For all the efforts that are going into attracting and retaining the next generation of Jews, one step is sorely missing: adequate and effective training for youth leaders. Most congregations hire staff for youth groups who are self-taught. Perhaps they were youth leaders as young people, or have some teaching or camping experience. What a far cry from the very organized and directed training I see going on in the evangelical Christian community.
Every so often I get a flier from a church group that holds national training institutes for youth leaders. The programs look so dynamic. I know from neighbors that some of these churches run dynamic services for their youth. Their kids are always reaching out to unaffiliated classmates (and unfortunately also affiliated ones) to bring them with them to some church youth event. The point is that they know how to successfully excite and motivate the unaffiliated.
Where are we going wrong and what can we do to get it right?
We, Jews, need to retool our youth leadership training now. Let’s take a page out of the church groups and train our youth staff and leaders in the most effective outreach techniques and how to make dynamic and moving services. Let’s have a series of regional national conferences with our great musicians like Craig Taubman to bring ruach (spirit) to the group, dynamic motivational speakers, and training in outreach methods, which use the best practices adapted from church and community organizing methods.
Megachurches have made a megabusiness of training youth leaders who then train the youth in their local churches. We need to do the same. We need to teach our kids how to reach out to their peers, and not just their friends, how to engage newcomers in a deep and consistent way. We need to teach our kids to reach out to everyone, not just the cool kids. We need to teach them to be loving and welcoming to the unpopular kids as well.
We are at a desperate junction, in danger of loosing almost an entire generation of unaffiliated young people. We need a Birthright-style investment to identify and train leaders and our youth who are affiliated for congregational and college-based youth work. It is all very fine to debate what it means to engage in a Jewish act, but what we need now are the tools to effectively transmit our religious values (across all the movements) to the next generation. Every marker shows that adults who are synagogue affiliates are more Jewishly engaged than those who are not affiliated. Therefore we should be doing what we can to bolster that affiliation into the next generation through our youth groups. To do that, we need to build more effective youth training.