Jewish Teen Engagement

Jewish Teen InvolvementRose Community Foundation's Jewish Life program area supports efforts to create and sustain a more welcoming, vibrant, diverse and inspiring quality Jewish community. Sixty percent of Jewish people in the Greater Denver/Boulder community are not engaged with any Jewish institutions. We know that many people are seeking more personal and non-institutional involvement. In response to these trends, the Foundation funds innovation and new ideas that connect Jews to Jewish life and each other.  At the same time, the Foundation funds efforts to strengthen institutions so they can respond to change and be more relevant.

Rose Community Foundation works directly with teens who participate in Rose Youth Foundation, a collaborative philanthropy group created in 2001. Rose Youth Foundation involves Jewish teens in philanthropy through hands-on grantmaking. Since its inception, Rose Youth Foundation has engaged 190 teens and granted $640,000 to organizations serving the seven-county Denver/Boulder community.

In 2009, we identified Jewish teen engagement as an important focus for more proactive grantmaking because of the alarming trends of disaffiliation and increased interest from the two Jewish Community Centers, Colorado Agency for Jewish Education, and others to address systemic issues. The 2007 Denver/Boulder Jewish Community Study (PDF) revealed that there are 7,300 teens ages 13 to 17 in the area. Day schools, camps, synagogue programs, Hebrew High, BBYO and other youth groups have not achieved significant penetration of this market; moreover, teen program participation continues to shrink.

Rose Community Foundation partnered with the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado (now JEWISHcolorado) to research and address this growing issue in our community. Together, Rose Community Foundation and the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado (now JEWISHcolorado) conducted research, convened stakeholders and engaged the entire community in a summit to share findings and create an action agenda about teens. This process informed the community and the Foundation’s grantmaking.

Here, we have outlined our process and the documents that supported and guided our learning.

Background and Research

To help inform our process, we commissioned research, which resulted in the report, Current Trends in Jewish Teen Participation with Out-of-School Activities (PDF), conducted by Michael Whitehead-Bust.

This project was initiated in the fall of 2009 by Rose Community Foundation to identify, evaluate and document recent research and study into Jewish teens and their involvement with Jewish and non-Jewish out-of-school activities. The purpose was to identify trends and patterns in motivations of Jewish youth in choosing to participate (or not) in different out-of-school activities. Declining participation rates in both formal and informal Jewish programming have been well-documented nationally, and local programs have not been immune to this trend. Developing an understanding of common motivations and interests of Jewish teens will help local organizations serving Jewish youth adapt both programmatic and marketing strategies to be more responsive to the interests of local teens. The ultimate goal is that this research leads to insights that will guide philanthropists, program staff and social innovators to begin developing a richer array of engaging options for Jewish youth that more effectively meets their needs.

Throughout our process, we engaged some of our youth interns to help us conduct research. We believe that an integral part of learning about teens includes learning from teens. Morgan Bernstein, a member of Rose Youth Foundation and an intern for Rose Community Foundation, engaged in a project to map the landscape of programs currently available because not one organization had a comprehensive list. Morgan created a survey that resulted in a comprehensive list of all of the opportunities for Jewish teen involvement in the Greater Denver community. From summer camps and youth groups to worship participation and arts and culture, teens could now locate different opportunities in one catalog. This resource – the first of its kind in our community – was an important step in addressing some of the problems in Jewish teen engagement. We found that teens either didn’t know what as offered, how to get involved, or wanted to get involved in different ways. This capstone project represents one of the foundations of our process. The Foundation published the Jewish Teen Programs Catalog (PDF) to help teens, their families and program providers explore the diverse range of Jewish options for teen involvement. The Catalog was also useful in the stakeholder convenings and summit.

Dayna Zolle, another Rose Youth Foundation member and intern, researched a different avenue. She looked at how Christian youth groups are engaging teens and how they have found success. Young Life, founded in Colorado, has become a world-wide movement and many Jewish teens are familiar with it because of Young Life chapters at schools. Her work showed us a model of engaging volunteers, teens and religious leaders, and her analysis tells us that the Jewish community has a lot to learn from programs that are clubs where teens are: in high schools. View Dayna's findings (PDF).

Rose Youth Foundation member and intern, Talia Halfon, also helped us with research. She also looked at what evangelical churches are doing that has led to success with their teens. She interviewed both youth pastors and teens and found many common themes including: the importance of venues, cost, leaders, curriculum, effective websites, appealing youth-led services, and relationships. Her work also gave us insight on what would work and what would not work for Jewish teens. For example, she found that the venue of the program is a key component to the program’s success. Many youth groups are affiliated with a specific church. Many of our Jewish teens, however, are looking to get involved outside of synagogues or traditional institutions. However, other themes resonated with us as important for all teen programming, such as low-cost and effective marketing, and charismatic youth workers and clergy. View Talia's findings (PDF).

Engaging the Community

The Foundation engaged Michael Whitehead-Bust to design and facilitate a listening tour with stakeholders, culminating with a community-wide summit. Michael helped us facilitate and record the respective sessions and summit. In all of these sessions, we reviewed his report Current Trends in Jewish Teen Participation with Out-of-School Activities (PDF) and then had specific small and large group discussions to understand the results of the report and to brainstorm action items for each group moving forward. To gain an understanding of each group involved in Jewish teen engagement, separate meetings were held for each of these stakeholder groups:

  • Rabbis, Executive directors, and school leaders
  • Youth program and camp leaders
  • Jewish teens with leadership roles in youth-serving organizations
  • Parents of Jewish teens

For each meeting, we worked with Michael to put together agendas and summary notes:

Final Summit

For the final summit, we again worked with Michael Whitehead-Bust to bring together all four key stakeholder groups and others. Michael gave a final report (PDF) and there were two other presentations: Christian Youth Group Research project (PDF) by Talia Halfon and a presentation about What Christian Churches Can Teach Us (PDF) from Tom Beck, an expert who works with faith-based organizations. Discussions in small and large groups followed. We had a very insightful discussion with everyone around the same table, and compiled their recommendations and key learnings. Michael Whitehead-Bust prepared this report (PDF) summarizing the Summit.

Conclusion

We have a strong foundation from our research and convenings, and we continue to learn about engaging the next generation of our Jewish community. Many new efforts resulted from these convenings, including new teen programs at both the Boulder and Denver Jewish Community Centers, the Jewish Student Connection came to Denver to work in high schools, and the Jewish Youth Professionals Council started meeting regularly to collaborate, and they helped to create a community-wide council of teens.

In 2014, Rose Community Foundation announced the launch of a multi-faceted Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Initiative, supported by a four-year matching grant up to $2,256,015 from the Jim Joseph Foundation. The grant will match the supprt committed from individual donors and local foundations on a 1:1 basis, led by RCF’s initial grant of $1,065,255 over two years. For more information, read the news release or the article in eJewish Philanthropy.

Read the year one evaluation report.

In the News

Multi-faceted, Ambitious Jewish Teen Initiative to Launch in Denver and Boulder
eJewish Philanthropy, July 14, 2014

Investing in Colorado's Youth and Beyond
Forward, August 31, 2014

New Teen Initiative Draws Support From Teens and National Funders Alike
Connections, Fall 2014

New Case Study Details Characteristics of Successful Teen Education Funder Collaborative
eJewish Philanthropy, April 24, 2015

Funder Collaborative Releases Study on Jewish Teen Initiatives
Boulder Jewish News, April 27, 2015

Elevating Teen Engagement through Community Collaboration
eJewish Philanthropy, January 8, 2016

Questions

If you have questions about this work, please contact Lisa Farber Miller, senior program officer for Jewish Life, at 303.398.7420 or lfmiller@rcfdenver.org.