With over 500 attendees and dozens of presentations on virtually every topic in informal and experiential Jewish education, NCSY’s YouthCon, held on August 19 at the Stamford Hilton, was a smashing success. 

Among the many participants was Jon Gross, senior rabbi at the Beth Israel Synagogue in Nebraska. A steady twitter-er during the conference, he described the experience as "absolutely amazing!" 

"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, ” he wrote in his blog American Rabbi.

For Rabbi Gross, the highlight of the event was a heated, but friendly, debate between Omaha’s Joel Alperson and Ilan Caplan, of the American Jewish World Service. The two discussed the nature of Tikkun Olam in the Jewish world. 

“I think the best thing about Youthcon was that there was clearly no agenda other than sharing ideas on how to engage Jewish youth,” wrote Rabbi Gross. “I felt as if no ideas were off limits.”

Over at Baltimore Jewish Life, Gobbie Cohn, youth director at Congregation Toras Chaim, wrote about his own experiences at YouthCon. For Cohn, the best part of the day was one of the many informal networking sessions held during the conference. 

“About 15-20 youth directors sat around and had a brainstorming session,” he wrote. “Each of us shared a program that we were most proud of and discussed methods on engaging children and parents of all ages.”

Rabbi Dov Emerson of DRS Yeshiva High School for Boys described what he thought was "the secret sauce” of the YouthCon event: “Professionalism.” 

“All too often, the field of Jewish education is perceived to be made up of an unpolished and unprofessional bunch,” he wrote. “Personally, I think the critique is leveled a little too broadly and unfairly at times, but we can’t deny the ‘heimishness’ that often personifies our field.”

Youthcon was in sharp contrast to that perception. 

“NCSY and OU clearly appreciate the importance of professionalism in our field, and the experience at YouthCon demonstrated this over and over again,” he wrote. “The conference was located in a beautiful hotel, the schedule was clear and carried out with precision.”

Another point Rabbi Emerson raised was the low cost of the event: only $36 for the full-day conference, including a fully catered lunch and snacks throughout the day. 

“They wanted as many people as possible to attend, and they did not allow cost to serve as a barrier,” he wrote. 

Rabbi Emerson raises an important point about the nature of Jewish education and we thought we’d quote it in full. 

“Attention to the ‘little things’ served to enhance the greater experience for everyone. But it did more than that. Because when Jewish educators feel pride in being part of something so focused and mission driven, their students can’t help but tap into this contagious sense of vigor. When they see their teachers, program coordinators and advisors conducting themselves like professionals, they too begin to feel pride in being a part of it. The best way to imbue in our students a passion for Jewish education is by modeling that passion in our own pride and professionalism.”
1. What are you going to be presenting on at YouthCon? 
I’m going to be presenting a groundbreaking and innovative tzedakah curriculum – the first-ever school curriculum released by American Jewish World Service – called Where Do You Give? that will change the way you — and all of us — think about giving in the 21st century. However, this won’t just be a curriculum presentation. Through this curriculum you’ll learn how to empower the next generation of young people to use the power of tzedakah to have a deep and meaningful impact in the world. Also, all participants will gain invaluable skills in integrating social media and interactive online tools with Jewish sacred texts and history in new and exciting ways. You’ll also be able to experience the curriculum first-hand, learn how to build a culture of tzedakah in your community and network with other educators around how to adapt our resources for your specific needs. You will also be able to — wait, I don’t want to give it all away!

2. Has Tzedekah changed?
Tzedakah hasn’t changed. The sacred commandment to give of your resources in order to help those less fortunate and to create a more just and righteous world hasn’t change and will never change. What has changed, however, is where we give tzedakah, how we give tzedakah, and how we make those decisions.  Today, we’re more likely to give by writing a check or making an online donation than by collecting coins in a tzedakah box. Today, what denotes our “community” — and therefore those we must care for — can  mean everyone from our neighbors in a five-block radius to our camp friends who live across the country to ethnic tribes fighting for their rights in Cambodia. Today, we have to think differently about who we’re obligated to in our increasingly interconnected, global and technologically accelerated world. This brings on a whole slew of new questions and challenges. But if we want to fulfill the mitzvah of giving tzedakah in a thoughtful and impactful way, then we must address them.

3. What are you most looking forward to at YouthCon? 
This is my first YouthCon, so I’m excited about everything! My goal is to meet as many people as possible, since I know the rooms will be filled with enthusiastic, bright and passionate educators who are all here because they want to create a better world by inspiring the future leaders of it. If that sounds like you (and it should for all of you), then I’m really excited to connect with and learn from you. See you soon!

Sasha Feldstein works in the education and community engagement department at American Jewish World Service and manages “Where Do You Give? Reimagining Tzedakah for the 21st Century.” Prior to working at AJWS, she participated in AJWS’s Volunteer Corps by living and volunteering with the Heshima Kenya organization in Nairobi. She is also an alumna of AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps. She is from Los Angeles, CA.

1. What is the goal of YouthCon?
At NCSY, the international youth movement of the Orthodox Union, we realized that education is changing. The challenges educators face today — while I wouldn’t say they are harder — are different than the challenges educators faced twenty, even ten years, ago. I’ve seen the changes in the education of my own children. When Aryeh started school, cell phones were barely a rumor; nowadays, my youngest, Ayelet, is already clamoring for an iPhone. Jewish education, especially informal and experiential education, where most of our youth get their information, needs to adapt. We’ve brought together an impressive array of educators and practitioners under one roof for one day to understand how we can maximize what and how our teens and students learn. 

2. What do you think of the effect of technology on the Jewish community?
Technology is simply a tool. It doesn’t have an effect in of itself; it’s how we use it. For NCSY, technology has been an invaluable asset. It allows us to have unprecedented levels of interactions with our teens. A small example of this is the hundreds of teens that learn about NCSY activities through Facebook groups and twitter feeds. Additionally, as part of our 300 JSU Clubs, we meet with thousands of public school teens every month and we need to understand how to talk to them.

3. What are you most looking forward to at YouthCon?

We’ve recruited the best and the brightest for this conference — not just the presenters, but also the participants. At YouthCon, everyone brings something to the table and I'm delighted to be a part of it.

Rabbi Steven Burg is the Managing Director of the Orthodox Union (OU) and the International Director of NCSY. Rabbi Burg began his career with the OU over 20 years ago as a college advisor for NCSY.  With Rabbi Burg’s vision and leadership, NCSY launched JSU, a network of over 200 public school Jewish culture clubs and TJJ, a transformative Israel summer experience for public school teens. As Managing Director of the OU, Rabbi Burg has developed greater programming synergy among the OU’s many branches and redefined the organization’s focus.
A graduate of Yeshiva University, Rabbi Burg received his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS).  He currently resides in Bergenfield, New Jersey with his wife Rachel and their six children, Aryeh, Elie, Devorah, Zevi, Natan, and Ayelet.

1. What do you think is the role of Tikkun Olam in informal education? 
Indispensible. If one believes that being Jewish — even in part — is related to reflecting and acting on moral convictions, then Jewish education without serious engagement with this truth is sorely lacking. What’s more is that Jewish moral luminaries don’t merely express the need for upright behavior; they offer tremendous insight on broad and specific levels as to how one might go about behaving morally. This is complicated, nuanced, layered and fascinating – and as much a part of Jewish experience and education as what blessing to say over wine. This to say nothing of the moral imperative actually to pursue justice, the practical benefits of deepening the engagement of all Jews through hands-on acts of service, etc. etc. — come to my session to hear more!

2. What is the greatest challenge for Tikkun Olam? 
Tikkun Olam is the challenge. Every issue in the world a person rolls up their sleeves to address is a complex monster; whether it be finding employment opportunities for synagogue members, helping one’s younger brother with his homework, or fighting for the rights of the marginalized peoples of Uganda. Tikkun Olam as a concept faces many challenges: the perception of it being a “watered-down” form of Judaism, a lack of serious engagement in the philosophical underpinnings of the idea, a strong difference of opinion among those who use the term as to what it actually means, etc. But the greatest challenge I see is that the concept literally takes on the whole world – and therefore sets people up for a constant, unrelenting challenge. Incidentally, this is probably also Tikkun Olam’s greatest strength.

3. What are you most looking forward to at YouthCon? 
Swag. YouthCon has the snazziest give-aways. A close second is the incredible opportunity to connect with really really thoughtful, cutting-edge experts in their fields; and really really inspired, striving, impassioned educators looking to learn from one another and bring each other to greater depth and heights — at the conference and afterwards. I couldn’t be more pleased to be returning!

Ilan Caplan is a program associate in American Jewish World Service’s department of education and community engagement. He is excited to return to YouthCon, having presented at last year's YouthCon plenary about "productive discomfort" and approaches to nuanced education around the intersection of Jewish values and social justice. Ilan attended Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, NJ, and graduated from Harvard College with a BA in Music and Religion. He has been working as an educator with AJWS since August 2010.

1. Why was YouthCon convened? 
Last year, some of my colleagues in the office, notably Duvi Stahler, Rina Emerson and Penny Pazornick, and I were looking for a conference, a festival of sorts, to celebrate and network within the emerging field of experiential Jewish education. From our experiences with NCSY and the Orthodox Union, we realized how important it is to share ideas and best practices with the broader field. From those discussions YouthCon emerged.

2. How can participants get the most out of YouthCon? 
People learn in a lot of different ways, especially those in the field of experiential education. If you go in knowing what is the best way you learn, you’ll come out with the most. If it's one-on-one learning, spend time at our mentor center. Otherwise, the schedule is set up in a range of topics and modes of presentation in order to cater to a large audience with varied approaches to learning. The most important thing is just to be yourself and enjoy. 

3. What are you most looking forward to at YouthCon? 
In real estate it's all about location, location, location. YouthCon is all about, people, people, people. I'm just excited to meet a broad range of people with different backgrounds and expertise. 

4. You look fabulous. Just fabulous. No, no I really mean it. Where do you get your clothing? Your enigmatic sense of style? 
Thank you. Truly touching.  A dear friend, Daniel Fiskus once told me, “It’s not about price. It's not about the brand.  It’s all about fit.” Great clothes need to fit well, both in terms of your body and personality.  I try to find pieces that present the characteristics I enjoy: The strategic gregariousness of Saul Goodman combined with the poise and focus of Gustavo Fring.  I can only hope I succeed. 

Dovid Bashevkin is YouthCon Program Director and Associate Director of Education for NCSY.  Dovid studied in Ner Israel and Yeshiva University.  While in Yeshiva University, he completed a Master's degree in Polish Hassidut under the guidance of Dr. Yaakov Elman.  He is also a struggling artist, investor and stand-up comedian.