Category Archives: Youth

Jewish Teens Reinvent the Synagogue

I’m so lucky.  We Jewish educators trudge uphill a lot of the time, just to keep pace. Yet, every week I get inspired from the Jewish teens I work with. Last week I asked a group of 10th and 11th graders how they would reinvent the synagogue:

Synagogue construction, Baron De Hirsch Trade ...

“Your goal is to insure that people will be active, engaged, and interested. There are no limits. What will you create? What type of organization will speak to you?”

They had a hard time with this initially, not being able to get past what they experience now.  That surprised me. They first offered: more music, shorter services, more comfortable seats.

When I prodded further, they pushed the boundaries a little more.

Welcome to the synagogue as seen through the eyes of a group of Jewish teens: branding abounds, with lots and lots of food available (did I mention that there are mostly boys in this class?).

Someone piped in: “We could have a Manishewitz wing!” Another student shot right back: “Yeah,why not? Companies could be sponsors of the synagogue or even sponsor events.”

“Even Bar/t Mitzvahs I asked?”

“Yea, why not,” they responded. That way, they wouldn’t cost so much.”
Hmmmm. Interesting.

Unanimously, they all agreed that there needs to be more food.  Then they began to dream big, envisioning a cafe-type set-up, with lots of  informal places to sit–like a lobby in a hotel.  Oh, they were also big on sports options.  Basketball and racketball courts and pools. Places to sleep when family comes into town for b’nei mitzvahs. Why not a spa?

What they talked about resembled a newly configured JCC/Synagogue/Restaurant/Hotel.

I told them that they will be the ones to do this, and that we’re depending on them.

Though I don’t see a Rokeach-sponsored Bat Mitzvah anytime soon, I can see the ‘Awesome Osem Auction!’ with these teens in charge of things.  Just maybe we need to take some cues from these young leaders and simply lighten things up a little. Oh yes, and have some food.

Image: Synagogue construction, Baron De Hirsch Trade School, South Jersey Colonies, Carmel, NJ (Photo credit: Center for Jewish History, NYC)


Guiding teens without a moral compass. Hint: they cheat!

English: A HTC Desire S showing a compass app

Image via Wikipedia

Picture this: a class of freshly minted teenagers, not even a year after becoming b’nei mitzvah, who attend an optional Jewish education program.

Ostensibly they come from homes where the parent/s place an importance on Jewish values. Yet, despite that, they seem to have internalized society’s penchant for abdicating personal responsiblity.

Over 90% of high school students cheat. Entire schools have been accused of tampering with test results.

These incidents reverberate beyond charts and stats–and I felt the tremors last week.

I presented this scenario to students taking a class in Jewish values and ethics:

Your teacher asks you to take home and complete a unit summary without looking at notes, any textbooks, or the internet. What would you do?

I value their openness with me. Only one student in the class said that he would not cheat. One out of 15 students. Eighth graders.

What did the other students say? Most nodded enthusiastically to this response:

It was the teacher’s fault….she shouldn’t have expected us not to look at anything. Did she think we wouldn’t cheat?”

So, what they were saying is that the teacher should have known better. She should have known not to trust them.  For them, there is no such thing as an honor system.

When I was in middle school, cheating also occurred. It’s just that we knew who would cheat and who wouldn’t. I’m not sure that’s the case anymore.

In fact, what was the kicker to my question? Three students said that their teacher just gave them a similar assignment–to complete a worksheet at home–and when they came back to school she revealed that she expected them to look things up even though she asked them not to.  So this lack of trust goes both ways.

This is the world we are all living in and this is what we’re up against. 

There were other comments by students toward the beginning of the lesson that didn’t surprise me; comments about whether ‘to tell’ on a friend who cheated or stole. That was pretty predictable. The peer pressure is so intense they admitted, that no one wants to be labeled as ‘the kid who tells’.

When I discussed their reasoning for what they shared with me, they said that it’s okay because in “middle school you don’t have to worry about anything yet” (i.e. high school then college). They  continued trying to convince me that their choice was okay: “what you do in school doesn’t really matter until you get to 9th grade, or even 10th.

I wanted to teach them a different course of action and there were many topics to explore, but the clock was ticking with little time left in the period.

I could have espoused other teachings from sages and scholars who have been grappling with these issue throughout our tradition. I didn’t think this would resonate.  Instead, I briefly mentioned the perspective of Jewish law regarding personal responsibility.

Then, I told them they are like onions. Their character has layers, and everything they do, every action they take, forms who they are.  Those layered experiences are part of them, much like the peels of an onion that won’t just disappear when they get to another grade.

And if they make choices that they will regret, those choices will be there, under the surface, but there none the less.  And it will affect them.  Guiding teens through these perplexing situations is what we can do as Jewish educators and parents. How do we begin the process with our teens?

A good place to start is by opening the door to these types of conversations. Allow your teens to share what their school environment is like, and what ethical challenges they face. Listen to what they say. They are our very sweetest onions.


Jewish Teens: Lost?

"Adolescence"

"Adolescence" by Giacomo Manzu Image by Ko:(char *)hook

 

Let’s play a game. Read the quote below and try to guess who said it.

Ready?

No peeking.

“…..we are not preparing today’s teens and young adults for the kinds of pressures they actually face.”

Okay, to make sure you’re testing yourself honestly write your responses, and then share it with me here. Just hit comment at the end of the post.

It will be interesting for us to compare results, no?

Here’s the lead-in sentence to the quote above:

“We hope young Christ followers develop a faith strong enough to last and to influence those around them. However, for too many, their faith does not survive in the real world. Simply put, we are not preparing today’s teens and young adults for the kinds of pressures they actually face.”

Responses?

First, I’ll share more about the quote. It’s from an e-mail I receive from the Barna Group, announcing a new effort to share information, resources, and offer training on this topic to better equip those working with teens. 

They also revealed a new book, called YOU LOST ME,  which is the result of a five-year study about the “spiritual journeys of young Christians, especially how much our culture has changed and what it means for your efforts.”

So, I’d like to unpack this piece of news.

First is the feeling that maybe our Jewish teens are reflecting a greater spiritual need that is felt in other communities. In that case, we shouldn’t berate ourselves so much for our failures.

But the next thought that comes to mind is actually a bit of envy.  The Christian community is marshalling its resources to work on this challenge—and they’re tackling it as a community.

This group thought it important enough to invest FIVE YEARS of time, effort, and money into this issue. Imagine the interviews, focus groups, surveys it took to gather this data. So you’ll forgive me for the jealousy, since I’ve written about this plenty before.  It seems like many posts ago when I wrote that Jewish teens were underserved.

Though I am so very heartened by the URJ‘s new focus on youth engagement, it is a denominational response to a communal problem,and doesn’t create data about this population. And I am appreciative of the new study on Youth Engagement by the Jewish Education Project about teens in New York.

So, until the Jewish community decides that it is important to fully figure out broader solutions to the issue of teens who are ‘spiritually lost’ (without the piecemeal approach of a unique program here, a special grant there) I guess I’ll turn  my envy to respect for how the Christian community is going about this.


Today I am a Brand

credit to uglydoggy.com

We live in a visual world. I get it. I’m the first to admit that I love looking at logos and the idea that the essence of a company, drink, food, car —almost anything— can be captured in a visual.  Come on, aren’t you tempted to name the brands pictured here?

Hashtags? Great. If only our program could attract thousands of Jewish teens by using  #Jteens. 

The idea of “branding” has been in my airspace for a few weeks.  It started when I read a blog about the viral video “Friday” and how it catapulted Rebecca Black and her now ex-friend into instant stardom (not familiar with the story? see wikipedia ).  

Then, I read a study about the rise of fame and its implications , some of which I’ll quote very briefly:

“Greenfield’s Theory of Social Change and Human Development posits that, as learning environments move towards high technology, as living environments become increasingly urbanized, as education levels increase, and as people become wealthier, psychological development moves in the direction of increasing individualism, while traditional, familistic, and communitarian values decline….” (italics mine). 

So, the desire to individuate comes with the territory. Is it any wonder that this study found that fame grows in prominence as a goal among tweens? If the teen years were tough before, it’s more complicated now. How do we as teachers and parents begin to work through this?

I attended a workshop a few days ago sponsored by Moving Traditions and we discussed the fact that teenage girls see themselves as ‘brands’ when posting on their Facebook pages.  They think about themselves in the third person and how their presenting image will be perceived by others.  They think about how to ‘enhance’ their brand by who they ‘friend’ and the clothes, music, and tech toys they buy, presenting an additional teaching and parenting opportunity. This issue goes across gender and is not limited to teenage girls.

Another tongue-in-cheek blog asked whether Rabbis would be more effective if they were ‘pitchmen’ and might be more successful if incorporating brand names into their sermons.  I have not worked this all out yet.  On one level, I definitely buy into the branding idea and think that we, who work in the world of Jewish teens, could certainly learn a thing or two about ‘branding’ with an image overhaul.   If we just had more marketing dollars, or could find a sponsor, or a brand to partner with….oops, there I go again.

In this world of visual overload, I am fine with working on communicating a clearer message as long as it’s an authentic one.  I guess that’s the advice I would give to a Jewish teen approaching bar/bat mitzvah age as well. Go ahead, think about who you really are. Make sure it reflects your true self, incorporates core Jewish values and ethics, then go ahead, brand yourself as the most special person you are.


How Jewish Youth Go About Repairing the World

A report came out recently detailing the volunteer activities of Jewish young adults.  Some interesting facts emerge:

The good news  is that a large percentage of these young adults are participating in community work at a rate of  up to 86% depending on denominational and identity factors.  Also, over three-quarters of them are involved in civic activity. 

The bad news? Most of the volunteering takes place infrequently and is episodic.

Though the population examined is “young adults” my own experience with teens mirror these two findings.  So many students have told me about their “mitzvah project” in the year leading up to and including the Bar/Bat mitzvah year. 

They see  the experience as an obligatory ‘check off’ on the list of tasks they need to accomplish and perhaps talk about from the podium.  A small minority might even get local press about their efforts.  Few, if any, continue the practice beyond the mandated time. 

I don’t disagree with the idea that service is a value to be pursued, but if we desire different results, we need to examine the process of how we engage these young teens.  It may be that the launch of these volunteer projects in tandem with this Jewish rite of passage feels a bit forced. 

It is interesting to note that according to the survey, young Jewish adults don’t even know about volunteer opportunities in the Jewish community, and feel that Jewish organizations do not address the causes that are most relevant for them.  Wow.  In addition, it seems that Jewish values are not the prime motivators for their decisions, but rather universal values are.  This is not a bad thing, but if Jewish identification is what we’re after when we pitch  doing ‘mitzvahs’, then we are missing a big opportunity.


What Jewish teens want us to know

English: Classroom in SIM University.

Image via Wikipedia

A panel of teens expressed their opinions in a workshop at a Jewish educator’s conference in Philadelphia called “Understanding the Teenage Brain.”

Who were they? These were teens already involved in post Bar/t mitzvah education, both in synagogue and community schools, which means they are committed to continuing their Jewish education.

I asked them to talk honestly about what they want from their relationship with their teachers, and from their Jewish education experiences.

Do you want to know the amazing things they said? Can you fathom the tons of resources we’d have to pull together in order to do what they’re asking?

Here are some of their comments:

  • When we come to class, ask us how we’re doing and how our day was
  • Get us involved in what we’re learning
  • Ask us how we want to learn the material
  • Create a sense of enjoyment in the classroom
  • Allow 5 to 10  minutes to debrief from the day, or give us the ‘free space’ to talk about what we want during that time
  • Don’t talk down to us
  • Don’t use language to ‘be cool’
  • Create an environment where we feel comfortable and not judged
  • Recognize that we have a lot of stress in our day, and we have a hard time adding more

Tell me what’s not doable here. And yet they felt the majority of their teachers were not doing these things.

Why not? What is the biggest investment we need to make?

We need to listen, or better:  Na’aseh v’nishmah. (Exodus 24:7 We will do and we will keep listening so we understand).