Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Youthcon 2012

Two weeks ago I spent Shabbat with Yeshiva University president Richard Joel at the YU Championsgate leadership conference in Orlando.  Last Shabbat I was in Ghana with Ruth Messinger, director of American Jewish World Services.  And yesterday Richard Joel, Ruth Messinger, and I were all together at the Hilton in Stamford Connecticut for YouthCon 2012 - the largest annual gathering of Jewish youth professionals.

Hundreds of professionals from all over the world gathered to network and to share ideas on how to engage youth in Torah and Jewish life.  It was absolutely amazing!!!

The conference is hosted by NCSY and the Orthodox Union.  160 different Jewish organizations participated, spanning the entire spectrum of Jewish life.

It may be the only conference that brings together leading Jewish institutions ranging from the Orthodox Union, Yeshiva University, Chabad, Jewish Theological Seminary, Camp Ramah, Aish Hatorah, UJA Federation, and over 150 others representing every denomination, and some organizations representing no denomination.  

The groups differed in almost every way but they all shared a passion to connect the next generation of Jews to their heritage.

Some things that made the conference great:
  • the whole program cost $36 and it included a delicious catered lunch.  The OU was able to do this by finding a host of generous sponsors.
  • the conference was only one day 9:30 to 5:15.  When conferences go longer they tend to lose momentum by the second day.  Every second of Youthcon felt exciting!
  • the conference was flexible.  There were more programs than anyone could go to, but there were also a number of short programs, as well as plenty of time for networking and sharing ideas.  Sometimes the best ideas are shared outside of the formal sessions, and youthcon allowed for maximum networking opportunities.
I think the best thing about Youthcon was that there was clearly no agenda other than sharing ideas on how to engage Jewish youth.  I felt as if no ideas were off limits.  The sessions featured speakers of all denominations, outlooks, world views, and levels of observance.  But there was no fighting over differences of opinions or judgements about other people's Jewishness.  There also didn't seem to be any overt competition, even though many of the groups are often competing for the same target audience for their programs.  There was an atmosphere of openness and cooperation between people who are all involved in the same sacred mission.  It was really inspiring!

I could not begin to list all of the amazing sessions that were featured.  You can view the schedule on the youthcon website.

I got so much out of the conference.

  • I attended a session on social media about how to use facebook and twitter and blogging to reach out to people.  I think I am going to try that.
  • I heard a session from my good friend Matt Bar, founder of Bible Raps. 
  • I heard Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt give an inspiring presentation on how to focus the synagogue on youth without alienating adults.
The main plenary featured Richard Joel, Ruth Messinger, and Shimon Waronker.

For me the highlight was a debate between Ilan Caplan from American Jewish World Services and Omaha's own Joel Alperson.  Joel had published a number of articles stating that excessive focus on social justice and left wing politics is contributing to the decline of the non-Orthodox movements.  Ilan, representing AJWS, feels that political advocacy and involvement in non-Jewish social justice projects is inherently Jewish and no less Jewish then learning Torah or observing Shabbat.
It was a lively debate and the audience asked some really challenging questions for both presenters.

YouthCon was a great experience.  I will finally be back in Omaha tomorrow after 2 long weeks away.  I can't wait to get back and starting bringing back everything I learned to Beth Israel.

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