Retilting the Playing Field: Emerging Assumptions About How to Engage Jewish Teens Today


Source: Journal of Jewish Education, 86:2, 130-146


This article is a first effort to systematically document programmatic interventions across the individual communities participating in the Jewish Teen Education & Engagement Funder Collaborative. It constitutes an attempt to identify patterns and trends reflected in the programmatic choices in 5 of the 10 communities supported by the Funder Collaborative. The article then makes explicit the assumptions that underpin these choices and reflects on what they imply for further teen education and engagement efforts.

This article does not dwell further on why there is now so much interest in teen education and engagement compared with 10 and, even more so, 20 years ago. We focus, instead, on understanding the strategies and methodologies that have been launched in recent years with which to educate and engage teens. We ask what common features these strategies share, and what those features reveal about the assumptions of educators and funders about what it will take to engage and educate teens today.

Methodology and Sample

The approach employed here is an instance of what Stake (2013) calls multiple case study analysis. The collection of cases in question – what Stake obscurely calls, the “quintain” – are all community-based Jewish teen initiatives. These initiatives were all launched between 2013 and 2017 in New York, Chicago, Baltimore, Cincinnati, and finally in San Francisco. As a set of cases, they share a number of common structural features: first, in their funding formula, constituted as an equal partnership between a local community federation or foundation and the same national funder. Second, their coordination and implementation is led by a local rather than national agency: a Jewish community center, a (former) bureau of Jewish education, or a department of the local federation. Third, they share a common set of purposes, at the center of which is a concern to increase the number and diversity of teens engaged in Jewish learning during their high school years within experiences that contribute to their Jewish learning and growth, in contexts where Jewish education and engagement is or becomes a priority for local Jewish community leaders and parents, and where Jewish youth professionals feel well prepared and confident to do their work. (This distillation of purposes comes from a set of common measures of success to which all of the community partners have committed (Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative, 2018b).

Data for this article are drawn from two kinds of sources, one formal, one informal. In formal terms, there is an accumulating record of the activities in each local community about what the intent of these activities originally was, their process of implementation, and the outcomes with which they are associated. These data are recorded, first, in memorandums of understanding (MOUs) between the funding partners in each community, and then in a series of end-of-year evaluation reports.

These MOUs and reports constitute the documentary record on which this article draws. Alongside this formal body of data, and more informally, are the embodied understandings of the authors of this article, all of whom are serving as leaders of the evaluation teams in each community. In this role, they have lived the experience of ongoing interaction with initiative conveners and implementers over a period of two to five years. To write this article, the authors have not bracketed out what they personally learned from these experiences. Instead, they have mined the personal knowledge they have each accumulated as a point of comparison with the formal record of the initiatives with which they are associated.

Analysis: Making Assumptions Explicit

The short profiles of distinct community-based initiatives in the study reveal patterns that, in turn, suggest several shared, even powerful, assumptions. For these reasons, the patterns we identify are indicative of something broader than the particular perspectives of one or two communities.

What Does It All Mean?

This last comment provides a point of entry to a broader set of reflections about what we believe is made visible through this review of the efforts of 5 of the 10 communities that are partnering with the Jewish Teen Education & Engagement Funder Collaborative. Ultimately the initiatives being supported by these communities constitute a co-joint effort to bring about a structural change in the economy of Jewish teen engagement.

We are now observing an upheaval in the economy of Jewish educational programming. Teen programming was once diffuse, often inefficient, and widely undercapitalized by comparison to the programming directed at emergent adults, the apotheosis of which is surely Taglit-Birthright, a program intended in just 10 days to ameliorate the consequences of years of relatively weak and unfocused programming. The teen initiatives, thanks to a clear sense of purpose (everybody counts), a coordinated approach (breaking down the silos), and an appetite for trying new ways of doing things (integrating curation and innovation) or for repurposing familiar ways (tapping Israel), are breaking new ground in their effort to engage and educate teens (exploring blue ocean). This, we believe, seems like the beginning of a structural shift in the economy of Jewish education, oriented by heightened expectations and new means of production.

It is too soon to say whether this structural transformation will be sufficiently stable and sufficiently sustainable to produce the outcomes it seeks over time. This is a large part of why we have not focused on analyzing or assessing the outcomes of these efforts in this article. For the moment, we only have rich enough sources to comment on the processes and strategies being employed and on the assumptions that underpin them. Time will tell whether these initiatives do increase the number and diversity of teens they engage, whether the participants do grow Jewishly, and whether their communities are able to ensure the sustainability of the new ways they have developed for working with this population. These are the goals to which they are committed. For the moment, it is evident that the efforts of the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Funder Collaborative have enabled a disparate set of community initiatives to become a more or less coherent national effort for a common cause.


Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative. (2018b). Presentation

Stake, R. E. (2013). Multiple case study analysis. Guilford Press.

Updated: Aug. 17, 2020