By Stefani Carlson

Imagine a congregational school in which the Sunday before a child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah is their last day of classes, forever. A school where classes for students in grades 8-12 are not even offered, and where previous attempts at establishing a youth group have all failed, leaving no teen-specific programs. What would happen to the congregation’s teens once they become Jewish adults? And, perhaps more immediately, what would happen to their families’ involvement?

These were the existential questions facing me when I was hired as Education Director at Temple Beth Shalom, a congregation of 110 families in Hudson, Ohio. The void in post-B’nai Mitzvah programming was causing a crisis of continuity – not only were the teens themselves disengaged, but nearly three-quarters of their families had left the congregation entirely. With new congregational leadership and staff coming in, time was ripe for change.

In the four years since then, our congregation has created a teen program series that has seen nearly 100% retention. To do this, we set our minds to engage our key stakeholders – our B’nai Mitzvah and post-B’nai Mitzvah families – in shifting from a scarcity mentality to one of abundance, and let them design the community to which they would ultimately want to stay connected.

We started the process by reviewing what had previously been offered for post-B’nai Mitzvah students, and learned several lessons. Perhaps surprisingly, the congregation’s small size became one of its greatest assets. Unlike a larger congregation with multiple layers of bureaucracy, our small organization is nimble and more able to create significant change quickly. It also costs less to create an entirely new program for a smaller group of students; and just a few individuals who get involved can have dramatic impact. Additionally, we found that the rates of participation in Jewish community programming were much higher in cohorts for which a Confirmation class had been offered, even among those students who did not enroll in the class. In other words, just offering the class suggested to the teens that the obligation, and opportunity, to participate in Jewish communal life extended beyond B’nai Mitzvah age, and increased their rate of engagement.

Finally, we realized that prior attempts at starting a youth group had been based on re-engaging teens who had already left. The thought behind this was “how do we get the high school kids back?” which struck us as an example of scarcity mentality. We needed a shift that would help us focus on our strengths and the resources available to us to help us to grow. This lens helped us identify two opportunities. First, we had an exceptionally strong incoming B’nai Mitzvah cohort of highly motivated students and families with whom I had already established a deep personal connection through my role as a B’nai Mitzvah tutor. Second, we had many willing community partners available to help us in this work.

I began by asking the incoming B’nai Mitzvah class and their families to join me in the visioning process for a program that would serve as a bridge between B’nai Mitzvah and Confirmation, and we named it the “Gesher” (bridge) Program. The students were remarkably clear about what they wanted: a class that would meet outside of regular Religious School hours, be taught by a beloved teacher, and in which they could co-create their learning experience. They wanted a social action component, where they could do meaningful work together; and a leadership component, where they would be able to build a youth group from the bottom up.

Our teens also wanted to build connections with other Jewish teens in our area, which was where our community partnerships, and the wider network of resources they helped us access, became essential. For example, not only did the NFTY Regional Advisor and other area youth professionals support us in establishing a new NFTY chapter, the regional board even created a special track for our teens at Derech Atid, a regional NFTY event, so that our 8th graders could develop the skills they needed to build their own youth group.

Over the last four years, our teens have built strong Jewish identities through study, service, and social activities. HuBSTY (Hudson Beth Shalom Temple Youth) is now a fully-fledged member of NFTY Northeast Lakes Region (NEL). Our teens have served together in the community and as madrichim (aides) in the religious school. Most significantly, they blazed a trail for the classes that came after them, which also have a near-perfect retention rate. Today, that initial Gesher cohort is in 10th grade. Every one of them remains in the program and will be confirmed on May 19, 2017. I look forward to seeing what they accomplish next.

Stefani Carlson is a member of Temple Beth Shalom, a URJ congregation of approximately 110 families in Hudson, Ohio, where she has served as a teacher and lay leader since 2008, B’nai Mitzvah tutor since 2011, and Education Director since 2013. She is also a member of the 2016 cohort of the URJ’s Had’rachah Seminar for Lay Leadership in Ritual Life.

This article is reposted from the URJ Inside Leadership Blog. It is reposted with permission.