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Facing the Worst Kept Synagogue Secret

Do you want to know the worst kept synagogue secret? It is not about politics at the pulpit or the fact that most Jews do not regularly attend Shabbat services. No, the worst kept synagogue secret is that almost 90% of the young people who become Bar or Bat Mitzvah in our synagogues are absent from our programs by the time they graduate high school.

Elsewhere I have written about Congregation Or Ami’s recent attempts to rethink the whole enterprise of youth engagement. We have kvelled about early indications that our efforts are raising our community’s youth engagement by 20% (and we await results from this year’s re-registration to be able to gauge the real effects).

Thanks to the leadership of Or Ami President Helayne Sharon and Board member Cheryl Lederman, and their partnership with Rabbi Julia Weisz and our Triple T Task Force, we have counted successive achievement. The Future Coaches, A.T.M., and Madrichim tracks meld with the Triple T and 4th-6th grade retreats interwoven with LoMPTY, NFTY regional events, and Jewish summer camping to create seamless synergy [insert links about these programs from blog]. Yet that dastardly data point – 90% drop off – still haunts us.

Group-Thinking Youth Engagement
Perhaps that’s really why I flew up to Berkeley, CA. The Reform Movement’s Campaign for Youth Engagement team – including URJ VP Rabbi Jonah Pesner and CYE Head Rabbi Bradley Solmsen – invited us to participate in a thought-process to test the viability and advisability of new and renewed ideas about youth engagement. It might have been Or Ami’s quick and effective embrace of the URJ’s Campaign for Youth Engagement that led to an invitation.

Fortunately the strategic thinking consultancy offered multiple ROI (returns on investment) for Or Ami: the opportunity to share reflections with the movement’s leading thinkers might help them design the future of youth engagement as well as trend spotting prospects for Or Ami for our never-ending quest to reinvent ourselves and our outreach to Jewish youth.

So there we sat: a Jewish camp director, a NFTY North American director, a URJ district Rabbi, a Jewish camping foundation leader, a very articulate NFTY regional president, leaders of the Reform CYE, a synagogue rabbi, and the principals from two strategic thinking centers. The principals shared their research on current Reform Youth engagement and the ideas that bubbled up. We group-processed the ideas, searching out strengths and weaknesses of each idea, and the opportunities each presents and the threats each poses to the current situation.

ROI: My Takeaways from Time Away from the Synagogue
I came away with a number of insights:

  • That our youth engagement needs to be about more than events and classes;
  • That relationship building and Jewish “evangelical” outreach are the current challenges;
  • That seamless synergy between projects, programs, efforts, and outreach is the name of the game (breaking down silos);
  • That we do not know a lot about the youth who are involved in our programs, but we know even less (drastically little) about the youth who are not in our programs (and that such information could be critical to designing meaningful outreach to them); and
  • That prioritizing youth engagement requires placing our youth in decision-making positions on the boards in the “adult movement arms.”

The strategic thinking process of the URJ may or may not embrace these ideas. Too many factors play into the process. Still, the discussions were rich and the energy was infectious. And I return to Congregation Or Ami energized to explore next steps in our efforts to chip away at that 90% post-B’nai Mitzvah unaffiliated rate.

Which Leads Me to Ask
What would you suggest are the ideas and ideals which should animate our synagogue’s campaign for youth engagement?

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