By Jessica Hanewinckel
If there’s one fact about Jewish communal engagement on which all synagogues of all denominations can agree, it’s that most Jewish kids steadily decrease their engagement following their b’nai mitzvah. It’s a problem that many a congregation has attempted to alleviate programmatically over the years. Congregation Beth Israel is addressing the issue at a whole new level.
“We know all the studies show we have to do something or else the Jewish community is going to dwindle,” says Tammy Vener, Beth Israel’s director of early childhood education and the president for early childhood education for the Union for Reform Judaism. “It’s at a critical turning point. And we know that by building the community, we will be building the youth, because they want to be here. It’s all connected in some way.”
She and Ava Keenen, director of Beth Israel’s religious school and a partner with Tammy on this initiative, hope their excitement is contagious.
“Once that ball gets rolling, they’re jumping on the train,” Keenan says. “They get on that bandwagon. They see excitement, they see more people, and it builds.”
The excitement at Beth Israel started with Vener, who attended a meeting last summer as a representative for early childhood education on the URJ’s task force for youth engagement. At the meeting, she learned about the URJ’s newly launched Campaign for Youth Engagement. Coincidentally, Beth Israel had identified youth engagement as one of the initiatives it wanted to tackle within its congregation in a strategic plan it formulated about five years ago. Vener’s new knowledge was just what Beth Israel needed, so she returned to the shul and replicated much of what she’d just learned, making Beth Israel one of only two synagogues in North America to do so.
“When I was sitting in these meetings on this task force, I was thinking about where we fit into this process,” she says. “It felt like we had things going on, but none of the pieces were connected. The cantor has 70 kids in the children’s choir, but do we know if those kids are actively coming to religious school? Are those families connected? Yes, we have all these kids in madrahim, and we have 100 kids in our high school program, but where are the rest of them? And there’s this huge b’nai mitzvah drop off, so where are those children and where are their families?”
One of the first things Vener did upon returning was help to form the Think Tank for Family and Youth Engagement. Says Keenen, the 15-20 individuals on the think tank, which meets every six weeks, represent the spectrum of Beth Israel congregants, from people who have children in the shul’s early childhood center to those with kids in the religious school and high school classes.
“It’s important for this whole thing to be chaired by laypeople,” Keenan says. “They buy into this. They’re a part of making the decisions about which way to go.”
In addition to the think tank, Beth Israel organized a Call to Action town hall-style meeting last winter, where think tank members learned what congregants want regarding youth engagement.
So what’s taken place so far? Programmatically, a few things. Tuesdays in the Park ran July 10-Aug. 7 and invited congregants of all ages to bring a picnic dinner to a grassy area at the synagogue, where they could mingle, kids could play and everyone could enjoy free entertainment and dessert. Says Vener, the program drew between 120 and 200 people weekly, allowing congregants to connect and for kids to enjoy time with their families in a Jewish atmosphere. Engaging the families, she says, is a huge part of youth engagement.
“We have to engage the family,” Vener says. “We know that statistically if a child’s family is involved, the chances are they will stay involved longer. We also know that if they start in our programs in early childhood, there’s a greater chance they will continue through the high school programs because their families have gotten engaged. They feel this is their community and this is where they want to be.”
Last month, they also held Beth Israel’s first B’nai Mitzvah Boot Camp for incoming seventh graders. The summer camp-like program gave kids a head start on their b’nai mitzvah preparations and uniting families in small groups, creating stronger community and exciting kids about the process to come.
Next month, from Oct. 12-14, Beth Israel will reinstate its Family Camp at Camp Mountain Chai, which had gone dormant for about six years. The goal of family camp is not only to create community and develop connections, but also to foster a love of summer camp across the entire family unit.
Giving families options for different forms of engagement is essential, Keenan says.
“Families are expecting a lot of different things from synagogues now,” she says. “There are all kinds of families out there who have different needs, and we’re trying to involve them in all the ways they want to be involved.”
But success means more than just programmatic additions and alterations.
“It’s the commitment to the community that’s come out of this, the strong feeling that we are stakeholders,” Vener says. “We want to raise Jewish community, not Beth Israel members. The ultimate goal is that our kids go off to college and they go off to whatever communities they are going to be in, and they become active members in their own [Jewish] communities someday.”