TULSA, Okla. — For Jen, it all started in the eighth grade with an invitation from a friend to a BBYO Shabbat dinner.
Jen had grown up in a non-Jewish area of Virginia, and the invitation was one of few opportunities she had to experience the warmth and familiarity of Jewish traditions in the company of peers.
What happened in the years afterward highlights the critical importance of the teen years in solidifying the future of the Jewish community.
Deep involvement in her local BBYO chapter led to regional and national leadership trainings for Jen and, ultimately, a year deferring college to serve as the youth organization’s international teen president. Once on campus, Jen became involved in Israel advocacy with Hillel and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and she spent a year studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. After graduating in 2005, she came to work for the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, becoming the steward of countless Jewish engagement efforts.
Today she is the COO of Moishe House, an organization that annually reaches tens of thousands of young Jewish adults around the world.
In short, Jen Kraus Rosen has spent her professional life paying forward the investment made in her by our community by helping thousands of young adults find a meaningful place in the Jewish community. In her personal life, too, she is a convener and connector, a mover, a shaker and a shadchan (matchmaker), often bringing together various groups of friends for her own Shabbat dinners.
While Jen is certainly exceptional, we are fortunate that she is not the exception. Recent research on Jewish teen experiences makes clear that investing in Jews during their teenage years pays significant dividends toward ensuring their involvement in Jewish life well into adulthood.
A new study commissioned by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation shows, among other things, that the BBYO experience results in young adults who, like Jen, are more inclined to remain involved in Jewish life, hold leadership roles in their community, invest time and money in Jewish causes, develop a strong Jewish network, and give their children a Jewish education. Moreover, the study reveals that these individuals directly credit involvement in BBYO for their growth on these fronts.
Recent studies from the Foundation for Jewish Camp and Moving Traditions support similar underlying findings: that effectively designed Jewish teen experiences successfully reach and engage youth, helping them feel pride in their Jewish identity, encouraging them to contribute to Jewish life and even ensuring a greater resiliency against the pressures that are commonplace in the teen years.
It is clear that fun, meaningful, affordable Jewish experiences have a deep and significant impact on teens. It is clear that they are vital to ensuring our teens stay engaged with our community and develop the necessary skills to lead it.
And it is clear that it is time for us to elevate our investment in the teen years — when individuals begin exploring their identity, defining their values and shaping who they will become as adults — as a priority on our communal agenda.
Think about it: An estimated 75 percent of teenage Jews celebrate a bar or bat mitzva. Fresh from their entry into Jewish adulthood and with a desire to seek meaning in their lives, they are ripe and ready to begin the next phase of their Jewish journeys. And yet it is at this particular moment, when Judaism has so much to offer and when teens need our guidance most, that far too many are turning away from involvement in Jewish experiences. In fact, it is estimated that by the time they reach their last two years of high school, only half — at best — continue to be involved in Jewish life.
We have researched, discussed and lamented at length about why this is happening. We need to stop focusing on what we are doing wrong and instead invest our human and financial resources in replicating and expanding what we are doing right.
We have clear evidence that the experiences provided by youth groups and Jewish camps are succeeding in stemming the trend of disaffiliation where others are not for three simple reasons:
• They know what teens want.
• They provide it in a compelling, meaningful and value-added manner.
• They do so in a way that capitalizes upon and integrates, rather than competing with, the hyperconnected, fast-paced, ever-changing environment in which teens live.
Projects that promote peer-to-peer recruiting and put the teens in charge of the programming offer affordable and scalable models.
It is up to us to ensure that the programs that work best with teens have the resources they need to grow and deepen their impact. That is why I am doubling down on our foundation’s investment in BBYO, and why we hope others will commit to joining us in supporting work in the teen space.
This is the best way we can ensure that the post-b’nai mitzva years become an on-ramp to, rather than an exit route from, further and sustained engagement in Jewish experiences.
We can create pluralistic, inclusive environments where even the least affiliated will feel safe exploring Jewish life. And, ultimately, we can change the trajectory of teen engagement in the Jewish community for generations to come.
(Lynn Schusterman is chairwoman of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.)