Reform Judaism focuses on youth

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Rabbi Jonah Pesner, who helped to lead a grass-roots revolution in the Union for Reform Judaism, visited Pittsburgh last week promoting plans to engage young families in synagogue life.

Pittsburgh's Jewish community, he said, is ahead of the curve with its efforts to engage young families in Jewish life across the religious spectrum. That makes it a good place to try out new models for Reform outreach, he said.

"Pittsburgh is an incredible Jewish community," he said Thursday. "This is starting from a very rich landscape. We want to leverage all of that history, commitment and innovation."

Rabbi Pesner is senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, which represents about 900 synagogues nationwide. Reform Judaism, a branch of the faith that allows great flexibility in observance of the traditional laws, is the largest Jewish movement in North America, claiming 35 percent of 5.5 million American Jews.

But, like the liberal Christian denominations, it has been losing members, particularly among the young. In 2009 a group of prominent rabbis challenged the leadership, saying it had become too bureaucratic and didn't respond to the real needs of congregations. The Union for Reform Judaism's leader, Rabbi Richard Jacobs, was elected president last year.

Rabbi Pesner, a Bostonian with a history of community organizing on issues from affordable housing to gay rights, became senior vice president.

"True to our spirit, we want to be in a constant mode of renewal," he said. "We are not about the bureaucracy in our headquarters in New York. We are building a movement on the ground to engage folks at the grass roots around our sacred scripture, our relationship to God and the justice we can do in the world when we work together."

Outreach to the young tops his portfolio. Currently, many families join synagogues when their children are old enough to prepare for bat mitzvah or bar mitzvah, often as late as third grade. They remain until the children celebrate the rite of Jewish adulthood at 12 for girls or 13 for boys. Then 80 percent disappear, he said.

"At any given moment in time we have many families engaged in congregations, but it tends to be a revolving door," he said. "The whole role of religious education and bar or bat mitzvah is to build an on-ramp into community life. But we have somehow made it into an off-ramp."

The Union for Reform Judaism has set a goal for 2020 of keeping the majority of its young people involved in synagogue after bar or bat mitzvah. To find the best ways to do this, they held listening sessions across the country, hearing from both active and unaffiliated Jewish teens, parents and religious educators.

The most consistent thing they heard was that people stay involved in synagogue because of relationships they have built there, not because of programs.

From that, the Union for Reform Judaism developed a four-point strategy. The first is to engage young families in synagogue life long before their children are old enough to begin formal studies, because families that engage early tend to stay.

The second is to provide "immersive experiences," such as Jewish summer camp or trips to Israel, which also tend to produce teens and young adults who are committed to their synagogue.

The third point is to provide trained, professional youth workers who can both teach and build relationships.

"You see this in some of the very best of the Christian youth ministries," Rabbi Pesner said. "We looked at how those ministries worked. They had youth ministers whose job is to find kids, engage them and teach them to engage their social network."

Finally, he said, many synagogues need to shift their focus, so that youth work doesn't revolve mainly around bar and bat mitzvah.

"We have to invest in synagogues, funding innovation to see how they would create a culture of relationships with young people, a life cycle of membership that starts before bar and bat mitzvah and goes on afterward. Then we have to cross-pollinate those ideas across our movement," Rabbi Pesner said.

Pittsburgh will be the site for one such innovation. The Union for Reform Judaism is providing a challenge grant to five local synagogues. They will pool resources to hire one professional youth worker to oversee teen outreach in all five congregations and develop a citywide strategy for outreach to Jewish teens.

"It's possible to do that here because Pittsburgh already has a track record of innovating and collaborating, and because it has a healthy federation," he said.

At the time of the leadership change, some Jewish leaders expressed concern about the organization's continued support for Israel since some of the new rabbinic leaders have ties to the J Street peace movement.

That's not the case, Rabbi Pesner said.

"We send more kids to Israel during the summer months than any other Jewish organization, and we will only see that trend grow," he said.

Young Jews cite visits to Israel as crucial to forming their Jewish identity, but that doesn't mean that they all form the same political views around it, he said.

"We are the big tent of Jewish engagement. We have people who see their concern for Israel's security as a primary way of supporting Israel, and some kids come back focused on Jewish defense.

"We have others who come back and say that peace and justice around Palestine is their highest priority, or the role of women in Israel or the tensions between the Orthodox establishment and the struggle of our own movement to have an equal opportunity to impact life in Israel."

On wider social concerns, the Union for Reform Judaism mirrors the Democratic Party platform. But Rabbi Pesner said there is room for differing views.

"People who are deeply grounded in Jewish values apply those and make arguments. If that happens to be the position of one party or the other, they have a legitimate claim on the value of that position, if it is rooted in their sense of Jewish values."

Social advocacy groups and political parties can never replace the synagogue, he said.

In examining social positions, he said, "we begin with Torah. We begin with Jewish tradition. That is what makes us Reform Jews. Anyone who just wants to use a Reform synagogue as a platform for their political beliefs is in the wrong place. Torah is the center of our life."

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Ann Rodgers: or 412-263-1416.


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