A Community Organizing Model for Teen Engagement

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Da lifnei mi atah omed  –  דע לפני מי אתה עומד

Know before whom you stand.

(Talmud B’rachot 28b)

High schoolers today are creating what Reform Judaism will look like for the next century. We are tuning our guitars and writing the melodies for prayers and songs that people will sing at camps and in synagogues for decades. We are reading Torah and thinking critically about how stories written down thousands of years ago can guide what decisions we make today. We are picking up megaphones and speaking truth to power, building the social movements that will get our elected officials to listen to us when we tell them how to fix what’s broken in the world. We are building relationships and making friends that will be with us for life. 

We are all creating the next iteration of the Reform Jewish Youth Movement every time we invite people to a NFTY event, or come up with a new interpretation of a prayer, or get to know someone better over a s’more at camp. 

For a long time, Jewish teen leadership has looked like this: 

  • I am the Programming Vice President, I want everyone to see this TED Talk I love because it changed the way I think about community, so I’m going to write a program where we watch the video and talk about how we could bring what we learn to our youth groups and everyone will come to it. 
  • I am the Social Action Vice President, I care about climate justice, so I am going to write a program about the Green New Deal and then we’ll plant parsley that everyone can tend and then eat for Passover, lots of people will come to it, and talk to their families about the environment at seder.
  • I am the Treasurer, I’m going to design merch and sell it to benefit the scholarship fund, and everyone will buy it because it’s a good cause and I like the design. 

We’re taking the best parts of that – the parts where teens create something and lead it, the parts where we share what we’re passionate about with others, the parts where we make everything we do interactive and fun – and adding a community organizing model. 

Community organizing is a way to build community and make change by coming together, listening to the people around you, and developing the leadership of others so you can do even bigger and better things together than you could do individually. The skills we teach our leaders aren’t just for leading youth groups or making social change – they are skills you can use your whole life to make sure everyone’s voice is heard, to get to know people on a deeper level, to get people to show up for things that are important to you, and to maybe someday change the world. 

We believe a community organizing model is the best way to grow our youth movement.  Instead of one person starting with an idea and writing a program, a community organizing model brings people together first, and asks curious questions – What do you do outside of school? What’s bugging you about our community? When do you feel spiritual, and why? And after we all get to answer from our own points of view, we see what we have in common, and all five, or ten, or twenty of us can create something together. It’s not just planning great programs and hoping people show up or buy the merch we make – it’s designing it all together; everyone having a stake in what we create. It’s allowing our creative, collective vision to drive us in directions we have never gone before, and working to fill the room because we’re all so excited about what we built when we started with questions instead of answers. 

We’ll launch our community organizing trainings in October. We believe teens and adults need the same skills to grow our youth groups and communities into fun, inclusive, radical movements that set the direction of Reform Judaism and have the power to change the world. These sessions are available to anyone: high schoolers, synagogue professionals, alumni – you name it. Some sessions are designed for just one of those groups, and others are open to everyone, with a breakout where we’ll think about how to apply them to our different communities based on our roles. 

In addition to skill building workshops, we are always learning and practicing coaching – so we’re not just learning to lead, but how to help other people become leaders, too. Almost everyone has someone who invited them to something, or believed in them when they didn’t believe in themselves, or who made them feel welcome. What we’re building is a movement of people who are constantly doing that for others – paying it forward, tapping someone on the shoulder, and saying, “I think you have so much potential. Let’s build something incredible together.” 

Sign up to be notified when registration opens for our trainings. 

Upcoming Trainings

Storytelling

How can I share my voice and get others to listen?

1:1s

How can I get to know my friends and new people better, and get them to build a movement with me? Whose voices in my community have gone unheard, and how can I make sure they have a place in our movement?

Power

How can I change or fix something that’s broken?

REDI (Racial Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) Trainings 

What does it mean to build an inclusive community, why should I do it, and how do I do it?

The Art of Gathering 

How do I make sure that when I bring my community together, it is purposeful, intentional, and the right people are in the room?

Organizer’s Math, Turnout, and Accountability

How do I get people to show up when I plan something?

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