It is Time to Make Big Bets on Teens and Young Adults

It is our obligation to empower them with the competence and confidence to understand our tradition and trust them to pave the way forward.

If there is a consistent thread that I can identify in virtually all the key inflection points along my journey as a Jewish communal leader, it is this: older and wiser people giving me the gift of trust which enabled me to grow. For a Jewish community that is struggling with questions of whether we have a sufficient leadership pipeline for the Jewish future, and that is anxious about the ideas and identities of the next generation of Jews, this may be our winning strategy.

Three experiences stand out for me from my teen years.

When I was in tenth grade, one of my teachers from school stopped me in the hallway one Shabbat and said, “We are starting a youth minyan, and you’re going to run it.” It wasn’t a request. In retrospect, wrangling my peers in high school to read Torah every week was not a recipe for popularity, but I learned from that experience how to confidently run synagogue services, how to take responsibility for the quality of authentic Jewish experience, and how to negotiate – and hold accountable – fellow volunteers in a shared community of commitment.

When I was 16, I went on the Bronfman Youth Fellowships program and was made to feel for the first time that my Jewish choices and my Jewish questions were of real interest and concern to serious Jewish adults. I met and argued with Yehuda Amichai, A.B. Yehoshua, and Leah Shakdiel in person. World-class scholars and teachers introduced me to the thought of Dan Pagis, Tamar Ross, and Franz Rosenzweig. The experience forever transformed my expectations for Jewish learning, namely that I could insist on never being infantilized.

Finally, when I was in college, I worked part-time in the national office of the Bnei Akiva youth movement – not as an intern, but as the deputy head of the national organization. A small group of us fumbled through program planning and fundraised incompetently. But there’s no better leadership education than actual work with the likelihood of failure.

I connect the dots of all these experiences to my career and personal Jewish choices. Throughout all these experiences I learned that to be a serious Jew is to be responsible for my own Jewish life and choices as well as for the communities that I wish to inhabit. I learned that the Jewish tradition is both a gift to be cherished and a legacy to be transmitted. And I learned that a life and career working for the Jewish people could be noble and thrilling even if it was also sometimes exasperating and exhausting.

Today I find that way too much American Jewish education is predicated on fear of the Jewish future rather than enthusiasm for it. On Israel, many educational interventions seem to want students to become advocates for Israel rather than really understand it. For all the worry that older Jews have about what Jewish students face on campus, a lot of our responses involve speaking for and over our students. Is it any wonder that the leadership pipeline for the Jewish community is drying up, or turning against the Jewish community itself?

It is time to try a different approach. We need to start trusting young Jews more, earlier in their path toward Jewish leadership, and to give them the tools of competence and confidence in understanding our tradition and paving the way to our future. I believe that young Jews are passionate about Judaism, Israel, and the challenges facing our time. I see their desire to play a role in shaping the future of our community and its institutions. They now need a major investment, and pathways to lead.

At the Shalom Hartman Institute, we are making a big bet on this approach: a new center for transformative supplemental Jewish education for teens and young adults ages 15-25, and the professionals who serve them, with a comprehensive strategy that aspires to replenish the fountain of talent that will lead the Jewish people in North America into the next generation. We’re calling it “Wellspring.”

Our commitment to strengthening the Jewish educational ecosystem for teens and young adults has four key elements:

  • direct-to-student intensive learning experiences for high school and college students
  • the gap year experience
  • leadership for professionals in informal Jewish educational settings, including Hillel, youth groups, and camp
  • leadership for formal Jewish educational settings, including day and supplemental/congregational schools

In all of these strategies, we plan to bring the Institute’s signature cutting-edge scholarship, teaching, and convening power – “Hartman Torah” on major questions facing the Jewish people, and rich educational contexts for students to understand their place in Jewish history and tradition.

Wellspring builds off a long history of the Institute’s work in this sector, including a decade of fellowships for campus professionals and seminars for college students, our Hevruta gap year program in Jerusalem, and programs for Jewish educators and heads of day schools. We also engaged in intensive experimentation over the past two years: a summer teen program that attracted 270 teens for rigorous study and community building online; two partnerships for Israel education, one with Camp Ramah training counselors, and another with the Jewish Education Project for congregational schools; a contest for young-adult digital content creators; plus cohorts and conferences for educators and professionals.

Wellspring’s first major new initiative is the Hartman Teen Fellowship – a selective learning program for exceptional sophomores, juniors, and seniors in North American high schools, launching this fall. The program brings together a pluralistic network of rising stars from around the United States and Canada for in-person shabbatonim and distance learning seminars throughout the academic year led by Hartman faculty with support from college student facilitators. More initiatives, including a national fellowship for Jewish school leaders, new programs for college students, and new publications and digital content aimed at younger Jewish adults and their interests, are in the works.

Jewish tradition is full of stories of sages who see that their students will exceed them and know that their place is to provide their students with the tools they need to succeed. We should follow that example by trusting our young students more and providing them with the intellectual and moral tools that they need to chart their own paths.

Wellspring is the name we selected for Hartman’s teen and young adult programs because the Torah is analogized to water. Water/Torah seeks out new pathways, quenches our thirst, gently breaks rocks in its way, and is indispensable to our lives. If we want a vibrant Jewish future, it is on us to build and fill the wellsprings to make sure the Jewish people always have the wisdom we need to face uncertainties; to ensure there are continuous and flowing sources of wisdom reaching our people; to see possibilities we cannot yet see in our future leaders; and to trust them earlier than we think.

Originally published on eJewishPhilanthropy.

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