Last week, I was given a wonderfully challenging task as the CCAR rabbinic staff member at the NFTY Convention: Take fifty participants from the Youth Engagement Conference and a two-hour prayer lab session, and plan multiple services for about 900 NFTY Convention participants. While seemingly impossible, I jumped at the opportunity. After all, we produce Visual T’filah and all the prayer books for the Reform Movement – I could do this!
Working with my colleague Rabbi Noam Katz and Jewish musician Dan Nichols, (and joined by Rabbis Erin Mason and Ana Bonheim) we were tempted to provide a handful of creative service examples (e.g. drumming, yoga, Visual T’filah) and to plan the services as quickly as possible.
But the conference was on youth engagement and simply presenting options and saying “pick one and go plan a service” did not seem to be an appropriate fit – and not consistent with CCAR’s current approach toward engaging people in prayer with many different Visual T’filah options. It was a lab, after all; we did not want to focus too much on product, but rather the service experience by the NFTYites.
We initiated the YEC prayer lab by asking the participants “what makes for great prayer?”
This conversation was modeled upon a version of Open Space, one of the frameworks for intentional conversations guiding the CCAR convention beginning just a few weeks after NFTY Convention.
YEC participants stood up one at a time and offered to host conversations around a topic of prayer particularly interesting or exciting to them. Topics included Hebrew in prayer, who is the service leader, using apps & cellphones in services, engaging through multiple intelligences, and more. Rather than utilizing the moment to plan a service, we spent our time talking about great prayer. The prayer lab participants were fully engaged, far more than if we had simply given them pre-determined service options, and we provided an amazing model for them to bring back to their youth groups.
And it worked! YEC prayer lab participants exclaimed that this was one of the highlights of the conference for them. One even said, “This is exactly what I needed.” Even more, the prayer experiences they crafted were some of the best moments of NFTY convention for the participants. One teenager said in reflection, “This was my first real moment of transcendent prayer.”
As the Youth Engagement professionals gathered at the end of the conference for a debrief and wrap-up, I was asked to summarize our learning and said: “We often hear that ‘if you build it, they will come.’ If you build a great service or program, the youth with come. But we learned through this prayer experience that ‘if you build it with them, they’ll already be there!”