In 2011, the Union for Reform Judaism launched the Campaign for Youth Engagement, an initiative that places youth engagement as the top priority of the Reform Movement. As part of the initiative, the URJ boldly stated that we would engage more than 50% of eligible youth by 2020.
In the New York Area, the URJ and NFTY currently serve less than 1% of eligible for Reform Jewish teens in our year-round and summer programs. While our current menu of programs for teens on the regional level serves these teens incredibly well, there are significant barriers to entry that are preventing more teens from being able to participate in our programs. We know that the New York Area is unique from any other community in North America. Many of the teens in our community attend schools where there are significant Jewish populations (anywhere from 30-50%). The plethora of extracurricular activities, combined with the pressures related to academics, constantly compete for their time. Many of the teens in our community are experiencing 18-20 hour days.
The current model of NFTY primarily requires our teens to commit to participating in 12-48 hours experiences over various weekends throughout the year. Many Jewish teens in our community aren’t willing to give up that time out of their schedule in order to become part of the NFTY community. In order for us to make a significant increase in the number of teens that are engaged in Reform Jewish youth experiences, it’s time for a change.
An Enhanced Model
It’s important to recognize the pieces that the New York Area Region of NFTY currently does very well. Our immersive weekend events provide incredible opportunities for friendship and community, and the educational programs developed and implemented by our teen leaders rich in both depth and content. Many of our alumni are going on to learn in top tier universities, where they are the leaders of both Jewish and non-Jewish communities. For the teens that we currently serve, we are providing an incredibly transformative experience. These are the teens that will become our Jewish Professionals and congregational lay leaders. Any change to our current system must recognize the pieces that we do well, and continue to offer meaningful experiences for teens that are looking for extensive immersive programs.
However, it cannot be the only on-ramp for a teen to become connected into NFTY. We must look to lower the barriers that are currently preventing large portions of our teens from even being able to try our experiences.
The following model provides our teens with a variation of time, content and location diversity. This will allow our teens to experience NFTY on their own terms, and make decisions as to how they want to experience NFTY.
Creating Smaller Communities
Currently, the New York Area of NFTY serves 74 different congregations throughout New York City, Long Island, Westchester and six congregations in Fairfield County, CT. With such a concentration of congregations and Jewish teens in our region, creating smaller communities will help us provide new and different ways of creating community, by lowering the barriers to entry into our programs. Smaller 2-4 hour events on evenings and weekends will allow us to create many smaller communities within our region, and provide innovative content based experiences that were not previously available within the large regional structure.
We will absolutely continue to bring the larger region together several times throughout the year, but the emphasis on these smaller communities will allow us to provide significantly more gatherings, events and programs, at a higher quality, and with a lower level of commitment required amongst the teen participating.
Redefining “NFTY Event”
Imagine that when you become Bar/Bat Mitzvah, that you immediately get access to a host of different experiences, gatherings and events that are customized just for you:
- Want to meet your friends for an evening of bowling?
- Want to spend a few hours at a Starbucks with a few of your NFTY friends?
- Looking to join a group of Jewish teens for a few hours one day a month volunteering at a soup kitchen?
- Interested in attending a VIP event at a 5-star restaurant with a celebrity chef? We’ve got that.
- An alternative spring break trip that focuses on service learning in under-served communities in Central America? Count on it.
- Interested in taking an accredited college course with NFTY? Sounds good to us.
- Need SAT Tutoring or Driver’s Ed? NFTY’s got that too.
This is the new NFTY – where your community isn’t just about getting on a bus and spending 36 hours at a campsite on congregation from Friday – Sunday. Instead of just seven NFTY events throughout the year, imagine hundreds of different experiences, and you can pick and choose the experiences that are meaningful to you. In partnership with congregations and partner organizations, NFTY will develop and implement a variety new and exciting opportunities for teens. Some of these events may be at local congregations, some will be located throughout our community, whether it’s at a museum, Starbucks, or other location. We need to meet our teens where they are.
For our teens that crave the immersive weekend long experiences, that will absolutely still exist in this new model. It’s just no longer the only offering that NFTY will provide to teens and congregations.
It is our hope that by the end of 2020, the number of Jewish teens that we are engaging in our programs reaches 2,500 active members, beginning with 6th and 7th grade teens through high school graduation. With a much more significant Alumni pool, this will also lead to the development of significant programs for young adults within the NFTY/URJ framework.