The Role of Federations in the Teen Space

Hallie Shapiro Devir is Senior Associate Vice President, Family and Teen Engagement at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. She oversees Federation’s initiatives for youth and young families, bringing more people to Jewish life through meaningful, enriching Jewish experiences. A member of the advisory boards for Jewish Teen Funders Network and Diller Teen Fellows, and of the Teen Education and Engagement and Funder Collaborative, Hallie is passionate about philanthropy, service, and experiential Jewish education and works to grow the number and status of community programs centered on Jewish values. She can be reached at 
Recent research on Generation Z points to the impact Jewish engagement has on teens’ positive development. When looking at 14 identified Jewishly positive outcomes, the study’s authors point out, “the more, the more”—that is, the more types of activities or youth-serving organizations (YSOs) in which a teen is engaged, the higher they score on virtually every outcome. As a community-minded professional, my reaction, and that of many of my peers, is to say, “That makes sense. So—how can we get teens involved in as many activities as possible?” 
That answer is hard to get to when you work for an organization dependent on numbers and, in many cases, drawing from a very limited pool of potential participants. Most specifically, congregations may feel that they are operating from a place of scarcity and that connecting “their” teens to other YSOs could mean losing those teens from congregational education and engagement programs. Beyond that scarcity mindset, most congregational youth professionals and educators don’t know much about Jewish teen engagement programs taking place outside of their walls, other than movement-specific conventions and gatherings or perhaps a prestigious application-based fellowship if it exists in their community. 
Even regional Jewish youth professionals (JYPs) not working for a congregation don’t know much about what’s happening outside the world of their own youth movement, and with good reason: they are extraordinarily busy, often doing a job that in days gone by was done by 1.5 or 2 FTEs, and they run youth boards, plan those regional events, and have recruitment numbers to hit. 
Enter the role of Federation as a convener. In Chicago, we’ve brought JYPs together on a regular basis for nearly a decade and a half, to build trust, share information, plan community programs, and imagine what teen engagement could look like in Chicago. Known as the Teen Professionals Kehillah, or TPK, we invite regional representatives of national and local youth serving organizations to meet once per month. In the early years, when leadership of the group passed back and forth between JUF and the Community Foundation for Jewish Education (now the JUF Education Department), we held a few conferences to create shared learning and opened those conferences to congregation-based youth professionals. In recent years, we’ve added a learning component to a significant number of our regular monthly meetings along with additional professional learning programs offered to a broader swath of the community.  
We’ve seen the benefits of these regular meetings, both for Federation specifically and the community in general: 
  • Deepening of relationships: We’ve created strong relationships with congregations and other YSOs, both with specific staff members and in terms of the number of projects we work on together with those organizations. YSOs are also deepening their relationships with each other, increasing their knowledge of what else is happening in the community and leading to… 
  • Increased collaboration: The byproduct of stronger and deeper relationships is a desire or at least willingness to collaborate. There has been an increase in the number of community-wide programs for teens that are created by multiple YSOs working together to plan, recruit and execute—rather than just showing up to table at an event planned and executed by Federation. Sometimes the collaboration takes the form of… 
  • Sharing of resources: Whether it is jointly held leadership training for several of the youth movements, purchasing of low-use equipment that can be shared between organizations, sharing space or simply sharing program ideas, bringing people together can help them cope with the “more with less” mentality that has cut resources without changing expectations. It has also led to a culture of… 
  • Shared learning: While we regularly bring in speakers, conversations that take place at TPK meetings often involve the workshopping of issues ranging from how to cope with overbearing parents to how to support teens with potential mental health issues to where to find allergy-friendly kosher food. Especially for JYPs working for organizations where they are a solo practitioner or one of a very small team, this shared learning and support is part of the… 
  • Creation of community: Jewish Teen engagement can feel lonely. Many JYPs don’t have regular access to peers doing the same or similar work. They may live in an area near lots of teens but where there is not a large population of people like them. They often work nights and weekends, which is disruptive to a social life. Even more so, as Jewish communal professionals dedicated to the Jewish growth and development of other people, it can feel so challenging to carve out a Jewish community of one’s own—where the people you serve are not all around you during your own Jewish experiences. This can be incredibly isolating and draining, particularly for JYPs working at synagogues. Building a community with people who understand what you are going through is essential to professionals who want to remain in the field for more than a few years. 

The strongest impact this kind of convening leads to is a community of JYPs who can better support teens on their “Jewish journeys” and identity formation. Here in Chicago it has become normalized for JYPs to “pass along” their teens to other programs, either as an additional way they can grow or, when a teen just isn’t connecting to one organization/JYP, as a way to make sure they are finding a space in the Jewish community where they feel comfortable and engaged. 
Whether or not your Federation provides direct programs for teens, you can have a role in elevating teen engagement by bringing JYPs together strategically and intentionally. While it took time to build the trust and value proposition necessary to keep people coming to the table, it is worth the time (and relatively small financial investment) to build community among JYPs that will enhance the ways that teens engage in your Jewish community. The ripple-out effect—to parents, to other ways you work together with partner organizations, to investment in other areas of the teen community—will go far beyond the confines of the group you convene.