As one of a few Jewish students in his school growing up in Oklahoma City, Evan Traylor’s mission to revitalize youth in the Reform movement began at a young age. While serving as the president of the youth group at Temple Bnei Israel during his sophomore year of high school, he began to see the need to make Judaism meaningful to other people his age.
“At that point when I was 15 or 16 years old, it was, ‘Why are my friends who I grew up with at Sunday school not coming to youth group events?’” he said in a phone call from the University of Kansas. “A Chanukah party is way more fun with 30 people than it is with 15. So it started from that very simple place of ‘How can we ensure that more people feel connected to Judaism and to community?’”
Traylor became a leader in his region of NFTY, the Reform Jewish youth movement, and eventually rose to North American President. Around this time, The Union for Reform Judaism launched its Campaign for Youth Engagement, addressing the same questions he had about his own community on a larger scale. He was hooked.
“That's really where my focus on engagement expanded even more,” he said. “I got a broader view, that it wasn't just about creating community, though that's at the core of it. It's how do we ensure that people are finding meaning in their lives, and how do we ensure that young Jews, and Jews in college, and Jews of all ages, are finding connection to community and meaning in their lives through Judaism?”
Traylor was the first teenager to become a full-fledged member of the URJ Board of Trustees, and he’s quickly moving further. Upon graduating from the University of Kansas this year, where he connected with hundreds of Jewish students as an engagement intern for Hillel, he will assume the inaugural position of URJ Presidential Fellow on Millennial Engagement, working directly with President Rick Jacobs and other movement leaders.
But Traylor’s engagement efforts span beyond Reform Jewish millennials. Through his blog, Connecting the Dots, he hopes to encourage more discussion about race and Jewish identity, writing from his own perspective as a “half-Black, half-White member of the Jewish faith and community.”
“It's been energizing and disappointing to see how the Jewish community has talked about race over the last couple of years and chosen to engage or not engage with it,” he said. “What I've been trying to do with my writing and conversations … is bring the topic to the light. How do we get people to talk about it, engage with it in a meaningful way?”
Preaching to the choir: In his junior and senior years of high school, Traylor sang and danced in show choir.