How youth groups are meeting the challenge of tough times

Recession and competition from schools and social media mean movements have to fight hard for membership

By Jennifer Lipman, August 23, 2012
Habonim Dror members working at an Israeli soup kitchen. The trip to Israel is an integral part of what many movements offer (Photo: Meir Panim)

Habonim Dror members working at an Israeli soup kitchen. The trip to Israel is an integral part of what many movements offer (Photo: Meir Panim)

The photos have been taken, the memories made. The bags are now strewn across the floor. Voices have been lost, friendships formed. There have been tears and thrills, smiles and sing-songs, even a smidgen of Jewish education. The holidays are coming to an end for another year, and with them the summer camps and tours that have become a staple of the Anglo-Jewish calendar.

For decades, communal life for Britain’s Jewish youngsters has been based around groups run for and by them, from East End social clubs such as Brady Maccabi to charitable organisations like the Jewish Youth Voluntary Service, and, perhaps most of all, Zionist youth movements — from the socialist Habonim Dror to the religious Bnei Akiva, and everything in between.

But a century after they began, Jewish youth movements are having to navigate a challenging future. Movements that once sustained weekly chapter meetings now focus on holiday camps and one-off events. A few groups, like Zionist movement Hanoar, have seen membership fall, but most are steady or even growing. Yet whereas once one movement’s decline in membership was inevitably another’s gain, today a key concern is what the expansion of Jewish education means for youth movements.

It is “a big challenge”, admits FZY’s national director, Joshua Marks. Parents believe the classroom to be an adequate substitute for youth movement membership. “Seeing the [low] level of passion and engagement of people from Jewish schools on our programmes, this is not always the case,” says Marks. “The challenge is to make the case to parents that youth movements are still essential to forming a strong Jewish identity.”

Historically, youth groups were where people found Jewish friends and partners. But according to Maccabi’s Daniel Morris: “Youth clubs have generally become a thing of the past as parents feel their children’s Jewish content is being fulfilled via their Jewish school life”.

The worry is that this will affect participation in the post-GCSEs Israel tours — still a rite of passage for many teenagers. “Jewish schools are now taking their pupils to Israel and giving them all of their Jewish or Zionist identity and education. How can we compete?” asks Hanoar’s Ed Nyman.

However, Joshua Rowe, chairman of the governors at King David School, in Manchester, says Jewish schools have strengthened youth movements, and argues that his school has significant involvement with them.

“Pupils have a stronger sense of identity,” he says. “They are more likely to be a part of the Jewish scene. The ideal is that schools and youth movements work in close harmony, imbuing pupils with knowledge and with a sense of pride and belonging. It works extremely well. The combination of home, school and youth movement — provided they all give the same message — is formidable.”

But while parents might have been happy to fund both in previous years, “the cost of all youth movement programmes are rising, and in this current financial climate, parents tend to see youth movements as a luxury,” says Cassie Matus, Habonim’s national director.

Participation in gap-year schemes was hit badly last year, thanks to the double blow of the recession and the university fees system. All the movements have been working to cut costs, slicing days off tours or scrapping trips. In summer 2011, a quarter of tour participants received some financial support from the UJIA. “We never wish to turn away anyone because of monetary constraints, and so another ongoing challenge is fundraising for our bursary fund,” says Yoav Guttman of the Masorti group, Noam.

But the movements will only be sustainable if the wider community continues to support them. “The main challenge is a decline in funding from bigger organisations,” says LJY-Netzer worker Sam Grant. “The problem is convincing people in the community that they should be investing resources into youth.”

The early days of youth movements coincided with the struggle for Israel and offered a safe space at a time when discrimination was prevalent and Jews were often excluded from non-Jewish social structures. The modern British community does not feel the same need. Today’s teenagers have more on offer — communally, with bodies such as Tribe, Aish or the Jewish Learning Exchange — but also in the wider world. “Social media means young people no longer have to go to chapter meetings to see their friends. Why sit in a shul hall when you can see your friends on Skype?” says Hannah Minsky, national director of the B’nai B’rith Youth Organisation (BBYO).

To that end, most movements boast iPhone apps and active social media profiles. For example, all of Bnei Akiva’s educational resources can be accessed through its app, while its weekly educational syllabus is available on YouTube. “We are in a more competitive market than ever before, with many more demands on the time of our members and more organisations working with youth,” said Alex Cohen, the group’s national director. “Staying on top of the latest trends is sure to play an even larger part over the coming years.”

Youth movements are led by the very people they want to engage, so are well placed to remake themselves and change structure where necessary. BBYO has introduced a separate sixth-form programme on camps, aware this is more attractive to older members, while RSY-Netzer recently piloted a day camp for members age five to 11. FZY opened its doors to younger members last year and now offers participants nine options for tour, including one focused on archeological digging and one built around social action. “Coming up with new and stimulating projects is key,” says Josh Nyman.

Tikkun Olam — the idea of “repairing the world” — has become a priority, with movements running events for Mitzvah Day, or schemes like RSY-Netzer’s Respect campaign, a social media drive to get youths talking about personal development. LJY-Netzer has shifted focus from summer camps to a scheme providing members with internships in Jewish and non-Jewish charities in Britain and in Israel.

There is continued debate over how much a draw the groups’ ideologies is. Joshua Marks says, FZY and its rivals remain “unashamedly ideological”, but adds: “This ideology is combined with the realisation that we need to attract young people in order to engage them”.

Movements maintain that being aligned with specific branches of Judaism is a strong pull to members from the outset, while those without a specifically religious or denominational offer believe that their principles become more important as members grow up. As Cassie Matus points out, “herd mentality” brings people in, but ideology makes them stay.

All the movements are adamant that they will not sacrifice ideology for popularity. And many members of the Zionist groups are inspired to make aliyah. Those who remain in Britain are well placed to play an important role in the community and invest in its survival, first on campus and later on charity committees, synagogue bodies and in lay leadership positions.

A recent survey conducted by FZY showed that two-thirds of its former year-course participants went on to hold community leadership positions, while 96 per cent had married Jewish partners. Habonim counts the heads of several Jewish charities in the UK as alumni.

Financial pressures and competition mean these are not easy times, but, aside from the odd casualty, like AJ6 or JYSG, youth movements are not likely to fade off the communal map any time soon. Last summer 1,600 British and Irish teenagers joined Israel tours — hardly a sign of a decline. Yet this should not be taken for granted. “Youth provision is not an extra that we should only invest in when financial times are good,” says Sam Grant. “It is a necessity for a thriving community.”

Last updated: 3:26pm, October 22 2012