Rabbi Jonah Pesner, senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said 80 percent of the Reform Jewish b’nai mitzva fall away from Jewish life by the eighth grade.
“The crisis is most of those kids will disappear by 12th grade, and they will bring their families out the exit [of the synagogue],” Pesner told the Chronicle in an exclusive interview. “So somehow the bar and bat mitzva has become an off ramp rather than an on ramp, which is ironic because it’s a complete reversal of Jewish history.”
But this crisis, Pesner noted, also poses an opportunity to revamp the movement to engage, not only teens, but young adults before they have kids of their own.
He said the movement spent the past year conducting thousands of conversations with rabbis, cantors, educators, lay leaders, parents and children to learn what engages them with Judaism.
The answer, he said, was relationships.
“Nobody accesses any good programs if there isn’t relationship,” Pesner said, “whether that’s a mentor of an adult, the mentor of an older student ... the role modeling of parents, those people who bring the young person of the family into Jewish life, and not as a one-shot deal but an ongoing basis. So kids that stay connected are connected to a network of relationships; kids that drop out, those networks were severed.”
With that in mind, Pesner described a four-part “call to action” to bring those disengaged teens back to active Jewish life — the core of the URJ’s Campaign for Youth engagement, which was rolled out last year at its biennial convention in Washington.
Those four parts are:
• Retraining youth professionals to show teens how to build their own peer networks;
• Increase “immersive” experiences such as camping, Israel trips and service projects to pull in more youths;
• Engage young Jewish adults in their 20s and 30s, outside the synagogue if need be, to help them connect to Judaism before they marry and have kids; and
• Change the culture of synagogue life.
“This is the hardest [part],” Pesner said of that last point, “and this is why we did this grassroots campaign with all the conversations. We had to build the political will to have the congregations look at the world as it is right now, where a majority [of young people] drop out, and imagine the world as it could be where the synagogue is a place they want to be, and then say what’s the hard work we have to do to change our culture.”
He continued, “Here’s the culture right now: You walk into some of the old congregations, the historic wonderful Reform congregations, and you see the wall of photos of confirmation classes. And you see a hundred kids, and then you see 50 kids and then you see 12 kids or even three.
The trend is clear.
“The question is are the congregations willing to transform their culture?”
Many congregations are experimenting with ways to reinvent their cultures to keep teens engaged. He described one temple where each teen is assigned a mentor.
“Every teen has a mentor, an adult mentor, who sits with them and invests in the relationship, and listens to the kid — what their interests are, what their capacities are, what their schedule allows, and what they do want to plug into — and helps create learning communities around the shared interests of the kids.”
By developing those networks, which, by design, include Jewish education, that congregation is hoping to become a place where teens want to be instead of have to be.
Pesner said the URJ is restructuring itself to provide new networks and services to share information and ideas for engagement with its member synagogues, what it calls “A New Paradigm.”
Asked how the URJ can fund the cost of these changes at a time when it is cutting costs — it recently announced the furlough of 30 employees — Pesner said the cuts were “less about downsizing and more about realigning.
“We’ve invested in the front-line staff we think can do it; we’re going to invest in the training of that staff, we’re going to invest in real benchmarking and evaluation of what we experiment with on a periodic basis, so we can step back and adjust and improve,” he said.
“Do I know for sure if it’s going to succeed? Of course not,” he continued. “This is like every other plan; you put a plan in motion, you get the best people to lead the plan, you do a robust evaluation and hold yourself accountable.”
The URJ will be “very aggressive” about implanting its new strategies and evaluating them, he pledged.
“The Jewish future is too much at risk to mess this up,” Pesner said. “We’re taking it really, really seriously.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)