Temple Sholom of Scotch Plains is one of 14 congregations in the nation chosen to pilot a new experiment in Jewish education.
The B’nai Mitzvah Revolution, launched in November, is designed to encourage new approaches in retaining teens and families who often view the bar and bat mitzva as the finale of their Jewish learning.
The project encourages synagogues to experiment with curricula, b’nei mitzva prep, Hebrew lessons, and prayer.
The $400,000 effort is a joint project of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Campaign for Youth Engagement, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and HUC’s Experiment in Congregational Education.
The pilot synagogues will be able to participate in workshops, learn from consultants, and attend national conferences to share research results and publicize successful experiments.
Post-b’nei mitzva dropout rates in the vast majority of congregations “are staggering,” said URJ president Rabbi Rick Jacobs in a statement. Only about “50 percent of Reform Jewish teens return to congregational life” after b’nei mitzva, he said, “and about 20 percent stay beyond 10th grade.”
“We cannot afford — on any level — to allow our teens to leave our Jewish institutions just as they are entering critical identity-making years,” said Jacobs.
“Our question is: How can we help young people get to a place where Judaism is playing an active role in their lives?” said Rabbi Bradley Solmsen, director of youth engagement at the URJ and codirector of the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution. “We think the Jewish community is enriched by having them involved. But we also believe human beings have core needs about spirituality, reflection, and making meaning.”
Solmsen said he and his colleagues believe Judaism offers an important tool in helping them navigate these issues.
“Judaism provides nourishment and content for reflective practice,” he said. “It’s also a way into relationships with peers and adults, and it’s a way to connect to bigger pieces of the world. But we have not done a good job communicating this.”
At Temple Sholom, the goal is to make b’nei mitzva services more meaningful for the participants, their families, and the entire congregation. The congregation will experiment with the service itself. In a letter to members, Rabbi Joel Abraham wrote, “Experiments may push our boundaries and make some feel uncomfortable, but they will not set precedents. We may allow something once and decide it did not work for our community.”
A first step toward bringing Temple Sholom congregants into the process is a congregational meeting on Sunday, Dec. 16.
After that, the congregation will be asked to define the core values of a bar or bat mitzva, followed by experimentation among a small group of volunteer families from the current sixth-grade class.
“Can we create a values-based process that allows experimentation and still maintains a communal identity?” Abraham asked in his letter.
Representatives from all 14 pilot synagogues — selected from a pool of 39 applicants — attended a retreat at the beginning of November at the Pearlstone Conference Center in Reistertown, Md., that launched the project. The first cohort runs for two years, through 2014.
Participating synagogues must implement their new ideas by September 2013 and must report every two to three months on their progress.