Reflections on the Jewish Teen Initiative and a Roadmap for Cultivating Thriving Jewish Teen Ecosystems

In 2014, Rose Community Foundation and Jim Joseph Foundation partnered to create the Denver and Boulder Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Initiative, one of 10 community-based efforts across the country to cultivate new Jewish teen programming, increase teen engagement and involve teens who come from diverse Jewish backgrounds. Over the course of the Initiative, thousands of Greater Denver teens were engaged through immersive experiences, one-time events, in-school clubs and more. After seven years of successes and setbacks, innovations and lessons learned, we are able to look back on the Initiative’s evolution and plot out a roadmap for the future of the Denver and Boulder Jewish teen ecosystems.

It is our pleasure to share the final report on the Denver and Boulder Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Initiative.

This report, which is based on seven years of data collection and evaluation, is intended to serve as a valuable data source for professionals and institutions – both locally and nationally – seeking to engage Jewish teens and their families. Findings may be utilized to inform a variety of approaches, from considering potential investments in teen engagement to elevating the needs of Jewish-teen-serving professionals to cultivating community collaboration and a cohesive community vision around teen programming. Many learnings extend beyond the teen ecosystem and may apply to broader engagement efforts within the Jewish community.

The Initiative was made possible by an array of dedicated funders, nonprofits and teen-serving professionals, each of whom offered invaluable insights and perspectives about expanding innovative opportunities for Jewish teens.

Rose Community Foundation was pleased to partner with the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative – a collection of national and local funders working collaboratively to develop, nurture and scale new approaches to teen engagement – to coinvest in five community-based Jewish teen initiatives in Greater Denver. The funders aimed to serve as resources and thought partners to their practitioner colleagues, with the goal of increasing knowledge and contributing tools to help advance the region’s Jewish teen engagement field.

We also extend our appreciation to the staff, programs and host institutions that participated in this bold experiment: Boulder Jewish Teen Initiative (Boulder JCC); Jewish Student Connection (JEWISHcolorado); Jhub (JEWISHcolorado); Moving Traditions; PresenTense; and Upstart. Additionally, we are deeply grateful for the contributions of donors, lay leaders, mentors and parents, as well as other local leaders and educators working in the Jewish teen education field who were not Initiative grant recipients but are integral to the regional ecosystem.

Reflecting on the past seven years, it is clear that the strength of the Denver and Boulder Jewish teen ecosystems is within the programs themselves. The programs are described by stakeholders as high quality, responsive to teen interests and needs, and effective in engaging teens from a variety of backgrounds. The Jewish-teen-serving professionals have been especially critical to the programs’ successes; in many instances, they represent teens’ first touchpoint with a Jewish mentor who is close to their age and is engaging them in a relatable way.

Yet, despite the quality of the individual programs, there remain significant opportunities for cultivating a more collaborative and sustainable Jewish teen ecosystem in Greater Denver. Initiative stakeholders identified a gap in ecosystem leadership, with no independent convener committed to fostering partnership and collaboration between the various organizations and programs. Though many programs are oriented toward similar goals, the ecosystem lacks a cohesive mission and vision for teen engagement and programming. This is reflected in the absence of a community-wide infrastructure for sharing best practices, connecting professionals, and supporting Jewish teens and their families outside of individual programs. The local ecosystem would do well to develop formal mechanisms for collaboration similar to the network cultivated by the Teen Funder Collaborative at the national level.

Additionally, though Jewish-teen-serving professionals and group leaders are generally well-trained, there are gaps in staff talent development, retention and pipeline. Teen-facing professionals report having high workloads and difficult schedules, and often do not see room for career advancement within their organizations, as teen-facing positions tend to be early career roles with high turnover rates. Moving forward, it will be critical to consider innovations and investments that attract and retain a talented crop of Jewish teen professionals.

This data and our partnership with the Jim Joseph Foundation, the grantee programs and organizations, the other Teen Funder Collaborative communities, and Informing Change – the Initiative’s evaluation consultant and the author of this report – have built a roadmap for the future of Greater Denver’s Jewish teen ecosystem and have confirmed the need for continued communal support and investment in the field. Rose Community Foundation is eager to utilize the report’s findings to help inform future efforts in our region’s Jewish teen education and engagement space.

Over its seven years, the Denver and Boulder Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Initiative has produced both positive outcomes for the region’s teens and an abundance of information and lessons learned that will help inform future investments in the local teen ecosystem. As our region and communities across the country consider future models and innovations for improving Jewish teen programming and increasing teen engagement, we hope this report will serve as a useful resource.

View the full final report.

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