by Jeffrey Kagan

With the 2013 Youth Engagement Conference in the books, I’ve been processing what exactly happened for four days in Los Angeles. Having attended seven previous conferences dedicated to honing the skills of NFTY’s youth workers, I’ve seen many different approaches, all with the best of intentions but with varying degrees of success.

One of the issues that consumed me during the conference, and even now in the hours following it, is what it means to be truly “engaged” in working with our teens.I’ve held many roles over the years as a youth group adviser—counselor, mentor, guide, collaborator, parent-proxy, educator (and student), program-creator, recruiter, confidante, co-celebrator, etc.—but have I truly been “engaged” with our teens?

Trying to answer this from a semantic perspective, I consulted for the proper definition.  The closest entry to what I believe is meant is “to occupy oneself; become involved.”If that’s the case, I can call it a day, as I have definitely surpassed the threshold described.

But, in listening to speakers like Rabbi Bradley Solmsen and Rabbi Yehudit Werchow and Cyd Weissman and others in our sessions, I get the sense that they are asking us to set our sights higher, higher than just “becoming involved” or “occupying oneself.”That the term “youth engagement” is more holistic and strategic than providing meaningful (or fun) experiences, or teaching about the laws and precepts and rituals of Judaism, or even nurturing vital skills like leadership.Those things are important by themselves, but ultimately components—among others—of what we can achieve if we attain the lofty goal of “youth engagement.”It will include Jewish identity, the crucial choices we have to make (and how to make them), inculcating joy and meaning into everything we do, and creating a unique and remarkable Jewish experience to excite and welcome our young people.

I suspect that this is going to take some time to get right, including involving a tremendous number of stakeholders from throughout our community.But, in the grand scheme of things, don’t the future of our movement and the young people who will help us realize our visions deserve the best we as a people have to offer?

yec-badge I can’t speak for my dedicated, creative, loving colleagues, but, on the question of “getting engaged,” I may not know yet what it all means, but I’m in.All the way.Which, I suppose, is that journey’s first step.

Jeffrey Kagan has been a youth worker for 17 years, recently finishing his third year at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, N.J. He is a product of the URJ camping system who now serves as a Vice Chair of the Kutz Camp Committee and is involved with RYPA, the Reform Youth Professionals’ Association.