1979. From … 1993 to 1995 he served as President of the International Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement. From 2000 - 2005 he was President of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues. He served as Chair of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel from 2010-2014. He currently serves as the president of Mercaz Olami. He is the author of It All Begins With A Date: Jewish Concerns About Interdating; Preserving Jewishness In Your Family: Once Intermarriage Has Occurred; as well as Alternative to Assimilation: A Social History of the Reform Movement in American Judaism, 1840-1930.
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