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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

$4 million matching grant aims to engage L.A. Jewish teens

With the support of a more than $4 million matching grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation, along with financial assistance from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles is developing the Los Angeles Jewish Teen Initiative as part of an extensive outreach effort to Jewish teens who otherwise would not be involved in Jewish life. 

“The goal is to engage 2,000 to 3,000 local Jewish teens in meaningful Jewish experiences,” Josh Miller, senior program officer at the Jim Joseph Foundation, said in a phone interview.

The L.A. grant, which was announced last February, represents a ramped-up effort by the Jim Joseph Foundation to fund youth organizations. According to the foundation’s website, it has awarded more than $37.3 million in seven communities for community-based Jewish teen education initiatives.

Miller said the foundation hopes to help Jewish teens explore “what it means to be Jewish today, and what it means to be Jewish in the future.”

Many share Miller’s enthusiasm. Ben Schillmoeller, 25, the program coordinator at the Shalom Institute, was among approximately 30 people representing various nonprofit organizations who attended a Nov. 2-3 retreat held at American Jewish University’s Brandeis-Bardin Campus in Simi Valley, which focused on developing ways of engaging youth. The Federation organized the retreat.

After a morning spent brainstorming under the guidance of a representative of Upstart, a San Francisco Bay Area-based consulting service, Schillmoeller told the Journal he believes outdoor trips are one way to make teenagers excited about being Jewish.  

“Teens don’t really get the chance to go out and see the wilderness as much as they used to,” Schillmoeller said in an interview. 

Ronnie Conn, assistant executive director at the Westside JCC, said he thinks expanding the popular Maccabi Games program for youth is also important for teen engagement.

Although the majority of teen programs are still being developed, one is already underway: Federation launched a community internship program for high school students last summer as part of the initiative. Twenty-seven teenagers worked at various Jewish organizations across Los Angeles, including at the Jewish Journal, in internships that not only offered work experience for their résumés, but also were intended to help engage them in Jewish life. The program will continue next year.

Representatives of BBYO, formerly B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, Camp JCA Shalom, Moving Traditions, JQ International, Shalom Institute, Stephen S. Wise Temple Freedom School, Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles and the Westside Jewish Community Center are among the first organizations included in this effort. The Federation will have worked with more than 20 organizations by the time the entire initiative concludes in nearly five years. 

“We were looking for diversity,” Shari Davis, director of Jewish education and engagement at Federation, told the Journal. “We were looking for diversity of organizations.”

Each of the organizations will receive between $25,000 and $50,000 from the Jim Joseph Foundation matching grant, according to Jessica Green, director of the L.A. Jewish Teen Initiative.

“The ultimate goal of everything we are doing is to engage as many under-engaged teenagers in some form of Jewish life [as possible],” she said. “And we are doing this from a variety of different tactics. One is expanding the programmatic landscape for teens. … Another is working with teen educators, ensuring they are as highly resourced and trained as possible to meet the diverse needs of teens themselves, and the third is nurturing the L.A. ecosystem, attempting to bridge existing gaps that exist in a city as geographically wide and culturally diverse as this is.”

Shira Rosenblatt, senior vice president of Jewish education and engagement at Federation, said the initiative hopes to counteract the drop-off in Jewish engagement that so often follows a teen’s b’nai mitzvah experience. 

“Many of them see the bar and bat mitzvah as an opportunity for a perfect exit out, and we lose them,” she said. “And we really do believe that a connection to Jewish life — in the broader sense, a connection to community — can offer resources and insights and support for teens in a way that can be tremendously beneficial to them.” 

The funds also are being used to train leaders in Jewish organizations to become more effective teen educators and to engage the teens themselves to become participants in the conversations about Jewish life. 

Conn, for his part, said that the mere convening of Jewish leaders is important for the larger effort of engaging youth.

“It is creating in L.A. a network like we have never seen, in terms of how we can better serve teens across the city.”

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