What to Expect from the 2013 Youth Engagement Conference

The time has come! Today marks the start of the 2013 Youth Engagement Conference, and 130 participants – Reform Jewish professionals and lay leaders invested in youth work – have arrived in Los Angeles to kick off four and a half days of learning, teaching, experimenting, and relationship-building. We at the URJ view this conference as a laboratory for developing the field of youth engagement and a unique opportunity for dialogue, development, and networking.

So what’s different about this year’s Youth Engagement Conference? Our staff imagined and crafted this year’s gathering to be, above all else, an opportunity for experimentation, which we believe to be a vital component of any change and growth process. We built into the conference opportunities for participants to learn and reflect on new ideas and experiment with diverse methodologies while positioning themselves as both educators and learners. We hope that playing with ways to engage teens in Jewish life will serve as a springboard for them to expand upon their work.

We’re making every effort to capitalize on our surroundings and provide participants the time and outlet to put their newfound knowledge and inspiration to use on site. One of the ways we’re doing that is by increasing involvement with the NFTY Convention, which runs parallel to Youth Engagement Conference. In the past, participants of the two events ate together and prayed together but didn’t create significant experiences together – and we wanted to change that by inviting the teens to be our partners in experimenting and learning.

With all that in mind, we’ve created four central elements of this year’s Youth Engagement Conference:

  • At our three Youth Engagement Laboratories, participants will explore different ways to engage teens through the topics of arts, Israel, and worship. For the topics of these labs, we deliberately chose fields of Jewish experience that hold great potential for youth engagement but that are not necessarily reaching that potential right now. We know, for example, that Reform teens struggle with worship & that our youth professionals struggle with engaging teens in worship; we know some professionals acknowledge the importance of art as an engagement tool but may feel that because they’re not artists themselves, the topic is inaccessible to them; and we all struggle with how to talk about Israel! Each lab is made up of three stages: educators asking big questions together and identifying new approaches to engaging Jewish teens on these topics, followed by actually experimenting with those ideas and methodologies with NFTYites – followed by, finally, an opportunity for reflection on the process.
  • We’ll be running a host of skill-based workshops relating to various elements of youth engagement, led by experts within the Jewish community and those from our congregations who are doing extraordinary work that can serve as examples to the rest of us. Topics include: building relationships with teens; designing inspiring and challenging learning experiences; co-constructing Jewish experiences between teens and educators; creating safe space for growth; and a number of others.
  • On Sunday morning, we’ll step outside our comfort zone… by going to church! Conference participants will learn firsthand how other faiths approach engagement by visiting the First African Methodist Episcopal Church (FAME for short), a local mega-church, for their worship service – an experience most of us would never be exposed to in our everyday lives. We’re thankful to FAME for opening its doors to us and look forward to learning about their community’s youth ministry from parish youth leaders. We believe we can learn a lot from the experience and the dialogue.

In sum, we envision the Youth Engagement Conference as a playground for Reform Jewish educators – but a playground in the deepest & the most meaningful way. This is an opportunity to build relationships, to experiment with the philosophies of the Campaign for Youth Engagement, and to help advance the field of engaging Jewish youth. We’re taking a lot of risks in the way we’ve constructed the conference schedule, and we’re excited about these risks. We hope this new model will both teach us a lot and model for our educators the importance of risk-taking and questioning the status quo. Stay tuned to hear how it turns out!

As the Youth Engagement Conference kicks off today, we welcome you to follow along virtually by following @URJ on Twitter and using the #YEC13 hashtag.