Tzedakah in the virtual world: A new frontier for Jewish teen engagement

Lost Tribe is a groundbreaking initiative that recently held the 'TzedakaThon,” featuring a lineup of Jewish social media influencers popular with teens.

 Using Minecraft, Lost Tribe managed to make 1:1 recreations of several iconic locations in Israel, including the Kotel (photo credit: JNF-USA)
Using Minecraft, Lost Tribe managed to make 1:1 recreations of several iconic locations in Israel, including the Kotel
(photo credit: JNF-USA)

Stories of heroism, luck, and daring continue to emerge from Ukraine as thousands of Jewish Ukrainians have found shelter in Israel. While many challenges await Israel’s newest residents, Jewish National Fund-USA has worked around the clock, just as it has for 121 years, ensuring new immigrants have access to accommodation, food, and employment opportunities.

Although the current crisis has garnered philanthropic support from Jewish communities around the globe, perhaps the most interesting contribution has come from an unexpected place – the virtual world and a $1,200 donation to Jewish National Fund-USA from a 12-hour live-streamed comedy, music, and gaming “TzedakaThon,” featuring a lineup of Jewish social media influencers popular with teens.

Lenny Silberman, the Founder and CEO of Lost Tribe, which ran the TzedakahThon, talks with a sense of passion and urgency, as if he has traveled back in time to 1980 and is urging everyone to buy shares in Apple. However, according to Silberman, 1980 is today, and his call to action is for global Jewry to recognize the opportunities presented by new media to connect Jewish teens to their peers around the world, and to authentic Jewish experiences that speak their language. 

Using Minecraft, Lost Tribe managed to make 1:1 recreations of several iconic locations in Israel, including the Kotel (Credit: JNF-USA)Using Minecraft, Lost Tribe managed to make 1:1 recreations of several iconic locations in Israel, including the Kotel (Credit: JNF-USA)

Founded in 2018, Lost Tribe is a groundbreaking initiative that is reversing the decades-long trend toward disaffiliation from Jewish life among Jewish teens in North America.

“For too long, Jewish communities have been wedded to an ‘old type’ of thinking where they have been asking teens to come to them; however, if we want our kids to be fully engaged, we must go to where they are and bring Jewish experiences to them,” explained Silberman. And that’s exactly what he has done, launching a suite of outreach and engagement initiatives that bring Jewish experiences to teens in the virtual world through Lost Tribe.

Reflecting on anecdotal data regarding Jewish teen engagement, Silberman said, “When I left my role at the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America (JCC Association) in 2008 after serving as continental director of the JCC Maccabi Games for 14 years, we knew that 50% of Jewish teens were disengaged. In 2022, it’s closer to 80% and even higher when you don’t include the Orthodox community. If we were a business, we wouldn’t be solvent for much longer.”

Although Silberman’s analysis of North American Jewry’s future seems dire, he remains hopeful, especially after Lost Tribe’s successful TzedakaThon for Jewish National Fund-USA. 

“Raising $1,200 may not seem like much money; however, for these teens, it was like giving $100,000,” explained Silberman. “Over a third of the kids who participated had never donated in their lives, and all of a sudden, they’re not just donating, they're learning about the concept of ‘tzedakah’ and what it feels like to give back and help fellow Jews. And we reached them on their terms in their arena – the virtual world.”

As Silberman puts it, “We have to bring Jewish to them. There are new rules of engagement, and by teaching these kids about Jewish concepts like tzedakah, we’re growing a tree. And although we may never sit under its shade, this tree will continue our legacy through the seeds we plant today.”