by Barb Shimansky, MSW

I knew going into the Youth Engagement Conference that our Sunday morning trip to the First African Methodist Episcopal (FAME) Church would be a highlight of the weekend. Learning how another faith organization engages their youth would surely provide some insight into how we as Jewish professionals can do the same. As we walked into the service, we were struck by church members who warmly greeted us outside on the sidewalk. This seemed like a no-brainer for creating a welcoming atmosphere until I put it into context for my own congregation in Wisconsin; standing outside the building in mid-February is not really an option there. Even so, the notion of how well the FAME members welcome the stranger resonated, particularly since we often do not accomplish this commandment as well as we would like to think we do within our own congregational communities.

The service itself was full of joy and spirit, and every single person in the congregation seemed to be engaged in the moment. The music was plentiful and uplifting. We were even pleasantly surprised when the pastor began his sermon and framed it in the text of Lech L’cha! (In the English, of course; we recognized that we have a distinct advantage as visitors with regard to language over many who visit our Jewish congregations.)

Following the service, we heard from a panel of FAME teens and adults who work with the teens, and they shared with us their thoughts on how they have been successful in the area of youth engagement. One teacher shared with us that his measure of engagement is whether the teens are on their phones or not during class. In fact, he identifies potential participants for his program by looking for those who are texting during a service; he invites them to a religious school class to learn about the prayers so that they can eventually return to services with a greater appreciation and understanding of what is going on – and at that point, they no longer feel a need to be on their phones during a service. Instead of directing our teens to put their phones away as soon as they walk into a class or service, perhaps we should let them monitor this themselves and use it as a measure of whether they are “with us” or not!

I think the biggest take-away from the panel was how FAME frames everything they do within the context of worship. It is not that their activities vary so significantly from ours – the FAME teens also participate in religious school, youth choir, lock-ins, and community service – but everything they do is seen as a form of worship. Learning in the classroom helps enhance the actual prayer experience. The things that we would call “social action” or tikkun olam are framed as direct service to God, and therefore a direct form of worship. Conversely, when we in the Reform Movement attempt to engage teens, we often try to steer it away from worship by saying things such as, “It’s a totally social event, there won’t be any services” or “NFTY services are more fun than the ones in your congregation.” While the adults at FAME try to help their teens connect more deeply to their worship experiences through everything else they do, we frequently try to diminish the presence of worship in the experiences we provide for Reform Jewish teens. While we cannot completely emulate the FAME model due to some obvious liturgical differences, I am excited to start working on how we might take this approach and adapt it to our own framework for worship.

Unexpectedly, this idea converged with another experience of the Conference – the Youth Engagement Labs. Prior to the Conference, I had chosen to participate in the Worship Lab. After an open-space initiation, I chose to take part in a conversation with three others regarding the role of the sh’liach tzibur (prayer leader) in the service. Our conversation evolved over many hours, and it extended into other thoughts about the role of leadership within a prayer service. In the end, we created a prayer experience on Monday morning in which approximately 80 NFTY teens participated, examining several different prayers in the liturgy and effectively creating a service, on the spot, for each other. It was a risk, one that was exciting and scary at the same time – and it worked. We heard great feedback from the teens, and we felt good about the outcome of this experiment.

As a participant in several prior URJ conferences for youth professionals, I noted that this was the very first time we had a direct role in a piece of the concurrent NFTY Convention – and the experience reinforced why we do the work we do each day. And while we can argue that perhaps the majority of teens who attend NFTY Convention are already engaged with Jewish life, I look forward to the challenge of taking what I learned through this process and exploring ways to re-imagine the role of worship in engaging our youth.yec-badge

Barb Shimansky, MSW is the Director of Youth Education at Congregation Sinai in Milwaukee, WI. She has been in the field of Jewish youth and education for nearly 15 years, and has previously worked with congregations in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. Barb also serves as a summer faculty member at the URJ Kutz Camp, and is a newly-appointed member of the NATE Operations Team.

Originally published at Eden’s Garden