According to the Pew Research Center, the median age of Jewish adults is older than that of the general US population. Because of this, Jewish youth leadership development is a crucial priority for many streams of Judaism.
This is no easy task. However, one Jewish school has had considerable success helping youth develop leadership skills and deepen their faith through a unique program, dubbed the Friday Boys.
Participating boys walk through Detroit neighborhoods every Friday afternoon, a few hours before the Jewish sabbath begins in the evening. In pairs, they approach residents and business owners and offer to discuss the week’s Torah portion or say prayers together. They’ve also conducted a drive to help 1,500 men lay tefillin—the Jewish practice of binding boxes containing scriptural parchments to the forehead and arm with leather straps. The program shows how Jewish youth organizations can succeed by being creative and engaging with the wider community.
Why Community Engagement Matters in Youth Leadership Development
The Friday Boys are students at Lubavitch Yeshiva Jewish Day School in Detroit. The school is affiliated with Chabad, a Hasidic sect that emphasizes sharing Jewish knowledge and practices with all Jews, including those who are unaffiliated. “Judaism is never meant to be limited to a place of worship. Our main [concern] is what we do outside of synagogue,” Rabbi Mendel Stein, director of development at the school, told The Detroit Free Press.
There’s research to support that a community-first approach to youth leadership development is more likely to lead to success, according to Texas State University. Researchers have found it imbues youth with a sense of purpose and increases problem solving abilities. So, it’s no wonder that Lubavitch Yeshiva Jewish Day school reports that 90% of its graduates work in leadership positions, crediting its outreach program with preparing students for these roles.
The Future of Jewish Youth Leadership Development
According to eJewish Philanthropy, community building is the “missing ingredient” in Jewish youth leadership development. Organizations can’t keep taking the same approaches and expect different results. The Friday Boys demonstrate that innovative programming that grows leadership skills and strengthens Jewish identity can yield impressive results.
Organizations may want to consider new ways to connect with the wider community. While not every mitzvah is right for every group, organizations can set goals that make sense—like collecting 1,000 cans of food for a food bank or finding 200 people to participate in a blood drive. For example, the JustCity pre-college program connects Jewish youth with activists, helping them see the threads between Jewish values and social action. Even better, it allows teens to get directly involved with hands-on volunteering.
One way to begin is simply by talking to youth. Knowing what they’re passionate about can help guide the formation of effective initiatives that will make kids feel like they really are making a difference and growing personally and spiritually. No matter what the goal, it’s the skills and qualities garnered along the way that young people will take with them as they mature into adulthood.