Communities Offer Teens New Ways to Engage in Jewish Life

A JHub group cleans up a playground

Do you remember life as a teenager? Maybe you currently have a teen growing up in your home?

“The teenage years are a critical period when we start asking ourselves who we want to be when we grow up. We are developing values, an identity, and connections to people and passions,” explains Lisa Farber Miller, Rose Community Foundation senior program officer for Jewish Life. “Jewish communities can support teens in significant ways. Yet, for years, we have seen a growing disengagement of teens in Jewish life,” she adds.

In 2009, Rose Community Foundation’s Jewish Life Program Area began studying this disengagement. The Foundation brought stakeholders together from the Greater Denver community and developed a plan for change. Eventually in 2014, the necessary components fell into place when funders and practitioners came together. That launched an ambitious effort, The Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Initiative, which aims to increase the number and diversity of Jewish teens participating in Jewish experiences and to deepen the quality and reach of teen engagement in Jewish life in the Denver-Boulder community.

“We are committed to focusing our resources during formative times when Jewish identity is being developed, such as the teen years. We want to make sure our teens understand how Jewish traditions, rituals, values, and ethics can support the good they want to do in the world,” explains Farber Miller.

The Initiative, one of the largest ever undertaken by the Foundation, is supported by more than $5.6 million and more than 30 funders, and involves significant collaboration both locally and nationally. Jim Joseph Foundation, one of the largest Jewish foundations in the world, and Rose Community Foundation are partnering to lead the effort. Five local nonprofit organizations received grants to engage local teens in new and innovative ways. All five grantees are working closely together to make a difference locally. Additionally, our Denver/Boulder community is among 10 communities collaborating nationwide to share strategies and learnings from these efforts as part of the Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative.

One year into the Initiative, results are emerging. The grantee organizations are offering new and more programs and working together to adapt successful approaches. Participation is on the rise across the board, especially in programs that are teen-led and that connect teens to Jewish experiences through special interests such as art or community service.

“I have never been excited to participate in an activity in my Jewish community before,” says one local teen who is a fellow with PresenTense Colorado, a new program that helps passionate Jewish teens in Denver/Boulder address social issues through social entrepreneurship. “Usually teen programs for Jews are held in large auditoriums with hundreds of teens, and I am not the best in large groups. This lets me impact my Jewish community in a large way but in an environment that I am comfortable with.

One mom explains the appeal of another program, Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing!, a successful gender based, monthly discussion group for Jewish teens, operated by grantee Moving Traditions. “The participatory activities and use of art for the girls to express themselves have been a consistent draw for [my daughter]. One indication that she enjoys the opportunity is the lack of complaining about having to attend — a true testament that a 13-year-old girl really enjoys an activity!

All five grantees quickly point to collaboration as one of the most fruitful outcomes so far. “We are learning so much more about each other’s programs,” explains Karen Silverman, executive director of jHub, a grantee organization created by the Initiative and serving as a support “hub” for all Jewish teen professionals and programs in the Denver/Boulder community. “Our new mantra is if a teen does not like my program, I have a responsibility to introduce them to another. We are making sure the kids are the most important thing.”

Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Initiative Grantees:

  • Boulder Jewish Teen Initiative
  • Jewish Student Connection
  • JHub
  • Moving Traditions
  • PresenTense Colorado

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