Category Archives: Jewish Education

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Outdated Confirmation rites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.


Redeem the Passover Seder from Stereotypes

SederBoys

Free these sons from the bondage of labels.

The apocryphal story of the “Four Sons” has been a part of every Passover Seder I’ve ever attended or hosted.

The seder has a unique and beautiful educational premise: how best to involve the younger audience in the story. One way it does so is by encouraging the questioning process about the meaning of Passover. (For ideas on how to involve teens click here).

The picture above is from one of the Haggadahs I inherited from way back when, and depicts the types of questions that are archetypal of the four personality and character traits of those who are/should be asking questions at the seder.

This section comes immediately after the recitation (often by the youngest in the crowd) of the four questions as to “why is this night different from all other nights.”

Translated, the Hebrew descriptions above are:

  1. The Wise One
  2. The Evil One
  3. The Simple One
  4. The One That Doesn’t Know How to Ask (questions).

Credit goes to the artist for keeping gender references away from the Hebrew wording, although the pictures make things pretty clear that it’s the boys we’re talking about.  (Why the text only identifies sons is not a discussion I’ll be pursuing here).

The Haggadah proceeds to relate an example of how each different child asks questions and the adult’s proper response to that question. (You may want to refer to an actual Haggadah. For the content, you can find an example here).

This is where we need to redeem the children from their bondage in the Haggadah.   There is a greater picture here that we shouldn’t miss. Let’s not promote the stereotyping of learning styles but instead think beyond labels toward inclusion.

Contained in the question and answer descriptions are so many possibilities for encouraging an open discussion about values, education, ethics, parenting and more.

They are in themselves, triggers for so many additional conversations:

  • Getting Beyond the Labels (i.e. what is your definition of wise, evil, etc.)
  • Effective and Ineffective Communication Styles
  • What Happens When We Don’t Ask the Questions
  • Parenting Approaches
  • Learning Differences
  • Rebellion vs. Evil Intent
  • Effects of Being Labelled
  • Intelligence vs. Wisdom
  • Prejudice
  • Inclusion
  • Multiple Intelligences

As long as Jewish culture, history, heritage, and values are part of the discussion, any one of the conversation starters above has the potential to engage all participants, drawing everyone into the Seder’s emotional netting. Hopefully, this will bring the original intention of the Haggadah to life.

I wish you and your loved ones a Chag Kasher v’Sameach!

Related content:

Outcome based Parenting

What Does It Really Mean To Be Jewish

Family Values


Hiring Jewish teen aides? Five things you should know

I promise, keep reading, and you’ll get to my five suggestions. But first, some advice…..for a student named Rachel.

Here are some things about Rachel that you should know:

She absolutely loves working with kids, and has done so for the past several summers at a Jewish camp. The kids love her, parents rave about her as well, plus she has a lot of patience. In addition, everyone says that ‘she’s a natural’. And naturally, she’s thinking of majoring in elementary education. If she went to college, in four years, she would earn a teaching degree, and may even decide to go for an advanced degree. College costs are a real concern for her family, though her parents assure her that with loans, they will be able to handle the tuition payments at a state school. Just last week she was offered  a job as a classroom aide at an after-school program. For her, it would mean a real job and money. Now. She could save some money by living at home, at least for a year, and she could also save for college to show her parents that she is willing to help. Besides, she wouldn’t get to work in a real classroom until her junior or senior year in college and the after-school program really thinks that Rachel will be an excellent role model for the younger students, and taking the job would mean that she could make an impact on those children—-now.

What should Rachel do—work as an aide now or continue her education?

You probably are wondering why I’m asking the question, but please continue reading because you know I have to ask: what is your advice for Rachel?

Right about now, you might be thinking that this is a no-brainer. Would anyone recommend that she forego her own education in favor of the immediate: earning some money even though she’d be using her talents and skills? We know that society places a real premium on an education.

So, let’s take a leap and say that Rachel celebrated a Bat Mitzvah, and is being offered a job at her synagogue’s Hebrew School. What could be wrong with that?

In many synagogues around the country, on a weekly basis, students get paid to work in Hebrew schools at the very age when they should be furthering their own education. Sure, their choice is not necessarily to go off to college to earn a Jewish studies degree, but why is their own education sacrificed in order to hire them as classroom aides? I’m specifically talking about the many students I hear about each year who say that they can’t go further in their Jewish education because they’re working as an aide at a Hebrew school and would be too busy.

Here’s FIVE reasons why synagogues should supplement teen aide programs with an educational component:

#1. Why shortchange a Jewish teens’ education at this important time in their lives when they’re ready to intellectually grapple with Jewish ideas?

#2. Hiring teens creates ‘instant role models’ at your synagogue, but you’re also saying that really, continuing Jewish education isn’t nearly as good as getting a paycheck.

#3. Hiring teens makes the statement that there isn’t much to a professional Jewish educator, after all, someone who has just completed a bar/bat mitzvah is perfectly suited to help out in the classroom.

#4. Students working in these classroom rarely receive the additional support or training to deal with the many issues that come up or the questions they have.

#5. Instead of learning to change paradigms, and thinking creatively about Hebrew school options, students often cycle through the very ineffective system that they experienced.

A recent study regarding the placement and retention of close to 3,000 public school teachers found that when they were student teachers, they should have been considered students, and not teachers in order to get the support they needed. How much more so would this hold true for our Jewish teens placed in classrooms? 

Still, it is really wonderful to have the teens around, as a presence in the school. Additionally, it’s a built-in retention tool for engaging members past the usual drop-off Bar/Bat mitzvah age.

So, what is a Hebrew school to do?

Well, for starters, tell the aides that in order to work in your school they must be enrolled in further Jewish education (online, adult study, Hebrew high school—- something). An additional option is to offer teens a training program, to receive the much needed support I mentioned above.

Unless we do that, I believe we are failing our youth with this practice.


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.


Do Jewish Teens Need an Ethical Tune-Up?

cheating

How ethical are today’s teens?

When given the chance to cheat, what would the teenagers you know do?

A recent New York Times article on the subject of Ethics in Life and Business explored the difficulty adults have in making the right choice.

The author says: “The problem, research shows, is that how we think we’re going to act when faced with a moral decision and how we really do act are often vastly different.”

How much more challenging is this for teens growing up in a confusing world of right and wrong?

Months ago, I was surprised to learn how teens defined cheating while defending their behavior.

Since the scandals of the 80’s, businesses and researchers were propelled to give ethics serious consideration and there is now a website devoted to the matter.

As the article states, the difficulty in teaching ethics is that there is a difference between the ‘should’ self (what should be done in a given situation) and the ‘want’ self (wanting to be liked, accepted).

I imagine that with teens, that ‘want’ self is really strong in the adolescent years.

Social media hasn’t made things any easier for them, where there is even more of a pull to be one of the crowd.

Academic pressure hasn’t helped either, with the resultant urge to cheat becoming ever stronger.

Based on everything we know, there is a real benefit to training teens in this area while giving them real skills to succeed in the world of business,

So, how to we hope to teach ethics to teens?

By practice. Repetition. Role-plays. Scenarios where teenagers get to act out their choices.

High schools rarely offer ethics as a subject area.

Monthly programs for teens can not begin to instill these skills, there’s just not enough time to make anything ‘stick’.

Jewish educators who meet with teens weekly have an exceptional opportunity to give them a much-needed tune-up.


For our teens: what does it really mean to be Jewish?

What does it mean to be Jewish?

Is this what it means to be Jewish?

A portion of this post can be a lesson plan for Jewish teens, with the image above as the trigger.

It would be an interesting exercise and not entirely out of context as a beginning to a discussion about Jewish values (that is, if Google defines our context).

The photo came up in a Google Image Advanced Search (free to use or share) for “Why be Jewish?” and struck me immediately as a conversation starter for this topic.

So, if showing this on a projector to a group of Jewish teens, some introductory questions to ask them would be:

What is your first reaction to this image? What strikes you about this picture?

How does this image make you feel?

What does this image say to you about Judaism? Jewish life? (the whole concept of talking about life within the framework of death is a teaching moment in itself). (Psalm 90:12, Psalm 39:5, The Kaddish, etc.)

What are some of your thoughts about Jewish belief?

It might be interesting then, to move from the image toward their personal beliefs about being Jewish.

What defines them as being Jewish? Push hard on this question…don’t accept answers that are superficial and have been called “bagels and lox” Judaism.

For us as parents and Jewish educators, answering this question for ourselves is primary, and not at all an easy task.

List at least seven things that define your identity as a Jew, and you might ask the teens to do the same.

It would make for a very rich conversation.

With that completed, you  might move on to your responses to why should our teens be Jewish?

It’s a basic question that we will need to grapple with for several reasons:

1.     In today’s open society, Jewish values resemble good old-fashioned American humanistic values.

Kindness to animals? Check.

Respect for the elderly? Check.

Caring for the environment? Check.

Social and humanitarian causes? Check.

Well, you get the idea. Our teens are so much a part of the American (Judeo-Christian) value system, that selling them on Jewish values is tough.

Not only that,

2.     Jewish teens don’t perceive themselves as different from their friends, nor do they want to be different.

Then the hard bare reality might hit——many of us don’t want them to feel different either….since we may well remember what that felt like. (So, what do we do with that? )

Among most teens that are not in day school, religion is pretty much a non-issue among their friends. In high school, most kids aren’t staying up into the midnight hours talking theology.

Chem? Yes.

Advanced Physics? Totally.

God? Don’t think so.

3.     Jewish teens aren’t so much interested in doing things that are devoid of personal meaning, and many rituals connected with Judaism have not passed                that test for them.

What’s been missing is context.

Ritual without it is pretty empty, since there isn’t the automatic compulsion to follow ritual for halachic  (Jewish legal) reasons.

You can try this. Just ask them how important it is for them to….say Kiddush. Motzi.

Thought so.  (We’re talking about most Jewish teens here, not those for whom a context has been provided).

4.      Back to the God thing. In high school, Reason is King. They haven’t delved far enough into the sciences to really, really comprehend the mystery of it all, which when they do, (later, in college perhaps) can be an awesome and spiritual experience.

Yes, they’ll talk string theory, and quantum physics, but won’t really be able to absorb all of its implications. (Check out an earlier post: Thinking about Religious Truths and Scientific Lies, ). In short, they’re not there yet.

So, we have a job to do.

Far more than even worrying about Bar and Bat Mitzvah drop-off.

We have to get them to want to be Jewish.  They need to Love Being Jewish. 

The very first step, is making sure our top seven answers are substantive.

Then we need to let our teens see how much we love it. 

Photo credit: wikipedia.org

This post is an updated version of a previous post called “Why should our teens be Jewish?”


Surprisingly Simple Strategies: How a Presbyterian Church Reaches its’ Teens

All Teens Welcome

All Teens Welcome

What might other faith communities teach us, as Jewish educators, about engaging large numbers of teens in religious activities?

We clearly have what to learn, as more and more teens are opting out of Jewish learning past the age of 13, just as they’re beginning their adolescent journeys.

Recently, The Jewish Education Project hosted a webinar called “Interfaith Teen Engagement Exchange” with a team from the Christ Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis.  The purpose was for us to hear how they successfully reach teens in a new engagement model.

Briefly, I’ll distill for you what I believe worked for them.

Some of the strategies will not give you an ‘aha’ moment, and even if they did, some would require a more long-term approach, as in building a culture of volunteerism with active lay leaders.

I’ve simplified things a bit by including several related things in one category. Where that was not possible, you can see additional notes at the end. So, here is my take on the three top strategies that help create their successes:

#1. Empower and train volunteers.

There was an entire system of engagement based on the tireless efforts of unpaid individuals. An army of volunteer coaches, mentors, house group leaders, and peer leaders are part of this model. The volunteers are on board with how important it is to give their teenagers a moral grounding both for socialization in high school and to ensure a connection with their faith later on.  All peer facilitators are trained before becoming a leader, and receive support from a coach or mentor throughout.

#2. Make the program goals ‘stick’.

Create a system of credentialing for leaders. The teen peer leaders have to apply for the position, then are interviewed, trained, and supported in their roles. They can, after a period of time and with further training, move on to other roles. Although the program seems informal at first, with a closer look there is a hierarchical structure that supports the structure and gives teens goals to achieve more responsibility (and status). There are requirements of time and attendance that are clear to volunteers and participants alike. In addition, peer leaders make a multi-year commitment to the program.

#3. Relationship-building is part of the program, not a by-product. Move from small to larger groups. 

The weekly program begins with teens participating in small groups (7-10) where they get to know their peers in safe settings. In those groups, they learn a piece of text that their peer leaders have already experienced in their own training sessions. The discussions are informal, but have a purpose: to relate the text to real life experiences. After the small group discussions, everyone moves to a larger session (100 or more teens). The focus is on fun, interactive, and dynamic experiences: a game, simulation, workshop, or contest.

Additional Techniques:

Branding: the levels of responsibility were given catchy names and logos

Getting out of bounds: An important part of the program was to create relationships within small communities. These meetings were held in people’s homes, with House Group Leaders in charge of the program. People willingly open their homes on a weekly basis to host these programs.

Frequency is key: The programs themselves were not that long (1 hour, 15 minutes from small to large group), but are held weekly. Again, relationships deepen when experiences are shared regularly.

Have you found these strategies to work in your settings?

What would aid in the implementation of such a model?

I’d love to read your feedback! Please share below.

Photo courtesy of wikimedia.org