By Michael A. Morris / michael@atljewishtimes.com

Michael Morris Arms FoldedMy youngest daughter, Hannah, is halfway through the first session of Camp Barney, and she and I could not be happier. She has been waiting for camp to begin all year, and I know she wakes up each morning excited for the day’s activities, especially since she gets to spend the entire day with her best friends and essentially no parental oversight. For me, I know she is immersed in Judaism and loving every minute of it.

That is a hard combination to find, but it is something that the Jewish community needs to cultivate for Jewish identity to remain strong from this generation to the next.

There are two major players in this space: Jewish sleepaway camp and Taglit-Birthright Israel. Both make being Jewish hip and relevant, both affect our kids’ long-term commitment to Judaism, and both affect tens of thousands of kids, teens and young adults each year. Jewish sleepaway camp entertains over 70,000 kids each summer, and Birthright trips involve over 25,000 teens and young adults each year. These are big and important numbers for our Jewish community.

When you talk to alumni 25 years later or more, you discover that the impressions are lasting. My mother, just this week, recounted songs she sang at Camp Laurelwood (in Connecticut) some 65 years ago. Birthright alumni universally claim that their trip changed their lives as well as their perspective on Israel.

Those two organizations are important and are well known, but our community needs more. An example of an emerging organization that is having a positive impact on Jewish commitment in thousands of teens a year is AEPi.

AEPi is now one of the 10 largest fraternities in North America. It has more than 10,000 undergraduates on over 180 campuses. While some chapters offer more Jewish programing than others, about 2,000 students, representing virtually every chapter, attend one or two of a dozen Jewish leadership programming retreats each year. Why? Because AEPi makes Jewish leadership training engaging and relevant to student life, and they get to attend with their friends.

What is important, however, is that the brothers who have involved themselves with leadership training at AEPi have proved to be more motivated Jewish young adults. AEPi’s research has shown that they tend to stay engaged in Jewish activities immediately after graduation, they think Jewish when they are dating, and they quickly join other Jewish organizations to balance their work life.

There are many smaller and local organizations as well. The Atlanta Scholars Kollel offers a program called Yad B’Yad (the name is not unique to ASK) at several private schools in Atlanta. Some of my daughters have been through four years of meetings during high school. This specific program does not provide the immersion that a retreat, trip or overnight camp delivers, but it does provide continual engagement with Judaism that is fun and relevant (which studying for a bat mitzvah doesn’t necessarily offer).

Lydia, another daughter of mine, says she goes to every Yad B’Yad class because it is fun, she is with friends, and while they are learning, there is no test!

There are more good programs out there, and we need to cultivate them. In two weeks, the AJT will unveil our list of 25 innovators in the Atlanta Jewish nonprofit world. Some of the organizations represented, or programs highlighted, are working with kids and teens in precisely this fashion. I will not spill the beans, but when we announce our list, you will see several student-based organizations.

This is our future. Our children have a choice in their involvement with Judaism; it is unfortunately not a given. As parents and teachers, we need to become creative. We need to motivate them to engagement. We need to support camp and Birthright, but we also need to look at innovative strategies to make Judaism relevant and engaging.

We need to take an in-depth look at our 25 innovators and their programs, see what is working, and promote more of their approaches. As I continue to shepherd your Atlanta Jewish Times, I hope to continue to offer new and exciting engagement opportunities for our community.