VISION FOR TOMORROW
An interview with Lenny Silberman
You’ve referred to Jewish teen athletes as the “lost tribe.” Why is that?
There have always been a lot of kids who play sports at the JCC but don’t really go beyond that. And there are even more young Jewish athletes out there who don't even make it through the door of a JCC, or a Jewish camp, or day school. There are also elite athletes who are involved at a higher level of play than they can find in the typical Jewish sports context.
They're all part of a group I think of as the “lost tribe of Israel.” And they, in turn, are part of a growing demographic of young Jews with little or no formal connection to the organized Jewish community. And these are the kids who usually fall through the cracks of the communal efforts aimed at engaging young people in Jewish life.
A lot of engagement strategies are designed to go after the kids who are already involved in one way or another — to keep them in the fold post- bar/bat mitzvah . And that’s important, but it’s basically passing by a huge group of young people who are seen maybe as too hard to reach, or not likely to respond to the Jewish piece.
All my career I’ve worked to connect to these kids.
And you know, it’s not just the athletes, but also teens who are into arts and music, and many others. They’re Jewish, but they’re just on a different path for whatever reason. Economics, geography, intermarriage, not religious, etc.
Yes, maybe they’re harder to reach at first, but at the end of the day, they’re just as likely to develop a meaningful connection to Jewish life and to the community, once they find that opening that speaks to them.
So how do you connect with them?
You have to meet them where they are. At the Pittsburgh JCC, we did it through basketball. I built very popular and successful basketball program that brought hundreds and hundreds of boys and girls into the J, and kept them coming back, right up through 12th grade. Along the way, we worked Jewishly-informed elements into how we ran our league, and offered opportunities for kids to go a little deeper when they were ready.
At the JCC Maccabi Games, we worked hard to make sure girls had the same opportunities and representation as boys. Above and beyond the athletics, we were immersing these kids in a consciously Jewish environment for a week every summer, and for many of them, it was the first time in their lives they were surrounded by hundreds of other Jews. As continental director, I instituted the Rachmones Rule, teaching sportsmanship through a Jewish lens, and introduced Day of Caring and Sharing, a tikkun olam program that really turned a lot of kids on to the positive feeling that comes with making the world a better place.
We also found that, once we had these kids on board, we could turn them on to a much broader understanding of the Jewish world. I worked to bring in delegations from Jewish communities around the globe. Many of our kids never knew there were Jews in Poland, or Australia, or South Africa. Actually meeting and competing with these kids, along with the Israelis and Jewish athletes from a dozen different countries was a real eye-opener for them.
Similarly, the Munich 11 tribute, that I worked to expand and make a part of every opening ceremonies, not only informed our teens about what happened, but helped them realize that if we don’t stand up for and remember them, who will? The Maccabi movement, led by the Rockland JCC, really got behind the push to pressure the International Olympic Committee to do the right thing and own up to the horrible tragedy and crimes of Munich. The success of that effort really showed our kids that by working together, you can make a difference.
We gave thousands of teens each year an overwhelmingly positive and exciting, Jewish-identity building experience. And it all began with sports — that’s what gets them in the door. We found it works with the arts as well, and of course with travel, so we expanded JCC Maccabi, adding ArtsFest and an Israel teen experience to reach different interest groups.
And of course plenty of Jewishly-involved teens are drawn to sports and arts and travel as well! They serve as our most important “ambassadors” to the lost tribe, since kids learn as much or more from their peers as they do from teachers, coaches, and parents.
Can you elaborate on peer learning? How is that part of your vision for connecting with teens?
Well, it can be the best way to keep kids engaged and coming back, and at the same time, gives them a great lesson in the value of being a part of a community.
Here’s an example. In Pittsburgh, our basketball program at the JCC involved hundreds of kids of all ages each year. We offered our all-stars — from 6th grade to 12th grade — the opportunity to work with younger players, tutoring them in basketball skills. It was kids teaching kids, with no parents or coaches running the show. For these young people who were used to helicopter-parenting, it was a big deal. It became part of the DNA of the program — our best players knew that if you want a spot on the all-star team, you’re going to come on the weekends and volunteer.
And talk about a win-win-win. The younger ones, from kindergarten through fourth grade, got so much more than basketball skills out of it — they got a mentor and a role model. Nothing makes a young child feel more welcome in a community setting than an older kid showing them the ropes. And the teens who coached learned the feeling of well-being that comes from reaching out to and helping others. They felt like part of the program, part of the community, and that they were really giving something back.
The biggest win was for our entire community, who saw young people remaining involved at the JCC long past bar/bat mitzvah age, which is often a point we see kids drop out of Jewish communal activity. Our kids stayed with us right until graduation, and our community — and our teens’ lives — were richer for it.
Where do you see opportunities today for connecting with Jewish youth?
One area — and it's a very big area — is the esports phenomenon. It's been sweeping the United States and the world in the past few years — specifically in the millennial and teen spaces. Without a doubt it offers a tremendous opportunity to bring young people into the tent. Madden NFL, FIFA, League of Legends, Minecraft and other games are part of an industry that generates over a billion dollars in revenue worldwide, and delivers content to more viewers than HBO, Netflix, ESPN, and Hulu combined.
Hundreds of thousands of Jewish kids are already playing esports in their own homes, with involvement by girls generally matching and sometimes exceeding that of boys. We could engage these teens via competitions and tournaments at — and between — JCCs, Jewish day schools and summer camps, and even do year-round programming, giving us the means to keep them connected to each other, and to the Jewish community 12 months a year.
It appeals to a huge swath of kids, both boys and girls, many of whom we may not have another way of reaching. There’s so much enthusiasm for esports among this age group, the possibilities are really endless - from bringing it into the JCC Maccabi Games, summer camps, and day schools, all the way to creating a Jewish esports-centered camp.
We could also engage these kids through learning. The gaming world is booming, surpassing even the pro sports leagues in total dollars generated each year - and with that comes all kinds of career options. We could offer teens workshops on coding, and other aspects of the behind-the-scenes world of esports, to show them how their passion could actually be a jumping off point to all kinds of professional and social opportunities.
Do you really think esports belong in the JCC Maccabi Games?
Absolutely. The Games have always tried to cast a wide net, and engage as many Jewish teens as possible. When we included bowling, dance, chess, and table tennis, we were able to reach a lot of kids who couldn’t make the soccer and basketball team. We wanted them to be able to enjoy a JCC Maccabi experience as well, and it worked very well. They competed, they got the social piecem the Jewish piece — all of it. Bringing in the esports players seems like a logical extension of that thinking. ArtsFest brought in the musicians, singers, and visual artists, as well as writers, and culinary enthusiasts. Why not branch into an area where we’ll find another whole cohort of kids who want to be part of what we’re doing?
Look, the world changes around us all the time, and as we all know, it happens even faster in the teen space. The Olympics have incorporated elements from the X-games. It’s about having a vision to grow and evolve. Dream in color, dream big, and act bold.
I would love to see the JCC Maccabi Games expand into hosting events like family games and family cruises, and collaborating with Hillel to put on university games. Just think what could happen if JCC Maccabi partnered with all the major denominational youth movements to work on year-round programming, summer experiences, or regional games at the junior high level. And why not engage kids who are aging out of the Games with a coaches-in-training program, along the lines of the basketball mentoring we did in Pittsburgh? There are so many things we could do to find new ways to build community around this.
Is that kind of collaboration possible?
Well, we’d need a way to connect the dots, that’s for sure. I think you could look at the Foundation for Jewish Camp as a blueprint. What if we created a Foundation for Jewish Sports? Something that could wrap up all the different pieces, and really put young Jewish athletes on the radar of the Jewish community.
Its mission would be to reach out to and connect with these kids, whether they’re just beginning or are continuing their Jewish sports journey. We’d keep them engaged in their JCC, youth movement, day school, or camp. But moreover, it would give us a vehicle to strengthen the programs and staffs of these organizations, and provide them with grants and programming to help re-engage and better serve the teens in their Jewish communities.
With more and more young people focusing on a single sport these days, and travel teams and all that, we’re losing kids to other commitments and to elite training programs. A Foundation for Jewish Sports could help our JCCs, schools, and camps to develop stronger sports and recreation offerings that could stack up a little better to these programs. And beyond that, it could help our agencies provide opportunities like coaches-in-training, and a dozen other cool things that engage and instruct kids, and keep them active in the JCC, the camp, the day school environment.
You definitely do “dream in color!” You’ve spent your whole professional life in this area — after four decades, do you have a dream of how you’d like to see the worlds of sports and Judaism come together?
I would love to establish a virtual JCC Maccabi Hall of Fame. As an online home for the history of the Games, and a whole lot more. Unlike a typical hall of fame, it would recognize not only the exceptional individuals and teams, but also the efforts of everyone involved in bringing the Games to life.
I see a JCC Maccabi Hall of Fame that rests on three pillars: inclusivity, inspiration, and scholarships.
It would be inclusive because anyone who does anything for the Games is worthy of honor, and should have a home in the Hall. Every athlete, coach, volunteer, donor, host family, and staff member is part of the team that puts up the biggest win each summer: the creation of a community. One that lasts for a week, and celebrates teamwork, Jewish life, and the amazing potential of our kids, who are tomorrow’s Jewish leaders.
At the same time, the Hall would recognize the achievements of exceptional teams and athletes, coaches, or volunteers that serve as inspiration to all of us. The team that didn’t lose a game for ten years, or that won the gold several years in a row, etc.
And as a year-round, ongoing connecting point for JCC Maccabi, the Hall of Fame could offer opportunities to help Jewish athletes. Whether it’s raising money for scholarships at the local level to send kids to the Games who can’t afford it, or — at the highest level — helping a Jewish Olympic hopeful pay for top-level coaching, the Hall could really bring people together to make a difference in the lives of young Jewish athletes.
And it could even facilitate networking among alums. Everyone involved with the Games would have a profile, that they could update over the years, and use to both stay in touch with friends, but also use to find fellow Maccabi folks if they move to a new city, or are looking or professional opportunities.
It seems like you still have the same enthusiasm for this that you did back when you were coaching basketball at the JCC.
Hey, like I always say, I’m “just a coach.” Look, we can always do better by our kids — that’s been my motivation all along. By our athletes, yes, but also by all the different teens who may or may not have a strong connection to the community and to Jewish life.
Look, today’s youth are about to enter a world of choices, and its a world that is increasingly likely to deliver a negative slant on Israel — especially on campus — and also a world where even in America we’re seeing an uptick in anti-Semitism. At the same time, it’s a world where intermarriage is more common than ever, and traditional bonds to the community are often fraying.
We can’t just say our outreach to teens is lacking, and not do something about it.
I’ve worked my whole life to reach kids, and once you’ve connected with them via what they like to do, you can offer them positive Jewish experiences that will stick with them as they go on to adulthood. If they think back to what they learned about Jewish values, about the Munich 11, about meeting Jewish kids from all over the world, about taking time out to give back, to help the less fortunate, to mentor a kid, well, that’s going to go a long way when they start making their choices about what kind of life they are going to lead.
If we do this right, there’s no reason we can’t evolve with the times, and help kids find their way to a stronger and more meaningful Jewish identity. The doors we open today will help kids lead better, more Jewishly informed lives, and will make stronger Jewish communities tomorrow. It’s a big win-win.