Sababa Surf Camp, “a week of surfing, spiritual growth and pure joy for Jewish teens," ran for three exhilarating sessions last summer. It was precisely the sort of program that David Bryfman, chief innovation officer for The Jewish Education Project, had in mind when his organization put out a call for new, creative teen summer experiences.
It was fortuitous, then, that Danny Mishkin, who runs teen programming at a popular Long Island synagogue, happened to see the call for proposals hit his inbox at just the right moment.
“I’m literally sitting there on the beach, surrounded by non-Jewish teenagers who are having the time of their life,” Mishkin recalled. “I said, ‘I think I’ve got it right here.’”
“It became one of the most significant and nontraditional Jewish experiences that we had ever witnessed,” Bryfman added. “It was in the month of Elul, so they were blowing the shofar on the beach every morning. There was meditation through a Jewish lens every morning.” And, of course, there were many sun-drenched hours spent learning to ride the waves.
“Kids love being challenged,” Bryfman added. “Often in Jewish life we don’t challenge them enough.”
Bryfman, 43, is trying to change that. By replacing anecdotal accounts of “what works” with meticulous research, and challenging assumptions about what “working” even means, he is reshaping the conversation around the famously mystifying teenage demographic.
“If you’re making a big movie, he’s like the producer behind the scenes,” Mishkin, the co-director of Sababa Surf Camp (which received funding from the Jim Joseph Foundation and the UJA-Federation of New York) and director of the Waxman Hebrew High School and Youth Engagement for Temple Israel of Great Neck. “He has definitely been influential in building my philosophy towards teen engagement.”
Bryfman grew up in Melbourne, Australia, in an environment very different from the one he works and lives in today. Most Jewish kids went to day school through high school. He was active in the Habonim Dror youth movement, whose leaders he considered a “guiding force” and where, he said, “even as a teenager and a young adult I was entrusted in authentic leadership roles.”
“We now live in a world of individuals, so the very notion of a youth movement or a youth group may just be antithetical to where large swaths of teenagers are today,” he said. “For the kids they attract, they are very powerful. But the world has changed.”
At The Jewish Education Project, Bryfman and his colleagues work with hundreds of synagogues, schools, community centers, youth groups and other Jewish organizations in the New York area and, increasingly, beyond. They introduce those institutions to innovative practices from the worlds of business, education and leadership, and help them figure out how to incorporate those practices into their own work. They also train educators to develop new models for engaging young Jews.
“David not only frames the conversation based on tremendous knowledge and experience and wisdom, but he is a critical asset in asking the right questions about the type of innovation that we choose to implement,” said Susan Holzman Wachsstock, director of the New York Teen Initiative at The Jewish Education Project. “There are lots of great ideas out there that will speak to five kids or ten kids, but it’s important to look at the landscape out there and come up with solutions that will have broader impact.”
Teens have a special place in Bryfman’s heart. As a graduate student in education and Jewish Studies at NYU, he noticed a void in the research on Jewish teens. For his dissertation, “Giving Voice to a Generation,” he shadowed his subjects in their element: summer camp, day school and youth groups. “I happen to believe that in terms of identity development, the teen years are the most critical years,” he said. “Between 14 and leaving high school, so many decisions are made.”
It is precisely because those years are so critical that many Israel programs offer trips to teens in this age group. (Though several years ago, Bryfman created a stir when he questioned the long-term benefits of giving away such Jewish experiences for free.) He adds, however, that if money were no object and the field could build up programming in any one area of teen life, Israel trips would indeed be it.
“It’s the no-brainer of Jewish life today that if we could send every teen to Israel for four to five weeks in their 10th grade year, the ripple effect would be enormous,” he said. “All this discussion about college kids not being engaged, not wanting to talk about Israel, not wanting to go into the Hillel building -- it would be off the table.”
If Israel trips can successfully engage Jewish teens, what else does? And what does “successfully engaging Jewish teens” even mean?
Those are questions Bryfman, working with a team of researchers, is trying to tackle. The research team conducted dozens of focus groups around the country over the past year, in an effort to understand what resonates with teenagers today. The goal, Bryfman explained, is to create new ways to measure programs’ effectiveness.
“The way we used to measure Jewish engagement was by, ‘Did you go to synagogue?’ ‘Did you light Shabbat candles?’” Bryfman said. “They told us about rituals and institutions.”
“No one’s ever asked, in a Jewish environment, questions like, ‘Did you come out of this initiative or program with more self-esteem?’ ‘Did you come out of it with more friends?’ ‘Did you come out of it with better language to talk to your parents or grandparents’?'” he said. “We deem these things to be far more valuable than just eating challah at Friday night dinner.”
Teens, Bryfman says, see traditional Jewish institutions “as a thing of the past.” They speak about Judaism as an ethnicity or culture rather than just a religion, and eschew labels that distinguish them from other “members of their tribe.” And don’t try telling them to keep kosher or study Bereshit because God commanded it. “That won’t fly,” Bryfman said.
But they are also extremely close with their parents, he said, and inspired by their grandparents. And if participation in Jewish activities drops off sharply after Bar and Bat Mitzvah age, that may be because “most product put in front of Jewish teens has been second rate.”
“They live in a world where it is cool to be a Jew, and they are proud of this fact,” Bryfman said. “The framework now is really, ‘In what ways do you believe being Jewish can make you a better human being?’ ‘Can being Jewish help you thrive in the world today?’ If it can’t, I would argue we go out of business.”
Bryfman, of course, believes it can.
“Jewish education has to be about optimism, and the positive change we can bring about in the world,” he said. “It’s not even about the glass half full. I just really believe these kids have the power to change the world.”