In the Winter 2009 edition of Reform Judaism Magazine, the Union for Reform Judaism shared the results of a survey on post-B’nai Mitzvah retention. The impetus for conducting the study was quite simple: The leaders of the Reform movement have observed for decades a precipitous drop in religious school enrollment immediately following Bar and Bat Mitzvah.
Rabbi Jan Katzew, lead specialist of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Congregational Consulting Group and former director of the Department of Lifelong Jewish Learning, and his team sought to discern the true extent of the attrition rate and which congregations had successful retention and why. Close to 900 Reform congregations participated in the survey. Of the nearly 17,000 annual B’nai and B’not Mitzvah a year, only about half continue through 10th grade and slightly more than one in 10 enroll through 12th grade. The rate slightly increases through 12th grade when you include students engaged in other Jewish activities outside of religious school, such as camping and youth group.
About 50 religious schools — 7-10 percent total — retain 80 percent of post-B’nai Mitzvah students through 12th grade. I was proud to hear that my home synagogue, Congregation Emanu El in Houston, Texas, has the highest retention rate in the country, close to 92 percent. In analyzing the findings of the survey, the URJ identified 10 key factors these synagogues had in common that led to higher retention rates.
For the sake of this piece, I want to highlight one particular factor, though I do encourage you to read the entire article in the magazine. The degree to which post-B’nai Mitzvah teens are empowered by the congregation to be involved in all facets of education, worship and synagogue governance increases the likelihood that students will stay connected beyond Bar/Bat Mitzvah.
In other words, students want to play a role in religious school as teachers and specialists, be given the opportunity to be Bar/Bat Mitzvah tutors, engage in social justice, and feel that temple youth group is valued by the leadership. Becoming an adult in the Jewish community means that we need to offer our students the prospect to give back in healthy ways, and honing the values and skills they learned in training for Bar/Bat Mitzvah while acknowledging that a major transition has taken place in our community.
Rabbi Daniel Weiner, Temple De Hirsch Sinai’s senior rabbi, often highlights three entry points for post-B’nai Mitzvah students to stay involved in synagogue life: Ongoing enrollment in our religion school through 12th grade, youth group, and our hadracha (teaching assistant) program. Ideally, we hope that our students will be involved in all three. But in an age when teens are balancing hectic school and extra-curricular activity schedules, our goal is that they carve out time to do at least one.
Reflecting on the factor I mentioned above, after consulting other congregations that have successful models while assessing our needs in the community, I sat down with Leah Rosenwald, our education and youth coordinator, to revamp our current madrichim program, giving it the new name Hadracha (guiding). Students have traditionally been assigned to classes to assist in the classroom while serving as mentors to the kids. Recognizing that not all of our students want to be in classrooms, Leah and I expanded the opportunities to incorporate different tracks in which students work as a team to enhance aspects of our education program.
This upcoming year’s tracks will consist of songleading, art, and classroom, including all-school educational programs, and Kesher (grades 6-7)/junior youth groups. Response has been very positive, as already more than 30 madrichim have applied to work in the coming Hadracha year.
Our goal, over time, is that this program will grow and provide a viable opportunity for post-B’nai Mitzvah students to be involved, especially for those unable to attend our high school. And the Hadracha program incorporates many of the values I mentioned before — empowerment and ownership in temple. Our ultimate goal is to curb B’nai Mitzvah attrition.
The Torah teaches us that we pass on our tradition through our children, insuring that Judaism will continue throughout the ages. Keeping our teens involved beyond Bar/Bat Mitzvah is critical to making this a reality. As we approach this High Holy Day season, may we experience renewed sense of creativity in pursuing this difficult task for the future of the Jewish community.