My weekly experience working with a class of 8th graders serves as a counterpoint to the doom and gloom I’ve read about lately in studies that report on the current state of Religion in America (specifically those concerning Jewish youth).
The students are upfront, forthright, and spiritually aware and are not afraid to talk about what they do and don’t believe. They have already formed some really strong opinions about Jewish belief and practices, though it was evident from our talks that they are looking at Judaism through fogged glasses (no fault of theirs, their education has been limited).
We need to pay attention to what they really need, and not what we think they need. Even if we didn’t change anything about our current organizations and programs, and continued with things just the way they are, we’re already missing countless opportunities to help students create a meaningful Jewish experience.
About 45% of these students attend this supplementary high school twice a week. About 25% go to a Jewish summer camp (they see it as a social, not a religious experience, and go to be with their friends). About 75% have older siblings that are or have been in the program. Yet, most haven’t discussed their ideas, feelings, and opinions about God…either with their parents, siblings, or friends.
Not because they wouldn’t want to, but because the subject never came up. I asked what they thought about that, and they said they were ‘okay with it’.
When we talk about what their conception of God is, they are surprisingly articulate. Some retain the ‘puppeteer’ idea (that God is pulling all the strings and is responsible for everything) while others see God as a ‘helping hand’. Some don’t believe in God at all. These ideas will all be explored with them in future classes, but in the meantime, catch the following:
In the year immediately preceding their Bar/t Mitzvah they do not remember any serious prolonged conversation with a Jewish professional (educator/clergy). They were not asked about their beliefs, doubts, concerns, or what they thought about God. They seemed not to expect more, and were ‘okay with that’ too.
They remember that they were busy with the pre-ceremony stuff: speech writing, practicing chanting, public speaking skills.
When they were asked questions about their present and future connection to Judaism, predominantly it was through a youth group lens: would they join? Be involved? Take a position?
I asked them about these things. It’s not that they wouldn’t have wanted to engage in deeper conversations, it’s just that they weren’t asked. And yes, they seemed to be ‘okay’ with that.
I’m not. I’m not fine with ‘okay’. Not in the precious time we have with them. Are we settling for just ‘okay’ when it comes to how they will connect with Judaism?
What if we began to have these types of conversations with our teens? On a regular basis?
Even if we create the smallest pinholes of opportunity, light can come flooding in.
It’s not that they’d mind, and actually, they’d probably be okay with that.