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JFSA helping synagogues boost youth engagement

Cantorial soloist Marjorie Hochberg guides Temple Emanu-El religious school students in singing the Four Questions at a second night Passover seder in 2015. (Steve Shawl)

Declining youth engagement has been a problem facing synagogues across the country for a decade or more. 

To help local synagogues reverse this trend, the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona is providing them with new allocations for religious schools and family education programs. Each synagogue will decide how to spend its portion of the funds, which this year total $101,000.

“It’s historic for this community,” says Phil Pepper, immediate past president of Congregation Anshei Israel, who is co-chair, with Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon of Temple Emanu-El, of the synagogue funding group, a division of the Federation’s planning and allocations committee.

The Federation previously has provided grants for some individual synagogue programs, but an allocation for a group of synagogues is a new approach.

“It’s actually groundbreaking for any Federation” in North America, says Cohon. “It’s innovative and creative, and it’s based on an obvious and deep need in our community. It’s an attempt to liberate synagogues to use their own creativity to improve youth engagement in the Jewish community.”

The eight synagogues that are members of the Federation-Synagogue Dialogue — Temple Emanu-El and Congregations Anshei Israel, Bet Shalom, Chofetz Chayim,  Chaverim, M’kor Hayim, Or Chadash and Young Israel — will each receive a $1,000 allocation. In addition, a more substantial allocation based on its roster of members ages 18 and younger will go to each synagogue except M’kor Hayim, which opted out of this allocation because it does not offer religious school or family education programming, explains Barry Weisband, vice president of planning and marketing for the Federation.

Plans for the funds vary. Temple Emanu-El will revamp and expand its religious school’s Hebrew@Home distance learning program. Chofetz Chayim will build a playground for its preschool. Chaverim will reinstate its previously successful chavurah (fellowship) program, which brings together small groups of members for various activities. Anshei Israel will use its funds to create or enhance several programs, with the lion’s share going to its madrichim (youth teachers’ aides) program for participants in seventh grade through high school.

“Nobody has a magic wand. We don’t know what’s going to work,” says Cohon, but the allocations give each synagogue the flexibility to play to its strengths. Cohon notes that youth engagement has been declining in Southern Arizona while the overall Jewish community population seems to be stable or growing.

“The future of the Jewish community is dependent on the continued development of young Jews,” he says.

It may take three or more years to judge success, says Cohon, and there are a number of ways to measure increases in youth engagement, including religious school enrollment, b’nai mitzvah, youth groups, tutoring programs, attendance at services, and participation in social action projects.

The youth engagement funding plan got its start two years ago, when Weisband met with Cohon and Phil Bregman, then the synagogue funding group co-chair, to brainstorm as part of the Federation’s new planning and allocations process. Bregman is now the chair of the Jewish Community Roundtable, which brings together Jewish agency and synagogue leaders with key Federation staff.

“This really solidifies the partnership” between Federation and the synagogues,” says Pepper, who stepped in as synagogue funding group co-chair three months ago.

Cohon notes that the allocations encompass diverse streams of Judaism, adding that if the program is successful, the level of funding will be more likely to increase than decrease.

“The Federation is proud of its allocations support to our Tucson synagogues,” says Tom Warne, immediate past chair of the Federation board of directors. “These resources will help congregations develop new and innovative religious school programs and family education activities.  It’s very gratifying to see the many components of our community come together so that our families may engage in robust Jewish educational programs that help to ensure a bright future for our Jewish community.”