I consider myself to be the quintessential teenager: I carry my phone with me everywhere; I use social networking platforms and streaming services; and, at times, my eyes are unable to drift away from the screen in front of me.
I also believe I am the typical secular Jewish teenager: I never completed Hebrew high school and I do not belong to any youth groups or temples. When I was younger, I found these programs boring because the way the information was presented was not engaging; I did not find value in listening and repeating information. This old style of teaching wasn’t relatable.
There are diminishing rates of teenagers joining Jewish programs and caring about Jewish life nationally, according to a Forward article published in November 2014. At the same time, the Orthodox population is steadily growing and expanding. I thought about why Jewish engagement of non-Orthodox teens is rapidly shrinking.
But first, I should answer why these programs are very important: They teach about the circumstances Jews have encountered and overcome throughout our history. Jews have experienced adversity and we are surviving because we are adaptive and resilient. So, too, the solution to a lack of teen engagement in Jewish programming calls for a large dose of flexibility and adaptability.
There are some secular teens who are very engaged in Jewish programming, but many others would rather watch Netflix than attend Jewish programs. I’m not saying that Jewish programs are lacking in substance, but the programs’ inherent substance needs to be packaged and disseminated in a way that feels relevant to our lives.
Jewish programming must utilize teen culture in order to effectively teach educational subjects. Everything in the teen world is digital and technology related. For now, the internet is the most important factor in our culture. Teen culture is ever-changing, so Jewish programs need to be ready to shift with our evolving interests.
Jewish programs are in a brutally competitive business vying for teenagers’ attention. The good news is that communication, engagement, advertising, and recruitment have never been so easy. Technology — mobile devices and computers — and the internet — video, audio, digital writing, streaming, and social media — have teenagers’ attention. These platforms easily engage teenagers, play forever, and buy awareness at a price never seen before.
All Jewish programs should create means of communication and distribute the means on every available platform. Having a basic digital presence isn’t enough — Jewish programs need to engage its teenage audience by posting on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, and individual influencer pages (aka influencer marketing: paying a person with many followers on social media to post on such platforms about Jewish programming to increase awareness).
There’s an infinite list of choices and different avenues for promotion: The programs can post interactive quizzes on social media before a follow-up meeting, upload weekly podcasts about the week in Jewish history, or create videos which provide incentives for teenagers to attend upcoming activities. The programs will be running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year. By harnessing the endless possibilities of the internet and technology, Jewish programs will be more enticing for all teens.
We are critical to the future of Jewish life: Teens sustain and fortify the core values of Judaism. By being more adaptive and utilizing teen culture, Jewish programs will engage more young people, effectively enabling the continuation of the Jewish religion.
Spencer Haber of Montville is a freshman at The College of New Jersey. He recently completed an internship in the marketing department of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ through the federation’s JTeen’s SeniorITIS program.