At the 4Front of Engaging Jewish Teens

Rabbi Dena Shaffer proudly displays the new 4Front logo. (Photo by Daniel Nozick)

The Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC’s teen engagement effort, originally called the Center for Teen Engagement, recently rebranded to 4Front, a name officials feel better embodies its purpose and goals.

“Our name, 4Front, comes from two areas,” said Rabbi Dena Shaffer, director of the organization. “We see ourselves on the cutting edge, or forefront, of engaging this demographic, and the ‘4’ refers to our four pillars — platforms under which we operate. We work through the lens of action buzzwords: advocate, collaborate, innovate and educate. Those are really the tools that we are using to operate in and around the teen space.”’

4Front’s aim is to serve as a community resource for Jewish teens that will elevate their roles in the community by serving as a base of operations for the demographic and by contributing valuable programming.

4Front is taking a different approach from most organizations that engage teens. In the world of programming for teenagers, programming is often what drives events. However, 4Front plans to be a space that teens can convene in, regardless of whether or not there is a program going on.

“I think this could be a really compelling way to ‘crack the nut’ of teen engagement,” said Shaffer. She explained that the time between a Jewish child’s b’nai mitzvah and wedding is when they will go through the biggest changes and seek to become involved in something meaningful. However, contrary to the wealth of opportunities available to Jewish teens in Baltimore, this is often the time when children are the least engaged with the Jewish community. 4Front aims to change that.

Beth Goldsmith, chair of community planning and allocations for The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, cited that national statistics indicate that only between 10 percent and 25 percent of Jewish teens are engaged in any Jewish programming whatsoever. However, 4Front is bucking that trend, already engaging more teens locally.

The Owings Mills JCC hosted a fair in March called iEngage, which brought 40 organizations operating in the Jewish teen space together under one roof to highlight what each does and what they offer that is special to the teen demographic.

“We had over 100 teens and their families come through, and all of the organizations represented were so different,” said Shaffer. “There was everything from summer camp to study abroad opportunities to leadership training to volunteering with special needs youth. It really showcases that there are so many great things being done in our community with this demographic, and something really magical happens when those people start talking to each other. Between our recent information sessions, iEngage and some other things, we have touched at least 200, 250 teens, and that number is growing.”

4Front was made possible by the Jim Joseph Foundation, a West Coast-based organization dedicated to fostering compelling, effective Jewish learning experiences for young Jews. The foundation convened 10 communities from around the country and founded the Funder Collaborative, which hosts monthly conference calls and meets in person biannually to share experiences, programs and what members have learned. In 2015, the foundation and The Associated provided a five-year matching grant for $1.525 million, which was put toward creating this teen engagement branch of Baltimore’s Jewish community.

A major effort of 4Front is a social innovation fellowship, which it will be rolling out in the fall, aimed at helping Jewish teens to develop an entrepreneurial mindset. Applications to the fellowship are due by April 21.

“This fellowship will show them how they can hack the social problems that they experience or observe in the world in a real and meaningful way,” said Shaffer. “Fellows will work with industry experts in areas of social challenge meaningful to them and will be mentored by leaders in the business community who have seen their fair share of pitfalls and challenges and can really help our teens navigate those as well.”

“The underlying theme of this fellowship is that failure is OK and that it is what we learn from,” she continued. “That message is often lost with the pressure that our teens are faced with. We are really hoping that through this program, teens will learn to embrace challenges and failures. An educator put it to me last night, ‘a broken bone grows stronger,’ and that is a really powerful message for teens to hear.”

4Front is also providing opportunities for adults to engage with in a meaningful and Jewish way. Shaffer knows that there are a lot of adults, from professionals to parents to lay leaders in the community, who really care about this demographic and want to invest and be involved in the Jewish future in this way.

To that end, 4Front will be hosting a free seminar for parents at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation on May 3 at 7 p.m. Dr. Betsy Stone, a board member of Hebrew Union College and an educator and psychologist, will speak about the Jewish needs of this demographic and how Judaism can help teens develop character and become resilient Jewish adults.

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