For one day in late August, Stamford, CT became the worldwide center of experiential – that is, informal – Jewish education. More than 600 professionals and volunteers, representing more than 160 organizations across the Jewish spectrum, united for a groundbreaking moment dedicated to their passion: Jewish youth. That event, the first-ever YouthCon, conceived and organized by NCSY | Jewish Youth Leadership, the Orthodox Union’s international youth movement, addressed the challenges and opportunities of defining Jewish education within the 21st century.
As up-to-date as the latest gadget from Apple, as current as the day’s headlines, and as meaningful to those assembled as their life work should be – YouthCon opened new horizons for educators who realized that to reach Jewish youth nowadays, reading from a text may not do the trick, while reading from an iPad would.
After a stirring day of presentations, discussions, and intensive networking, Rabbi Steven Burg, International Director of NCSY, commented, “People have been coming up to me all day and asking why the OU and NCSY are doing this. This is important. As leaders in this very large room, we need to act – we need to look around the world to see what’s not being done, and to do it. We have to provide a venue to reach out to each other; to build the Jewish people together.”
He continued, noting that the vast majority of speakers that day were not representatives of the OU and NCSY, but from the multitude of organizations gathered, “The only way to harness the energy, creativity, intellect, and spiritual hunger that new technologies (and their accompanying social disruption) bring is to do it together. The days of working in competitive silos have passed. YouthCon’s goal above all else, is to help us become collaborators in empowering teenagers to love their Judaism, in the hope that they will use that power to build a better world.”
Rabbi Steven Weil, OU Executive Vice President, noted, “We were able to convene this event to create a gathering of the crème-de-la-crème of the informal and experiential educators of the Jewish world. In the networking that took place, and the dynamic engagement of ideas from creative people, it was truly an outstanding experience.”
OU President Dr. Simcha Katz made it clear that enhancing Jewish education is a major priority of the Orthodox Union. Dr. Katz remarked, “Every generation and every location has its challenges. We have a challenge here in the North America – a spiritual challenge. We really need to promote Jewish education in all forms. It makes no difference what level of observance – we need to bring everyone together, and to share best practices with each other to face assimilation. That is why we are doing this.”
Jewish educators from inside and outside the classroom were invited to hear leading experts who presented within six fields of Best Practices, Digital Media, Israel Education, Leadership, Social Sphere and Traditional Spirituality. For instance, from 2:15-3:15 p.m., participants could choose from the following sessions (in the order of the tracks above): “Behind the Music: Creative Methods for Inspiring the Jewish Soul (a live musical experience);” “All You Need is ‘Like’: Building and Fostering Digital Relationships (panel);” “Making History Come Alive: New Ideas and Strategies for Teaching Israel;” “Leaders are Made, Not Born: Cultivating Jewish Teen Leaders;” “Repair the World: Creating Service Learning Opportunities for Today’s Teens (panel);” and “Spirituality Breakthrough: Breaking Through the Stumbling Blocks of Spirituality.”
Videos of the different presentations during YouthCon will be available in the up-coming weeks at the YouthCon website, www.youthcon.org, made possible by the Avi Chai Foundation.
Throughout the day, the Stamford Hilton lobby bustled with organizations displaying their resources. Roundtable discussions during lunchtime facilitated personal feedback and networking on topics of “Jewish Camp Programming;” “Getting Jewish Youth to Israel Easily;” “Programming for Tots;” “Five Ways to Optimize Your Facebook Page;” “A Career in Experiential Jewish Education;” “Getting Your Message Out;” and “Informal Education in a Formal Environment.”
At one of these round tables, Rhoda Weisman, of Los Angeles, Chair of YouthCon and an expert on “next generation leadership,” facilitated a dialogue regarding “Teens as Partners: Creating a Teen Brain Trust – A Conversation with Teens.” Together with student leaders of NCSY, the table participants discussed academic opportunities; utilizing strengths in leadership roles; and reinforcing best practices. “You’re not going to bat for yourself – you’re going to bat for Jewish teens everywhere,” Ms. Weisman emphasized.
Anonymous evaluations were overwhelmingly positive. Comments of YouthCon highlights included:
- Networking and learning new tools will help me to make a greater impact in my community;
- I have built relationships that will help me to bring innovative programs to my school;
- Each speaker gave me something to take away, or give over to all of my peers;
- I heard from people who are in a position of power to make changes, and think critically about today’s issues;
- I have learned so many helpful tools that will change the way I educate;
- The fact that people came together to discuss these important topics with such passion was a very impressive effort;
- I gained incredible chizuk (strength) throughout the day!
YouthCon Director Duvi Stahler, Director of Marketing and Strategic Planning for NCSY, remarked, “The response toYouthCon was completely overwhelming. We were hoping to have 250 people attend, so to have 600 people, from all different backgrounds, come together at the event was completely incredible. Our next goals, post-YouthCon, are to offer each of the workshop presentations online at the YouthCon website, www.youthcon.org, and to continue the many conversations regarding Jewish youth education through monthly webinars.”
Participants came from far and near, including Germany, England, and Israel, to participate and to bring back gems of knowledge to their home communities.
“The presentations at YouthCon were thoughtful, innovative, and practical; and the opportunity to network with other youth professionals like myself was invaluable!” expressed Chanie Kirschner, Youth Director at Congregation Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob and David in West Orange, NJ.
Dr. Steven Goldfine, of Dallas, a biochemist in an earlier life, attended YouthCon to enhance his skills as the Vice-President for Education and Youth, and Religious School Administrator at Tiferet Israel Congregation; and as the Science Chair of Yavneh Academy. He reflected, “After looking at the YouthCon schedule on the website, I realized that the conference had a large number of sessions dedicated to digital media which I needed to learn about. I now understand how to use Twitter and Facebook to reach my kids and donors. I also came away with a huge amount of practical knowledge on specific web tools, as well as on more traditional aspects of informal education — all of which I have already shared with my colleagues at Yavneh, at Tiferet and at the Dallas Center for Jewish Education (CJE). Moreover, the spirit and vitality of the closing “Sparks Session” [during which six charismatic speakers gave six-minute multimedia presentations] was inspirational enough itself to make the trip worthwhile. I am an enthusiastic fan of YouthCon.”
Rabbi Sean Jensen, of the Great Neck Synagogue, on Long Island, NY, and its affiliated North Shore Hebrew Academy in Great Neck, travelled a shorter distance, but took back just as much. “YouthCon was an extraordinary ‘Kiddush Hashem’ (sanctification of God’s name)!” he remarked. “To see so many educators and people committed to Jewish survival, under one roof, was truly an inspiration. I attended YouthCon with the hopes of networking with other Youth Directors, comparing and sharing ideas. What I came out with was much more. As a program coordinator for the North Shore Hebrew Academy Middle School and the advisor to the school’s Student Council, many of the leadership seminars I attended were geared for those forums. Yet, the importance of youth programming in the synagogue and the emphasis on those programs was also appreciated. We still have more educating to do! The efforts and organization of YouthCon were amazing.”
The “Spark Session,” as noted by Dr. Goldfine, sent the participants home proactively engaged and united in their quest to bring positive Jewish experiences to the next generations of youth.
Charles Harary, OU National Vice President, and Founder of Milvado, an organization promoting innovative methods of teaching spirituality in a relevant and modern ways, emphasized the power and purpose of individuality – that we all have specific different strengths and unique roles within Jewish history. He asked, “What is Jewish education? We rely too much on formal Jewish education to educate our children Jewishly. We all approach the world differently. To bring each individual Jew to connect with his or her purpose will ignite their passion, and together we can become the nation that we are destined to be.”
For those who would say that education outside of the Jewish classroom lacks depth, Sarah Lefton, Founding Executive Director of G-dcast.com, advocated, “We’re not just recharging our batteries – we are doing scholarship. We are doing Jewish education.”
With a Ph.D. in Education and Jewish Studies from NYU, Dr. David Bryfman, Director of the New Center for Collaborative Leadership at The Jewish Education Project, transformed the final “Spark Session” into potent fireworks. He declared, “There are many revolutions taking place today in the Jewish world. All of you here today are making a statement that what we are doing is important. Experiential Jewish education has lots of power, and it really can transform a people and bring about change in the world. You and I together, we can change the world!”
By train, by plane, and by car, the informal educators left Stamford to return to their home communities and organizations. Together, they brought home Dr. Bryfman’s closing words: You and I together, we will change the world!
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.