Category Archives: Jewish teen engagement

The Truth About The Jewish Rite of Passage That Fails Our Teens

Outdated Confirmation rites

The Confirmation Ceremony Might Not Be Relevant Today

 

What were you thinking about when you were in 11th grade? 

Were you thinking about succeeding in school, wondering where you’d go to college, or what your major would be?
Did you think about whether your high school friends would be ‘keepers’ for life, if you’d get along with your roommate, or maybe about college finances and loans?

I doubt you were wondering about your relationship with God. Or what it would mean to be a Jewish adult.

Now that Shavuot is over, I can share what I think Confirmation is in its current form: an irrelevant ceremony, that might even be borderline dangerous. I’m probably not the first person to write about this, but I feel an obligation to do so. I was one of those kids who couldn’t wait to be ‘done’ with Hebrew School.

My parents however, had other intentions. They firmly said that I had to attend Confirmation class for two years! I was not inspired by the class and admit that I was pretty bored, spending quite a lot of time with my girlfriends in the synagogue lounge area (located in the women’s restroom at the time). In 10th grade, I participated in a Confirmation ceremony, held on Shavuot, where everyone in my class had to read something (I don’t even remember if we had to write what we read) to the synagogue community from the Bimah (podium).

This was when my Jewish high school education school stopped. Today, it is a rare synagogue or community program that engages teens beyond the 10th grade, and the one I attended back then did not. Finito. No more formal Jewish education for me. It’s as if I was being told by my synagogue that I knew it all…(really?).

At last, my parents would finally stop bugging me about going to Hebrew school and I could focus on my real school work and getting into college.  Little did I know then that I would later become enamored with our traditions, history, and rituals–proving the point that I was not of an age to complete my education, nor was I in a position to decide not to continue if the opportunity presented itself. (Please read here, or here for why Jewish education in the teen years is so crucial)

Confirmation is a man-made ceremony

Briefly, Confirmation (the name was borrowed from the Catholic faith, and is one of the seven sacraments), is a created ceremony originating in the 1800’s, adopted by the Reform movement  and later by other non-Orthodox movements to have students individually and as a group, affirm (confirm) their commitment to the Jewish people, which is why it’s connected to Shavuot.  The goal also was also to retain students past Bar/Bat Mitzvah.

What is my problem with this?

This ceremony confuses so many people, is it a ritual? Law? It is not connected to any developmental stage. But it is tied to synagogue membership and it does artificially creates a second cut-off for an entire group of teens (if there are no options for them beyond the ceremony) who are, perhaps for the first time, engaging with Judaism in a more adult manner. It creates yet another decision point for parents and teens, who at this point, are usually among the most committed. It offers students a congratulatory award for maintaining a connection with their people, history and heritage. Accomplishment of this often offers an entitlement to go on a Confirmation trip to Israel.

Just think of the opportunities we would have to discuss issues with teens as they approach driving, voting, drinking, and college age.  We are missing out on this, in favor of what?

We have to look at the evidence research provides. In a study conducted by the Jewish Agency’s Jewish People Policy Institute, the authors found that “In terms of predicting adult Jewish connection, statistical studies show that every year past the bar mitzvah year “count” more than the year before.” This is stressed even further: Receiving formal Jewish education from age 16 to 17 more accurately predicts adult Jewish connectedness than receiving formal Jewish education from age 15 to 16.”

So, what do studies accomplish if not to drive change? What is the purpose of research if not to inform present practice?   Now, when there are months of planning time ahead we have to wonder what the real reasons are for holding onto this ceremony.  We have to ask ourselves the difficult questions about what are our the true goals. What do we gain? What do the teens gain? What do we need to change? What life stages do we want to recognize? What would be the most relevant ceremony if we had to re-invent one? When we have the answers, we can then work on creating new opportunities for our teens, making sure we involve them in the process.

Perhaps then we can confirm for them, and for us, the purpose of a Jewish education.

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Jewish Teen Engagement: Do We Want to Win or Lose the Game

Place your bets on teens!

Place your bets on teens!

The Jewish community is the throes of change that at times seems to be at a dizzying pace, yet there are still so many obstacles that seem to discourage the participation of Jewish teenagers in Jewish life.  (I’ve written about some of them here and here).

By the time we figure this all out, we might have lost our chance.  The adolescent years is a time for making decisions about identity, but that opportunity gets lost in the wave of programs trying to perpetuate themselves, rather than perpetuating a relationship with the Jewish people.

This is best explained through a case study.

Let’s pretend you’re a teenager who is part of a synagogue community. Your bar/bat mitzvah was a few years ago.  It was a great experience, and as you said in your speech “all the work you had to do was worth it in the end”. Your parents were so proud.

You were glad to ‘be done’ but against all odds, you decided to continue in your synagogue’s Confirmation program. You were surprised though that 50% of your friends dropped out. They were too busy they said (but aren’t you?) or their parents said they weren’t going to  ‘make them’ attend (your friends told you their parents said they didn’t want them to resent their parents later).

So, now, from a class of 25, there are about 12 kids in your weekly class. You really enjoy studying with the Rabbi, and talking about the issues that matter to you. You really are beginning to see the relevance of Judaism in your life. Some of your friends in other synagogues have a different set-up, they work in their synagogue schools every week and earn some money. Sometimes you wonder whether that would have been better, since your parents talk about college expenses so much. But, you do like learning…..so much so, that you might want to continue—-even after the Confirmation ceremony, but the only option is Adult Education, and that would just be too…..uh…..nerdy.  You’ve heard that your friend’s synagogue has a class for 11th graders, but you don’t belong to that synagogue.

If you are lucky enough to find out about a community Hebrew high school that offers programming for 11th and 12th graders (some community schools are seen as competition to synagogue offerings), you’d be one of the few to do so, because by about now, there are 75% less of your friends who would have made this same choice (so now you’re down to about 3 of your friends). Your other friends were too busy (but aren’t you?) and they have college to think about (don’t you?) and get their grades up to speed (don’t you?). And chances are, your synagogue might not have shared this information with you.

If you find a program to attend, you might want to learn conversational Hebrew, or take leadership classes, participate in an internship program, or even take a college course. Little do your friends know that this experience will actually help get you into college, prepare you to think more broadly (your Bio-Medical Ethics class is so issue-oriented), and gives you so many chances to develop your skills in public speaking (you plan programs for the school), attend college readiness programs and establish relationships with teachers….not to mention the ‘street cred’ of being able to handle everything you’re already doing plus this academic program.

But you are one of the lucky ones, and you probably will be among the future leaders, simply because the education and involvement you’ve had puts you there.

So, with you, the Jewish community won. Your friends? Well, time will tell.


Jewish Teens Cross Boundaries to Enhance Engagement

Are the fences coming down?

Are the fences coming down?

The desire to engage as many teens as possible in the Jewish community is part of the reason that two youth groups, BBYO (B’nai Brith Youth Organization)  and NFTY, the youth movement of the Union for Reform Judaism are working together. How did such a thing occur?

A few years ago, the groups met in Boston and found out that their entire membership consisted of only 15% of the total pool of North American teens—combined.  As we see elsewhere, boundaries become blurred often when economies of scale are at play. At the two group’s conventions in Atlanta, GA, they will be joined for a pre-convention meeting of 60 teens from the three other major Jewish youth organizations (NCSY, USY, and Young Judaea. Together, they form (more initials) the CJT, Coalition of Jewish Teens. This is worth a paragraph in the history books! The shared mission of CJT (actually created in 2010) is to unite Jewish teens focused on a shared mission of values and desire to engage more youth. Commendable, and hopefully contagious.

How different might things be if more boundaries were permeable, silos less stifling, and windows to opportunity were wide open to some fresh air.