As Teens Defect from Shul, Congregations Find Ways to Revamp Programming

Reeling Them Back In, One Jam Session at a Time

Helping Out: Community Synagogue in Rye, N.Y., has ‘radically reinvented its offerings for teens. Here, students help out at Habitat for Humanity.
Courtesy of Community Synagogue
Helping Out: Community Synagogue in Rye, N.Y., has ‘radically reinvented its offerings for teens. Here, students help out at Habitat for Humanity.

By Sarah Seltzer

Published August 27, 2013, issue of August 30, 2013.
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At Reform Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, Mass., high school students can go on weekend wilderness adventure trips in lieu of attending Hebrew school. At North Shore Congregation Israel, a Reform synagogue in the Chicago area, they can join a musical group where they jam together — and prepare to lead an alternative High Holy Day service. And at other synagogues across the country, teenagers use cooking or cultural exploration as an entryway into religious education.

Because Hebrew schools and confirmation classes must vie hard for the extracurricular time and energy of high school students, many synagogues are now offering something novel: choice. This August, students at religious schools across the country will receive glossy catalogs instead of plain old enrollment forms, with offerings designed to tempt them into staying in the fold.

And that’s no easy task. Bar and bat mitzvahs are often treated as a lavish culmination of a child’s Jewish education. Standing at the bimah, 13-year-olds pledge to pursue Jewish education, only to renege on the promise soon after. American high schools have grown busier and college applications more competitive. Add that to the perennial challenge of keeping teens interested in anything viewed as an obligation and one by one, kids stop showing up at the doors of synagogue on weekday afternoons, choosing soccer, working at the school paper and spending time with friends at high schools over analyzing Torah portions or learning Hebrew flash cards. This trajectory is the stereotypical one: Seemingly everyone but the die-hard future cantors, rabbis and synagogue presidents peels away before confirmation, the Reform and Reconstructionist ceremony at which 16- and 17-year-olds “confirm” their commitment to the faith.

And that’s why today’s efforts to keep kids involved are very different from what was on offer a few decades ago, school directors acknowledge. “Like many synagogues across the country, ours has struggled to retain kids after the bar mitzvah,” says Rabbi Leora Frankel of Community Synagogue in Rye, N.Y., a Reform congregation. Frankel has helped her shul “radically” reinvent its offerings: “Historically the only options were the youth group and the regular high school classes,” she says.

North Shore Congregation Israel and Community Synagogue have conducted informal surveys of students and parents to figure out what’s working — and what’s not. “We gathered a group of lay leaders for a year together with clergy and teens to have conversations about what would engage them,” says Frankel. “A few major things came out of it, one of which was they wanted more diverse options. Kids have busy schedules — some needed seasonal or once-a-month commitments.”

“There’s no silver bullet,” says Roberta Goodman of North Shore Congregation Israel, who conducted a survey about youth engagement with the Chicago Association of Temple Educators. “We know that one size does not fit all. But when teens come, they want the time to be worthwhile. They want to be getting new skills as well as being engaged in Judaic learning.”


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