Dating back to the 16th century, Echad Mi Yodea (“Who Knows One?”) imparts an important message at our Passover tables. The traditional cumulative song, found in our Haggadah, is often sung playfully while enumerating different motifs found in Jewish tradition. Each number is given a symbolic meaning, while connecting it to those previously recited. Initially, it may appear as a simple question: “Who knows one?” As we navigate new and challenging times during COVID-19, with many of us preparing for virtual seders, this question is more important than ever.

National data shows trends that three out of four teens who become b’nai mitzvah will not participate again in the Jewish community before going to college. This 75% challenge is a narrative that our team at Jewish Teen Initiative of Greater Boston is working with community partners to change.

The typical community response: All the things.

When a Jewish teen expresses interest in engaging with the Jewish community in some way, they more often than not get the alphabet soup of programs and opportunities thrown at them in a product-focused effort, rather than a consumer-focused one. This stands true today. When current events shifted in-person gathering and connection efforts to virtual opportunities, the ecosphere was flooded with opportunities to learn, connect, play and gather. Organizations hit the collective gas pedal, creating new and innovative spaces and moments for connection in an effort to support our teens and emphasize that “social distancing” doesn’t have to be isolating. Adding multiple new layers of new opportunities to a system that’s already challenging to navigate…you can get overwhelmed pretty quickly.

Asking the right questions.

There’s a misunderstanding in our communities when trying to identify why so many teens are disconnected with the Jewish community. A popular meme structure currently found on social media helps frame the conversation:

Adults: “Kids are over-programmed, stressed and just too busy in general to participate in Jewish community activities. We don’t have good enough programming available to engage teens. We need the right ‘thing’ to hook them.”

Teens: “My friends aren’t going. I won’t know anyone….”

Also Teens: “I didn’t know that was happening.”

Also Teens: “Nobody invited me.”

Also Teens: “I’m not that Jewish….”

Me: ???

Most commonly, the (self-reported) reasons teens aren’t more “connected” or “engaged” are because they didn’t know it was happening, feel like they won’t know anyone there and the lack of information available about what an experience consists of presents as a barrier to participation.

Personalizing outreach and meeting teens where they are.

Engaging teens, like engaging adults, requires a menu of choices. Rather than pitching a particular program, let’s ask our teens how and where they want to connect. The question that we should be asking the members of our communities is not, “Can you come to this?” If we focus on the relationships, which are at the core of why we do what we do, the questions shift to, “How are you? How would you like to get connected or involved?” This is also an opportunity to peel back the curtain and be more transparent and helpful in explaining what our experiences and communities are offering.

Let our people know!

The JTI Boston team is committed to helping teens, parents and Jewish professionals have access to the myriad opportunities available in Greater Boston and beyond. In partnership with JewishBoston.com and Combined Jewish Philanthropies, and with support from Jim Joseph Foundation, JewishBostonTeens.com is a central calendar, directory and resource to help connect our community.

Establishing a network of peer connectors.

Jewish Teen Initiative’s signature Peer Leadership Fellows program trains and empowers teens to be communal connectors using design thinking and community organizing methodologies. Fellows reimagine how they can develop meaningful relationships with their peers and connect them to the menu of opportunities available to Jewish teens in their community and beyond.

In 2016, JTI Boston partnered with Hillel International, the largest Jewish campus organization in the world, to adapt their engagement model for the teen community. Hillel has mobilized college peer interns to strengthen connections and boost participation in Jewish life on campus.

Peer Engagement Fellows are trained to be catalysts to better connect their peers to Jewish life. With training and support, Fellows develop and connect with their social networks on a monthly basis, build relationships and help their peers identify opportunities based on expressed involvement and interest.

Peer Inclusion Fellows are helping to redefine what mainstream inclusion can be in the Jewish teen community, helping to connect with and support peers with special needs at local, regional and national events. JTI Boston has partnered with national organizations to provide high-level training in inclusion, relational engagement and leadership development. Fellows will remove many of the stumbling blocks that prevent teens from feeling comfortable and connected to teen programming by acting as a buddy for their peers.

Updating and telling the story.

Who knows one? We know many and are working to shift this narrative and empower our community to be more connected and inclusive for all Jewish teens. JTI Boston is now accepting applications for the 2020-2021 cohorts in our signature Peer Leadership Fellows program, and we need your help! Do you know a rising sophomore, junior or senior who may be interested in helping to connect their peers while taking their leadership skills to the next level? Please be in touch with the JTI Boston Team.

Wishing everyone a sweet and connected Passover, and we look forward to connecting over the coming weeks. Chag Pesach Sameach!

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