Hi, I'm Raimy Rubin, manager of the Pittsburgh Jewish Community Scorecard.

Our panel today consists of Rabbi Ari Goldberg, director of Pittsburgh NCSY and JSU; Carolyn Gerecht, Director of Teen Learning at the Agency for Jewish Learning; and Jeremy Witchel, a local high school senior.

Rabbi Goldberg has more than a decade of experience in informal Jewish education and leadership training, and he has established NCSY as a premiere Jewish youth organization in the Pittsburgh area.

Carolyn has worked closely with Jewish youth and teens in Pittsburgh for 5 years, as a youth adviser, director, and director of AJL’s teen programs including J-SITE.

Jeremy is president of the Pittsburgh region BBYO chapter

Thank you all for coming! To our audience, I'm going to ask a number of questions to moderate this discussion but please feel free to log in and chime in here or leave a comment at the bottom. 

I'd like to start the conversation today by asking about the current landscape of Jewish teen programming. There is such a diverse array of programs for teens all trying to connect them to the Jewish community, that it seems pretty clear that no single effort can address the challenges of Jewish teen engagement and education.

Carolyn and Rabbi Goldberg, what do you see as the biggest challenges and opportunities in connecting with teens and in bringing them into our Jewish community?

Good morning -

I think three of the greatest challenges in connecting with teens are authenticity, empowerment, and an open mind. How can we create experiences for teens that are truly about them, experiences without completely pre-determined goals or outcomes? How can we put teens in the driver's seat, so a Jewish identity really feels like something they discovered on their own? How can we push ourselves, the planners, to be open to new kinds of Jewish experiences and identities for teens? These are some questions I ask myself.

Those are great guiding questions, Carolyn. Discovering one's Jewish identity is not a task well-suited for a cookie-cutter approach, which is certainly a challenge given the numbers of teens that you're trying to reach.

Jeremy, when you think about your experience in BBYO and in other Jewish programs, what are some of the common denominators of those inspirational moments relating to your Jewish identity? Do you feel, like Carolyn suggested, that you were in the driver's seat in creating those moments or were the experiences created by the educators? 

The absolute most memorable moment of my own Jewish identity discovery was the end of my eighth grade year, at the regional BBYO convention.  One of the programs dealt with the Holocaust, and the atmosphere was very serious and reflective.  We were led through a guided imagery activity where we closed our eyes and listened stories and examples of anti-Semitism, and we were encouraged to take in these sentiments and think about them.  Then, we came together and talked about our own experiences facing anti-Semitism, and how they had felt to us.  It was an extremely emotional experience; many people were very emotional and even crying.

It was incredibly moving: there was a moment when the whole room seemed to have the realization that we are all Jewish and we are in this experience together.  There was a sense of unity and connectedness that I had never felt before - by sharing these experiences, we were connecting to not only each other, but also to the people who came before us and who will come after us.

So my own Jewish identity, at that moment, was less about who I was as an individual Jewish teen, but more about how I fit into this larger culture.

A key factor: the people who ran this activity were only a few years older than me - sophomores and junior in high school.  I think that, as an eighth grader who looked up to these “older, wiser” teenagers, I was more impacted by the experience than I would have been had an adult been running the program.  Even though the program was very guided in the early stages, during the discussion section - which was the crucial aspect - we really felt like we were “in the driver’s seat” when it came to our responses and feelings about some of the challenges we face being Jewish.

I think that it’s extremely important to set up programs like what I experienced that put teens in the position to face topics related to their Jewish identity that they may not discuss in everyday life, but when it comes to teen responses, teens need to feel like they are making these decisions themselves.

Not all programs need to be serious in order for them to mean something; it’s most important to give teens a place where they feel like they are connected to something beyond themselves.

Hello all!  It is a privilege to be part of this conversation, and I look forward idea sharing that will come from it.  Finding models and methods to connect today's teen to his or her Judaism is a constant challenge that must be addressed on a regular basis.  In my experience I have found that trying to repeat a successful program each year becomes increasingly more difficult.  What worked last year will need to be tweaked and improved for the next year.

In general I think it is helpful to look at what teens want from their Jewish experience and what are the barriers that stand in their way of achieving that personal Jewish connection.  While I will admit that much of our decision making process today is guided by trying to "personalize' everything in life from our lunch menu to class selections, there is significant value in connecting to a greater whole.  This connection is something that I think teens in particular are drawn to. 

In the Jewish culture clubs that I run in both Allderdice and Upper Saint Clair I have found that teens from very diverse Jewish backgrounds ranging from Jewishly active and affiliated to zero affiliation, thrive in the collaborative atmosphere of the club.  They share ideas, experiences and perceptions of their Judaism and form a collective bond.  This empowers those teens that have taken a more active role in Jewish life to engage their peers who may be searching for their own connection.    Connecting to this larger group of people is complemented by feeling a connection to the Jewish heritage of the past, present, and future.  

With this background I believe we can answer the original question.  The biggest challenge in connecting teens to their Judaism is not a lack of programing!  Our community is blessed with synagogue youth groups, JCC Basketball league, Friendship Circle, Israel trips, J-Site, the list goes on and on.  It is figuring out how to "sell" what the teens want to "buy".  I believe teens are looking to "buy" connection and purpose, not experiences.  In my experience I have found that I can recruit like crazy for an awesome ski trip and end up with only a dozen participants, or I can create a community service initiative to help patients in the hospital, and get 25 teens to show up on a moments notice. 

The take away is the teens don't need us to provide them with programs that are strictly meant to wow them with fun and games.  They want us, they NEED us to provide them with programing that is filled with connection and purpose. 

It seems to me then that not only do you have to provide that connection and purpose, but you have to do so in a way that allows the teens to be in control of that experience, as Jeremy said. 

Rabbi Goldberg, you brought up a list of programs offered in our Jewish community and posited the question of whether or not teens are buying what these programs are selling. Are they?

When it comes to your own programming, how do you measure success when it comes to creating connection and purpose?
I'm using experience to mean an internal event as much as (if not more than) an external one. I think Rabbi Goldberg is dead-on; having impact is not about the "program" itself (the space, the fun, the trip). It's creating is a shift or transformation, an enlightening that you are part of something real, with a role to play that matters.

I'm curious if others think the ratio of fun-to-meaningful Jewish teen programming right now is off-balance.

I think all 3 or 4 of us have felt pressure to measure success by the numbers. But if that's not the best metric for measuring connection and impact, perhaps measuring students' level of involvement over time is another approach. Do teens increase their commitment, level of responsibility, and their ability to lead over time as a result of our programs?

It is truly a pleasure to read these responses and I am both challenged and moved by both of your perspectives.

Raimy, you ask a great question! Are teens buying what we're selling. I think if we take a hard look at the reality we will find that in many ways they are not buying what we are selling. Attendance in Sunday school programs is way down, youth group participation is dwindling and kids are becoming more and more ambivalent about their Jewish connection. 

There are of course pockets where things are thriving. Community service initiatives are attracting teenage participation. Take The Friendship Circle as an example and you will see an organization that is definitely selling what teens are looking to buy.  Many other organizations are following this model and incorporating community service into their regular programming. Carolyn has in fact done a magnificent job with beefing up the quality and creativity of the J Site program, and there is a noticeable excitement about J-Site when you talk with teens. 

Another area where teens are buying what we are selling is the social experience of Judaism. Gathering together with friends particularly from other cities and from around our region is a very attractive element to teens. This leads to the success of programs like summer camp and regional get-togethers for youth groups.

Even with these two areas of success we still must ask the difficult question of is this enough to guarantee continuity and engagement of the Jewish teens in the future?  I could make the argument that while these two points are very important and integral to the Jewish involvement they will not be able to independently guarantee it's survival.  I think without a commitment to formal Jewish education, some level of ritual observance, and commitment to the state of Israel we are at great risk of losing the teens of tomorrow. 

Community service, and social gathering are not things that are uniquely Jewish and can be achieved in other places. To be successful in business one must sell a product that is either superior to that of your competitors or something that is unique and different that cannot be purchased elsewhere.  If Judaism tries to compete with the rest of the world in selling a product of community service and social gathering we will be hard-pressed to offer a higher quality than what can be found elsewhere.  We must therefore offer something that is uniquely Jewish and can only be bought from us.  That would of course be where formal Jewish education, some level of ritual observance, and a connection to the state of Israel set us apart from the rest of the world.

Hi everyone, this is Sam Bloom, Director of Emma Kaufmann Camp and Director of Sports and Recreation at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh.  I'm a late addition but I hope I can help with some of my thoughts and feelings on the current landscape of Jewish teen programming.  I have been in the overnight camping world for 27 years, and I have spent 20 years at the JCC of Greater Pittsburgh in camping and sports. 

There is nothing that I love more than working with children, youth, teens and young adults.  When you ask me how I measure success when it comes to creating connection and purpose, I can tell you this.....teenagers are more engaged in programming, they are more committed to the common goal, they work harder and they look to achieve more, WHEN THEY KNOW THAT THEY ARE PART OF A TEAM.  The concept of a team is very powerful especially when you are on a "team" that you feel like is bigger than any one person or individual.  Teams are everywhere - not just in the work-place, but also at camp, in BBYO, in schools, in our families, and in every-day activities and programs that our teens are involved with every day.  We as leaders need to develop that team-concept in our programs, making sure that the teens are a part of all of our (their) decisions, making sure they know what the goals and expectations are...and making sure that you "tell them where you are going" - not in the physical sense, but in the global sense of these are our goals....this is how we will become successful...this is how we are going to have fun...this is how we are going to make a difference.  Because if you don't tell them, how will they know?

Build a team, build something that is bigger than any one person.  All of this will create the connection and the purpose that we all strive for every day in our community. 

Sam thanks for joining the conversation! (And a plug here that you, dear audience, can do the same by click here.)

Between these last couple responses, I feel like we're getting dangerously close to simply talking about the difference between Jewish engagement and Jewish education. 

On the one hand, the social setting that we're in has a profound impact on us. In fact, researchers Jack Wertheimer and Steven M. Cohen even say, "A [college] student with Jewish friends will be far likelier than one without such friends to come to a Shabbat dinner, attend a service, or travel to Israel. If the young adults with whom we work emerge impressed, informed, and inspired by our ideas but have no Jewish friends, that work may well have been in vain."

On the other hand, the "fun-to-meaningful ratio" has to be there, and students have to have those "uniquely Jewish" experiences.

So how do you differentiate between Jewish engagement and Jewish education? And what are their individual roles in the ecosystem of Jewish teen activity?

And to Jeremy, I ask: can you, as a teen, tell the difference in a program whose purpose is Jewish education versus one whose purpose is engagement? Are you and your friends more likely to go to one kind of an event over another? When you receive an email about an upcoming event, what are you hoping it is for?

You will have to excuse my MBA for coming through pretty heavy in this forum, but I believe the difference between Jewish engagement and Jewish education is very similar to the difference between prospecting and actually closing sales.  In both prospecting and Jewish engagement the goal is to spread a wide net and reach as many potential customers as possible.  However, prospecting is not enough to succeed and one must be able to close a sale to survive in the marketplace.  Similarly, if we only excel at spreading our wide net through programs that focus on Jewish engagement and do not attempt to move people along into the formal setting (or informal setting) of Jewish education we too will not endure.  

In recent years communities across North America have created successful programs that focus on Jewish engagement and people are getting involved. However, we cannot measure success simply by the number of people we have touched. That would be tantamount to a salesman celebrating the number of people he has on his prospect list. To secure the future we must be able to close the deal by providing equally dynamic and attractive programs that focus on Jewish education. 

In my work with NCSY I see Jewish engagement and Jewish education going hand-in-hand. One really should lead to the other. There are programs that we run that fill the need for Jewish engagement but are not achieving a significant amount of Jewish education.  At the same time there are other programs where education is the focus. 

As an example, the clubs that we run in public schools are primarily a Jewish engagement activity.  There are very low barriers to entry and little is demanded of the students who attend. However, the goal of these clubs goes beyond just regular attendance and participation.  The donors who support these clubs are doing so because they know that the club will be a vehicle that leads to further involvement in programs that focus on Jewish education. It is through these clubs that students are introduced to peers as well as Jewish education opportunities within the community. The club is a portal that connects the otherwise unaffiliated teen with Jewish programming in their community and beyond.  

Over the years I have watched as teens have successfully made the transition from strictly a "club goer" to a fully integrated member of the Jewish community. If we did not also provide Jewish educational opportunities that go beyond the club then that transition would have been impossible.  Now, with more robust programs like a Jewish mentorship, Shabbat meals and services, and travel to Israel, the teens create a more meaningful and lasting connection with their Judaism.

That's going to wrap up our conversation. I wanted to thank you Rabbi Goldberg, Carolyn, Jeremy, and Sam for their input.

You allowed us access to a conversation that we wouldn't otherwise have been privy to. You clearly put so much effort and thought into your programming, and it really comes through. 

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us. I look forward to seeing the amazing fruits of your labor as you continue to equip Pittsburgh's teens with the toolkit to live engaged, meaningful, Jewish adult lives. 

Raimy - thank you very much for organizing. I'm particularly moved by the evolving relationship between Jewish teen engagement and education, as many others also are. Looking forward to continued conversations, and left wondering - does one always preclude the other; include the other; if either is true at all, is it always true? Should it be? 

Like others (within this forum and beyond it), I believe deeply in meaningful Jewish education for teens in particular, and in Jewish engagement as both the means to the end and the end itself (the very acts of community, team, and purpose). It's not possible to prioritize one over the other; to be meaningful, they're inherently linked. I also believe deeply in role modelling Jewish education and engagement for teens, and feel this is another important factor in our potential to build connections.

Until next time! Thank you again, Raimy.

Thanks! We'll send you an update as soon as a new conversation starts.