The Reform movement admits it has a big youth problem. North American Judaism’s largest denomination (about 1.5 million members) says it has failed over the past 20 years to retain the interest of the majority of its teenagers past the age of 13.
To address the crisis, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations has announced a half-million-dollar youth initiative to help some of its 875 local congregations develop new programs to entice disinterested teens.
“While there is no fail-proof strategy to recapture teenagers for Jewish life, there are signs that today’s teenagers long for community and thirst for the noble and the spiritual,” Rabbi Yoffie said. “The frenetic quality of modern life has brought a depressing loneliness to the teenagers of North America. We realize they want a sense of coherence, a religious grasp of how their lives fit into the big picture.”
Reform officials say the youth initiative will be focused on three broad areas: hiring of experienced and well-trained youth professionals for each of the UAHC’s regional offices and a cadre of part-time youth workers who will work directly with congregations on their youth programming; creating informal education programs for grades 5 through 8; and developing a wide variety of specialized and diverse national programs for high school youth.
The move comes on the heels of the movement’s new yearlong study to develop ethical guidelines for its teenagers and young adults to combat the moral crisis in today’s anything-goes popular culture.
The new initiative will supplement Reform’s current activities, which includes spending $950,000 a year on its NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth programs — the Reform movement’s youth movement.
Reform’s 11 camps have a combined budget of $18 million, and $4 million is spent each year sending youth to Israel.
But Rabbi Yoffie, at a recent board meeting in Memphis, acknowledged that NFTY is no more than a shadow of its former self. Compared to his youth, (he is 50) when in many communities, virtually every Reform Jewish youth became part of his or her synagogue’s youth group, synagogues today have a teenage drop out rate that is “appallingly high” after the age of 13, Rabbi Yoffie said.
A Reform spokeswoman said that currently, only 15 percent of all Reform kids are involved NFTY.
“The key to successful teen programs is to begin where the kids are,” said Rabbi Yoffie, explaining why the youth initiative will begin with junior youth groups and programs that weave informal and formal education programs for children in grades 5 through 7.
Rabbi Yoffie said most of today’s synagogue educational programs concentrate on bar or bat mitzvah lessons, but after that, the kids drop out.
“If we had to choose, we would be far better off if the average child had three years of religious school prior to bar or bat mitzvah and three years of school and youth group afterward,” Rabbi Yoffie said.
The program’s primary emphasis is on the hiring of well-trained professionals because wherever there is a successful, vibrant congregational youth program, “the starting point in every case is a congregational youth worker who is well-trained and Jewishly knowledgeable professional youth worker who truly knows adolescents,” Rabbi Yoffie said.
For the youth in grades 5 through 8, a network of junior youth groups will be established and programming designed to integrate formal and informal education will be established, such as junior congregations and city-wide youth choirs, Shabbat programs and conclaves.
Within two years, UAHC will develop a range of innovative programs for those teenagers who are not interested in the youth group, such as a summer travel program focusing on social justice projects or a summer experience that includes SAT preparation and college visitation with Jewish programming and study.