Researchers Kick Off Teen Engagement Conversation

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity … we had everything before us, we had nothing before us.” These iconic opening words of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities could just as readily describe the outlook of adolescence, Amy Sales told a gathering of Jewish educators, lay leaders, and nonprofit professionals at the Jewish Museum on November 17th.

Amy Sales, director of Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, tells Jewish educators, lay leaders, and nonprofit professionals Amy Sales, director of Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, tells Jewish educators, lay leaders, and nonprofit professionals

Sales, who serves as the associate director of Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, was sharing her findings about the level of engagement among Jewish teens. The study, which was funded by UJA-Federation of New York and overseen by the Jewish Education Project (JEP), one of UJA-Federation’s beneficiary agencies, is the first of its kind in New York in over a decade.“Teens are a critical demographic for all of us and post bnei mitzvah dropouts are too high,” said Dorothy Tananbaum, President of JEP, succinctly framing the problem. “All good decision-making rests on good research,” she added. The study did not set out to prescribe specific steps organizations could take to bolster teen engagement, but to inspire parents, and those who work with teens, to “be thinking and acting more comprehensively as a community” about this issue, according to Hillel Wallick, chair of UJA-Federation’s Experiments in Teen Engagement Task Force.Sales and her fellow researchers distributed online surveys to 344 teens, 1,125 parents, and 244 youth professionals, in an attempt to get multiple angles on the question of teen engagement. The research team actually set out with an admittedly skewed sample: the 9th, 10th, and 11th graders from around the New York metropolitan area that they reached out to had all had bar or bat mitzvahs, and the researchers wanted to see how many of them were still engaged in Jewish life and learning. Only two thirds of the surveyed teens were involved in some kind of Jewish activity, such as day school, high school, or youth group, which highlighted the problem for Sales of how challenging it will be to identify and connect with the Jewish youth currently not engaged in Jewish life, a group not reflected in the study.What’s the Big Idea?In the 1990s, there was a huge flurry of activity in the Jewish world surrounding teen engagement, but not enough changed, Sales says, and so the community is facing the same problems it had before. She feels it will take a few “big ideas” to keep teens on the path of living Jewishly, and that that means more than trying to jazz up youth group or Hebrew school programming. We need to “create something that will have every child on the bimah anticipating what awaits him or her as a Jewish teen,” she said.David Bryfman, the director of the New Center for Collaborative Leadership at the Jewish Education Project, concluded the series of speakers by saying that, since so many knowledgeable people in the field were in the room that night, it seemed a great opportunity to begin brainstorming ways to approach the challenges of teen engagement.

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