Helping All Boats Rise Togetherby Jacqueline Bull November 6, 2018
“Our overall goal is just to connect Jewish teens to more Jewish things,” Rebecka Handler, the new director for The Jewish Teen Initiative said. (The Jewish Teen Initiative also houses Motiv, which SDJJ did interviews with teen participants back in November 2017).
“When the initiative was launched in 2015, there had been a study that had shown that there were approximately 7,000 Jewish teens in San Diego … We’re able to identify approximately 3,700 of that 7,000,” she said.
That number fluctuates slightly as each graduating class may be slightly bigger or smaller than the previous. And identifying Jewish teens to then be able to engage them is a principal part of the work at the Initiative.
“Last year, we had 13 fellows and this year we have 20 first year fellows and seven returning fellows. We are hoping to see the number of unknown Jewish teens that are being identified doubled from our work last year and we’re also hoping to see that teens are becoming more engaged in the wonderful opportunities that the community has to offer,” she said.
Rebecka has been the director of the initiative since January of this year. She explained that she has three main goals for the organization: 1. to grow the peer leaders fellowship, 2. fill the gap between b’nai mitzvah and high school, 3. exploring long term financial sustainability for the Initiative.
Rebecka explains that they are not competing for teen involvement, but helping them find opportunities within the community for all parties to benefit. (“We are here to help all boats rise together”). In fact, much of what the initiative does is to directly benefit Jewish organizations. They provide grants for organizations wanting to improve or expand their teen programming and also offer training, professional development and staff support to those organizations.
The grants that they offer can “elevate the programming that is already happening in this community or to take the financial barrier off of an organization or institution to be innovative and to create something relevant for the teens.”
Of all the different populations to focus on connecting to Jewish life, why teens?
“I think it all comes from when I had the most Jewish transformative experiences in my own life. I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, where you would think immediately ‘There is Jewish people there?’ So being Jewish, small in numbers, but a very mighty community. It instilled this sense of pride in me and I was so moved and impacted when I was a teen, that I really see potential in this population,” she said.
This population (Gen Z) and their predecessors, millenials, who are now in their 30’s, seem to mystify older generations. And while all generations mark change, the confusion (or outright disdain as all generations continue to illustrate our anxieties of the future) for “kids these days,” is one true constant. In engaging with the youth in a meaningful way, Rebecka has some insights.
“It is not just your typical teen anymore, you can’t even use the word typical,” Rebecka said.
“We have learned that social media is very powerful, but it is changing all the time. Facebook is not the answer anymore, but it is the answer to reach parents. Instagram is the way to reach your teens, but not by putting an emoji on a caption,” she said.
And in helping people reach teens, the Initiative is a resource, and also the people of that age group that are already involved.
“Talk to your teens. Whether they are your teen leaders or your teen participants, they are your best source of information to stay relevant for their peers. Through all the experimentation that we’ve done in the past three years of the initiative… we’ve found peer to peer engagement to be the most successful model for growth,” she said.
“In terms of teen engagement, they want face to face. The best things to do are to provide them an opportunity that they cannot provide themself,” she said.
“They are looking for mentors, they are looking for something to associate with, teens really want to be influencers. I know that if you can express a message that is relatable to the teenage population, you will truly see a difference,” she said.