Friday, April 1, 2011

Youth engagement, from the ground up

You know, sometimes the best ideas are the simplest…

I've just gotten back from thea CCAR (Central Conference of American Rabbis) convention, and one of the topics about which I heard was a new initiative beginning in the Reform movement around teen engagement (“teen engagement” is really just a buzzword for getting teens more deeply involved in synagogue, and Jewish, life). In summary, it's really about applying the principles of Community Organizing to our youth (they kind of vacillated back-and-forth between “teen” and “youth,” so I'll feel free to do the same).

Don't know what "Community Organizing" is? You may remember it as a big buzzword during the last election, since Obama used to be a Community Organizer. Basically, it's about doing social action, often now referred to as “social justice,” but picking our causes in a bottom up, rather than top-down way. The way that synagogues (and, I imagine, most other organizations) tend to do social action is to get a small group of concerned people together, pick a issue which seems important, organize a program, and then try to rally people to that cause. The problem with this method (as effective as it can be, at times) is that the cause is decided on by a few people. They may pick a “good” cause, but they may not. More specifically, they may pick a cause about which most of their constituency doesn't really care.

So, Community Organizing tells us that the first step is an extended process of careful listening. Ask people—a lot of people—what they care about. What issues keep them up at night? What issues do they think about all day long? Ask that of a lot of people, and keep track of the answers. Start to see if a pattern emerges. If there is an issue about which a lot of people already care, then it seems pretty obvious that it will be easier to get people to give of themselves to help fix it!

Well, we can apply that exact same model to our youth programming. Right now, generally speaking, a few smart, well-intentioned people get together and ask, “what do our youth need?” If we're enlightened, we'll ask some of the youth, themselves. “What is important to you?” “What do you want to do in synagogue?” The problem, more than anything, is the depth of the questioning. We hold one or two meetings, and unintentionally only pay attention to the answers which we like, and probably to the answers which we expected to hear before we even started.

What if, instead, we spent a good, long time really talking to our youth? What if we asked them, in various settings, in various ways, what issues they are passionate about? What if we try to find out, from them, what we could do that would fill a hole in their lives? With that information, we could create a youth program which not only attractive than more easily, but also, by definition, filled a void in their lives.

It's a lot of work, and it requires a real openess (you have to be willing to let the process take you somewhere, rather than vice-versa). But it has the potential to really transform a youth program, and a synagogue. It will be interesting to see if we can use some of that here, at our synagogue.

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