“Engagement differs from outreach in that the goal is not to bring people in, but to bring Jewish life to people wherever they live, work, and play. It is about bringing Jewish life to people in a way that meets them where they are emotionally, religiously, and culturally.”
—Mike Uram, “Next Generation Judaism: How College Students and Hillel Can Help Reinvent Jewish Organizations”
Growing up as a young American Jew in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, I attended my synagogue’s weekly Hebrew school. Each class, we learned about Jewish holidays, to read letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and ultimately to recite prayers. With this in mind, our ultimate goal was to become a bar or bat mitzvah, to chant our Torah portion in front of the congregation, and to publicly declare our Judaism to family and friends.
While the b’nai mitzvah often felt framed as the milestone of becoming a Jewish adult, it was through informal Jewish educational experiences that my Jewish journey truly began. Through frequent United Synagogue Youth (USY) conventions, leadership opportunities on the USY board, a pluralistic Jewish high school, Hillel at the University of Maryland, global experiences including Camp Szarvas in Hungary, Genesis at Brandeis University, the international school at the University of Haifa, an alternative break to Guatemala, and Alexander Muss High School in Israel, as well as Israeli dance sessions and camps around the world, I developed my own Jewish journey and identity. I learned about Judaism on an academic level, experienced a range of cultures and traditions, applied Jewish practice to my everyday life, and engaged with Jews from throughout the world. These experiences outside of the traditional classroom truly introduced me to Jewish life and experience, shaping the woman, Jew, leader, and person that I’ve become.
From these experiences, I’ve understood that shaping Jewish participants and leaders must occur through a blend of unique, engaging opportunities. Therefore, we must turn to inter-community relations and partnerships in order to reach, connect, and inspire emerging leaders in the best way possible.
There are many leaders in the Metrowest Boston area who have recognized this challenge and are creating an exciting initiative to engage a unique population, as a part of the Metrowest Jewish Community Pre-Teen Engagement Initiative.
While there is a large emphasis on the engagement and leadership development of teenagers throughout the Boston area, the engagement of the pre-teen demographic primarily centers around the b’nai mitzvah milestone, with Jewish experiences consisting of year-round school prep, with a break in the middle for a period, during which many attend summer camp. However, through an innovative partnership between three synagogues, a day school, and an overnight summer camp, Jewish institutions throughout the Metrowest Boston area are working to change the nature of pre-teen Jewish engagement.
Through this partnership, we are reaching pre-teens through an interdisciplinary approach, using a wide variety of methods and content. Through a regular presence at religious schools each day of the week, a service-learning curriculum and volunteer initiative (TELEM) to create tangible social change across the Metrowest area, initiatives to engage summer camp participants during winter months, social programming to attract pre-teens of various interests and backgrounds, as well as institution-specific and community-wide events, we’re working to both strengthen the content of existing programming at specific institutions and provide new communal engagement programs, to bring together pre-teens from throughout the area and foster quality Jewish experiences.
In doing so, our goal is to teach our pre-teens that Jewish life can be fun, exciting, and engaging. We’re connecting students from across denominations, spiritual and religious backgrounds, genders, ages, socioeconomic backgrounds, and institutional affiliations. In this framework, we’re striving to demonstrate to participants that being Jewish is not just about the bar/bat mitzvah, ultimately providing opportunities for them to grow and explore their own Jewish journeys.
Rather than waiting for the opportunity for exciting programming in high school and college years, by providing a year-round quality Jewish experience, we’re encouraging participants to look past the traditional engagement models as early as in their pre-teens. Therefore, this process of redefining pre-teen engagement tactics is both necessary and time-sensitive, if we are to shape the future of Jewish communal leadership as a whole.
The Metrowest Jewish Community Pre-Teen Engagement Initiative is in partnership with Temple Israel of Natick, Temple Beth Am, Temple Beth Sholom, Metrowest Jewish Day School, Camp Tel Noar and the Jewish Teen Initiative of Greater Boston, sponsored by CJP and the Jim Joseph Foundation.