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What’s Really Enough When it Comes to Jewish Teen Engagement?

By Briana Holtzman
Originally published in eJewishPhilanthropy

Passover is one of my favorite holidays. Each year, we are challenged anew to think about what we are willing to fight for; charged to make the changes we want to see in the world. Instead of simply marking an historical event on the calendar, we are instructed to retell the Exodus story as if we ourselves had experienced the miracle of liberation.

Around the Passover seder table we sing verse after verse of “dayenu.” With every stanza, we affirm that each one of the miracles the Jewish people have experienced would have been enough on their own. The necessary and immediate moments – splitting the sea, feeding us manna – are followed by the core Jewish experiences – receiving the Torah and our deliverance to the Land of Israel.

Now you’re wondering – what does all that have to do with Jewish teens?

The Jewish Education Project’s Generation Now report offers us a galvanizing call to make that change we want to see in the Jewish community. It’s no longer enough to measure our successes by the number of Jewish teens that show up. Rather, we as educators must show up and, as David Bryfman suggests, we must engage each Jewish teen as a whole person. When we measure, we must measure the impact and the outcomes of our programs, the core experiences.

When I stepped into my new role as Director of Jewish Teen Funders Network earlier this month, I began to take stock of the dayenu moments we’ve recently experienced in Jewish teen philanthropy:

  • If only we had gathered with hundreds of philanthropists at the Jewish Funders Network conference and celebrated JTFN’s 10th year, but teens had not been involved.
  • If only those at the JFN conference had mingled and networked with the intelligent, driven teen participants from the San Diego Jewish Teen Foundation, but not seen them in sessions and on stage.
  • If only we had all had the pleasure of hearing one of those inspiring teens speak about his own experience as a philanthropist while introducing our closing keynote, Randi Zuckerberg, but not realized the scale of teen participation.
  • If only thousands of teens were participating in Jewish teen philanthropy programs solely in North America, but not beyond.
  • If only Jewish teen philanthropy had just launched internationally in Melbourne, Australia and Ramat Hasharon, Israel…

In Jewish teen philanthropy programs, Jewish teens don’t just gather for the sake of gathering. They talk and they listen. They learn and they teach. They voice their opinions while respecting and considering those of their peers. They hold the tools of grant proposals and financial reports up to the words of Maimonides and values of a long-held Jewish commitment to bettering the world, and they consider what impact their giving will have. They ask the hard questions while guiding each other through sorting out the best answers. They enlist their families, friends, and teachers to join them on this journey.

As we sing dayenu, we celebrate every moment, including both what comes before and as a result of it. We celebrate the first Jewish teen philanthropy programs, the teens themselves, the growth of the field, all so that we may really recognize the core experience. The core experiences in Jewish teen philanthropy are the values, skills, and long-term commitment to their communities that participants develop.

  • If only all of these teens grappled with Jewish text, values, and tradition, stepped into unfamiliar shoes to learn about need in their local and global communities, both Jewish and secular, and supported programs and organizations doing the amazing work to address those needs – dayenu.
  • If only teens gave of their own funds, no matter the amount, and developed within themselves the “Obligated Choice” to make Tzedakah – giving in a just and Jewish way – a part of their lives – dayenu.
  • If only alumni of these programs continue to embrace their role as #NowGen Givers, to step into leadership roles in their Jewish communities, to not only acknowledge need but create change, and continue to lead their peers in learning and giving – dayenu.

If only we – those working with Jewish teens – remain committed to continually raising the bar and providing the tools, training, and experiences which ensure that Judaism is a fully-integrated component of a teen’s self-identity – dayenu.

Briana Holtzman is the director of The Jewish Teen Funders Network, a central resource for the growing field of Jewish teen philanthropy and a project of JFN. JTFN creates, connects, and supports Jewish teen philanthropy programs around the world. Briana can be reached at briana@jtfn.org.

Join us at the 2016 Jewish Teen Philanthropy Summit this June

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