Category Archives: Synagogue

Questioning the boon of Zoom Judaism

In my memory, there has never been so much Jewish content available online, for free. Podcasts, interviews, seminars, webinars, zoom rooms, concerts, and lectures (did I cover everything?) are just a click away. Many synagogues are successfully navigating uncharted waters by developing engaging online content. Others are still struggling with the technological challenges.

The big question is whether this new mode of participating in Jewish content will take up residence in our future, and if so, will connections with our on-screen communities supersede those IRL (in real life?).

This issue has come up often in online conversations with friends. Helene and I discussed this in an email exchange and I could sense her passion about this issue so I invited her to be a guest blogger.

Why renew your synagogue membership?

by Helene Geiger

I have a friend who has been spending his Quarantine touring virtual services around the world. He often tells me all the different ways that our Temple’s minyans and shabbat services fall short, when compared to the production values at (fill in the blank: Central Synagogue/White Plains/Park Avenue/Wilshire Blvd/etc etc).  It’s almost to the point where he’ll link into one location for Lcha Dodi, and a different one for Yigdal.

He also tells me that he is currently questioning the value of his synagogue membership. “Because of Covid, I won’t even get my High Holiday seats this year,” he complains.

True. But surely he’s missing the point. Because joining a synagogue is more than finding a place to daven – it’s about being part of a community. And in this time of Covid, the value of community has never been so evident.  In fact, in this time when so many of us feel isolated far away from friends and families, our local synagogue community has stepped up – creating new opportunities to come together virtually, to connect on a human-to-human level.

As my friend sees it, a synagogue is just one more URL competing for his business. And all he is doing is comparison shopping – looking for the very best available singing and oratory on the market. But to my mind, he’s using the wrong metric to measure “quality”. Surely there is a value to truly belonging. And surely you are kidding yourself if you think you “belong” to is a place that doesn’t know you & doesn’t particularly want to know you. If all you are doing is streaming – you can watch, but they’ve muted your audio, your video, and also your soul.

Covid has caused all of us to distance physically.  But socially, our local synagogue is more connected than ever. Zoom into our services, book clubs, learning programs, volunteer committees – and you won’t be anonymous. Participate, chat, ask questions – this is your chance to get known by other congregants whom you might never have met before. They’re zoomed-in because they want to connect, eager to catch up with old friends and build new relationships, as well.  And because you are part of their community, they are eager to get to know you, eager to play Jewish Geography with you, and eager to share their experiences/knowhow/resources with you, too.

Why am I renewing my synagogue membership this year? Because my synagogue is my community. It’s where I am valued. It’s where I connect. And it’s where I belong, in the truest sense of the word.



 


Jewish Organizations: The Importance of Acting Ethically

Remaining in Focus

What many of us strive for in life is achieving personal integrity, a state of being when our ‘inside’ motivation matches our ‘outside’ behavior.

Ideally, our actions should reflect who we (really) are. We don’t just want to believe that we’re honest, we want to act in ways that are honest, a perfect match-up of our intentions and behaviors. Don’t be deceived; this sounds relatively easy but is in fact very difficult.

It is just as challenging for businesses and organizations to hold a high ethical standard.

Accountability

Years ago a new field emerged called ‘corporate responsibility’. It was the very beginning of companies making an effort to conduct business honorably.

No longer can companies quietly go about the dirty business of polluting the environment, paying unfair wages, and not treating employees equitably. At least not without negative social consequences and losses of revenue. To a large extent, social media sees to that. However, even more now than before, it seems that there is still a long way to go.

In the last weeks, we’ve seen that even organizations who promise to uphold the highest ideals of communal values of fairness fall short. As a society, it is challenging to change stubborn and hateful behavior.

What about Jewish organizations?

But should we not hold smaller organizations, those with an especially narrow focus, to the same standard? After all, relationships with employees and constituents are more regular and frequent.

In the current economic climate however, as organizations might need to downsize, it is even more important not to compromise on these values. People are more vulnerable in so many ways and the more expedient way is not the most sensitive.

The Torah provides a foundation for how employees should be treated and laws are expounded in the Talmud regarding specific challenging situations and additional pressures.

This information would ideally inform decisions and interactions so that the values of a religious organization should live up to its potential as a model of ethical behavior.

Rabbi Sidney Schwarz states in Judaism and Justice: the Jewish Passion to Repair the World that there are two principles in operation regarding Jewish behavior.

Jews are driven by their twin impulses to survive as a people (Exodus) and to help the world be ordered in accordance with a higher moral standard (Sinai).”

Expanding on this concept, Jewish organizations need to survive in order to fulfill their ultimate mission of bringing the ethical teachings of Torah out into the world. But not at the cost of compromising its own behavior.

Leadership in a stressful time

The challenges facing the Jewish community now are perhaps more acute than ever and as a result, we need to be aware of ethical breaches and inconsistencies and expect more of our organizational leaders.

This pursuit of ethical excellence is discussed widely in the Talmud as well as the intimate relationship between character, leadership, and community. In Arachim (17a) our sages note:

“One said: According to the leader, so the generation. The other said: According to the generation, so the leader.”

We are ultimately accountable. Our leaders need to hold us to a higher standard, but they too are products of our culture. Our culture seems to value the development of our outsides (material gains) in favor of focusing on our insides (ethical and spiritual development). Organizations have often conducted themselves similarly, prioritizing  external goals (a new building, more members) over those that are less tangible (meaningful experiences, membership connections).

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in the Seven Principles of Jewish Leadership  states that “Leaders must be relentless learners and believe in the people they lead”.

Leaders must be open to change and in so doing, model that for others.

Yes, these are extremely challenging times. Organizations need to work extremely hard with minimal resources to reconfigure themselves in the (God-willing) post-pandemic world.

We can weather this storm but in order to do so ethically, we need to uphold our values.

 


Yom Kippur Juxtapositions

How can I reach the heavens when all I can think of is that I need some caffeine?

Yom Kippur heightens the juxtaposition between the holy and the mundane. It is a day when we suspend our daily functions (e.g. eating, bathing) in order to help us reach a higher, less base level of existence. Those unfamiliar with the rites of the holiday often focus on the strange edict of fasting as some type of divine punishment, some way of beating us into submission. Others see it as it is intended, as an opportunity for us, for just one 25 hour period, to transcend our animal instincts.

The challenge of Yom Kippur for me is putting all my effort into staying in the world of the holy, paying attention to my soul’s yearning for Divine inspiration and not getting pulled into the forces of my ego-self. The self who is absorbed with what I need to do, what I think about things, what I will do next. Almost every few minutes, countless temptations attract my baser self. Remaining in a higher realm all day is really, really hard work, and more difficult than one might imagine.

Forcing myself to focus in on the liturgy and not have my mind stray is a persistent challenge (uh oh, I forgot to make an appointment for the oil change……..did I send out that email?…..how long will we be standing? I should have brought a sweater…..).

Another challenge is not veering off into the land of judgement. How can I do that on this auspicious day? Yet, I need to continually refrain from seemingly harmless thoughts that are, in fact, evaluative (why are people talking during the service? I can’t believe I just heard someone’s cell phone go off…..Why doesn’t the cantor sing melodies I’m familiar with?…).   

The hardest part is realizing that even in this battle I wage to stay in the purest of realms, God is aware of it all—and that thought fills me with dread. I am not reaching my highest potential, I am not measuring up. I am falling short.

Yet, it is God who created my conscience (Psalm 139:13) and often is my higher self that realizes exactly when I am being petty, when I’m being judgmental, and when I am not acting in a God-like manner.

My effort to polish my soul, to continually strive to be my best self is that place in me where God resides. Despite my failings, God has put faith in me that I will be able to change, to be a better person.

“God, you have examined me and You know me” (Psalm 139:1).

God is the still, small voice in me that urges me on, the One who is my cheerleader, who believes that I will live up to being B’tzelem Elohim, created in God’s image. I will steadfastly work on changing the behaviors I know I need to, hoping that God will continue to have patience with me.

May God grant us the opportunity to live lives of honor, in recognition of the Divine gift of life, and not stray from our obligation to honor others.


Questions and a Meditation Before Yom Kippur

 

“…and after the earthquake a fire; but The One was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice….” Kings I 19:12

Am I coming to face the Divine with a polished soul, cleansed from sins I tossed into the living waters?

For the past ten days, between Tishrei 1 and Tishrei 10….did I fully use the opportunities I had to correct myself?

How can I possibly achieve the mountain of individual work I know I need to do knowing my limitations?

Yet, how can I approach the Holy One unless I truly own the fact that, created B’tzelem Elohim, I hold the Divine in me?

The still small voice in me, how can I honor that voice?

What behaviors can I commit to, what promises can I make to the Divine, that will honor others as Holy Souls of The One?

How can I make sure to live every moment in its purity with gratitude to my Creator?

How can I make sure that “Lo BaShamayim Hi” also means that everyday, in my heart, I remember my vows to The Blessed One?

What can I do to make this fast, this year, at this time, different from others?

A Yom Kippur Meditation

Draw yourself into the present moment, letting all thoughts slowly fade….

Notice your breath. Breathe in very slowly……………..breathe out even more slowly…

Take another breath this way……….Focus on the movement of your chest, your belly as you breathe…

Let go of any tightness, relax all parts of your body as you feel a lightness of being…….

You are in the present moment. You are a Holy Soul, B’tzelem Elokim…

Your soul is pure. Your soul is tehora.

Elokai Neshama she’Natati-bi Tehora-hi. My God, the soul that you gifted me with inside, is pure.

As you take your next breath, imagine a pure, blue-white lightness filling your soul, filling your entire body, radiating outward from you to the universe…

Begin to feel very light as your essence is not longer separate from that around you….

You are approaching the Holy One as this essence…..

The feeling of attachment is strong…you are part of the One and you are Loved by One Who Loves All….

You are unique. Your purpose here is yours. You bring lightness to the world that is your own….

Your presence is a wonder….

You are filled with gratitude…

The gratitude you feel flows freely from you and will, with the help of The One, envelope others in this bright, New Year….

You are in this place, this Makom, and in the world’s place.

 


What do you want to read on a synagogue sign?

 

thou shalt not.jpg

We live in a visual world, right? So why not go with that? My morning commute is peppered with the various church signs I pass on my way to work. I wonder who actually writes these pithy things.  Is there a team of writers in a back room somewhere brainstorming a year’s worth of compelling sayings to post outside on the church lawn? Do they mail a smattering of weekly messages to the church elders who get to select which ones to post on their outdoor billboard sign? Seriously, who writes these? I smile as I drive by signs like “Yes, We’re Open Between Christmas and Easter”, “Home Improvement Needed? Bring Your Family Here”, and “What’s Missing Here? Ch….Ch. UR!”.

Signs like these are old buddies, enticing you in, knowing your faults but pretty much accepting you as you are. “Haven’t been here for a while? Don’t worry, c’mon in, you’re good here.” “Having a bad day? I can relate. Stop by”. The welcoming spirit is what these churches advertise, it’s what they’re about, and they know it, and they’re just waiting for you to come around.  Take a peek at these church signs which are so engaging to read.

Not so with the synagogues I see. When I Googled (in images) ‘synagogue signs’ not a one made me chuckle. They were all quite boring, actually. Not exactly like a beckoning buddy, but an authority figure; more staid, formal, and reserved–and sometimes even indifferent: “Here’s our name. Isn’t that enough?”. “Here’s a list of services and times.”

Am I wrong? Sometimes you can’t even tell it’s a synagogue that you’re passing by  –fear of ensuing graffiti? Attacks? Perhaps. On the whole, synagogue signs don’t accuse you for not believing, cajole you to enter the sacred space, or even seem to welcome you in. Lack of judgement can often substitute for apathy. Okay I’ll admit, there might be some signs that say “Welcome”, fine. But sometimes being so mild-mannered can be construed as disinterest. We all know that person who doesn’t want to ‘intrude’ in our lives by asking us questions, but to us, it just feels as if the person can’t be bothered.

What I do see sometimes are program announcements on billboards: “Rockin’ Shabbat”, “Shabbat Under the Stars” and once I even saw an audacious sign that proclaimed:  “A Synagogue You Can Believe In”.  Take that one in and let its spiritually arrogant message sink in. It’s revealing that the sign is about the building. Really? I’m going to join because of that? What exactly are synagogues of today offering? The most common thing I see on signs is the word “Free”. If a consumer message is what is displayed, what else would someone think about?

Why should the synagogue downplay its message? Are we that insecure about our spiritual lives? Perhaps we’re not as clear as we think about who we are and what we communicate to the outside world. So, what would you want to read on a synagogue sign?

 


From Jewish Camp to Home: Five Easy Things to Do

camp

 

How can your Jewish community maximize campers’ experiences when they arrive home?

Summer camp is exhilarating for our Jewish teens. For most, living Judaism 24/7 and not as an ‘add-on’ activity that so often happens on the home front is a powerful experience.  The ways in which it’s different are probably obvious but some still deserve mentioning:

  • Weeks at camp have the rhythm of Shabbat
  • They’re socializing in a “Jewish bubble” surrounded by staff and friends who are all Jewish and who are making a commitment to be together for several weeks
  • They’re being challenged in unique ways that stimulate thinking and growth
  • Many or most of their activities are highly interactive and engaging
  • The adults they interact with are supporting and non-threatening
  • Camp is a socially safe (usually) environment where problems and issues are sorted out in real-time, when they occur.

So, how can we bridge these experiences to foster a deeper connection with Judaism when they arrive back home? 

How can we assist our Jewish teens,  who have just spent the summer being energized about a Judaism that is alive, pulsing, vibrant, and changeable, return home?

Here are some suggestions for using the talents our teens have gained over the summer:

#1.  Mentor a group to begin a ‘camp style’ group at the synagogue, or community center. Members may have been to camp, or just be interested in this new offering.

#2.  Put one or more Jewish teens on your committees to infuse it with some new ideas and approaches that they’ve learned at camp.

#3.  Help the teens develop goals to incorporate one new and different thing from camp into experiential programming for your youth.

#4.  Feature these Jewish summer camp experts as part of a panel that explores the ways in which your community can learn and be enriched by their experience.

#5.  Get these teens in front of younger kids to share their experiences and foster motivation for a Jewish summer camp experience.

(optional #6: tell me  how it goes!)

 

Photo credit: Wikipedia


One New Way To Join A Jewish Community

Judaism = Community

Judaism = Community

This season, when so many emotions surge through us, it is comforting to be within a community. That’s part of the grand design, for Jews to be together to usher in the New Year. We collectively hear the shofar’s urgency of now and decide that this year, things will be different….we’ll be different. But one thing is stubbornly the same and I need to write about it.

For those who were not part of a synagogue community last year, has their situation changed? I’ve spoken with many people who don’t connect to the formalized Jewish community and miss the experience of belonging. They were once members, somewhere.

Yet they haven’t received any personal communication to return to the synagogue. Not a letter, not a phone call. I wonder what their experience is of Klal Yisrael and what our obligation is to them? (For the most part, these issues don’t arise for those who identify as Orthodox, as their entire experience of community is different).

Their feelings of being separate must hurt and are in total opposition to the goal of feeling close to G-d and community. The pain they share with me is palpable, but often buried.

Most synagogues don’t have the volunteer power to do outreach. Yet for years, as a communal educator, I have listened to stories of exclusion peppered with harsh memories and I feel helpless. The problem is so overwhelming.

Programs like ‘public space’ Judaism, online workshops, concierge services or outreach spiritual leaders are part of innovative responses to this growing problem of disconnected Jews.  But for those who are searching specifically for a re-connection to their synagogue, personal outreach is required. We need to initiate teshuvah  by encouraging them to return.

Sometimes the reasons for leaving a community have to do with finances so we need to change the dues structure paradigm by thinking beyond the synagogue. Ultimately, it might cost more to exclude those we are not reaching. If we want individuals to belong to a community, then we need to offer wider access to that community. Right now, our definition of belonging is defined exclusively by which congregation someone belongs to.

For example, my experience is that even if a synagogue event is open to the public, people from neighboring synagogues don’t attend. I’ve witnessed this phenomena multiple times, though I don’t understand the behavior at all. So, how can we make others feel welcome in any synagogue in a given community….without feeling that they don’t belong? Because every Jew in a Jewish community belongs.

A community could establish a communal membership fee, whatever amount works for them, on whatever scale, which would be a way to say ‘you belong’. A person would then be a member of all synagogues in the area. This manageable fee could be an option for people who are new to an area and want to ‘synagogue shop’ for a year or two. Or it could be for those who would like access to a wider range of social programming.since prayer may not be the way they connect to the Jewish community. The fee would also work for those who are already a member of one synagogue but elect to additionally support the Jewish community in this way. There also might be levels of giving to reflect these different needs.

Just imagine, everyone could feel part of the community, with no artificial borders and boundaries.

If some of these discussions occur, then next year, when it comes time for us to think about Teshuvah, we might just agree that the return to an old paradigm is worth a change.

Related posts: 

When You Say Jewish Community, Who Are You Talking About? 

Patchwork Fixes Don’t Work for The Jewish Community


A #Jewish Philosopher’s Words on a Presbyterian Church

When deeper meaning transcends religion

When deeper meaning transcends religion

photo by: Ruth Schapira


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.


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 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.


Seven Things to Do When Teens Come Home from Jewish Summer Camp

How to Bring Camp Home

How to Bring Camp Home

Soon, thousands of Jewish teens will arrive to their home communities, having spent an amazing immersive experience in a Jewish summer camp. These teens, armed with new enthusiasm for Jewish life, should be able to transition successfully into their Jewish life at home, sharing their experiences with peers, their families, the synagogue, and maybe even the Jewish community as a whole.

Summer camp is exhilarating for our Jewish teens. For most, living Judaism 24/7 and not as an ‘add-on’ like Hebrew school, is a powerful experience for them.  For example, Shabbat at camp is a communal affair, with everyone in the camp community living on the same page. Each week has the rhythm of Shabbat, with the pace at week’s end picking up in a flurry of activity; frenzied preparations of personal and communal cleaning that peak before sundown on Friday night. Daily schedules then ease into a newly relaxed pace of free time and socializing that ends on Saturday night. This arc of Friday to Saturday night is a palpably different feeling than the rest of the week.

A Jewish Bubble That is Alive and Vibrant

At camp, teens are socializing in a Jewish world surrounded by staff and friends who are all Jewish and who are making a commitment to be together, living Judaism, for several weeks. The passion for living a Jewish life can’t be duplicated—there are just too many factors that make that impossible (that’s why many Jewish Federations around the country and the Foundation for Jewish camping are trying to get our kids to go there).

So, Jewish teens spend the summer being energized about a Judaism that is alive, pulsing, vibrant, and changeable and at summer’s end have a decidedly different experience.  At home, the pace of the weekly arc is gone for the most part, unless campers live in a Shabbat-observant home. They may or may not miss any restrictions they’ve had (electronic fasts in some places) but they will miss the natural rhythm that the week holds.  Their home friends won’t have a clue what they’ve experienced, and neither will you, as parents, if you haven’t experienced it. They no longer live in a community of like-minded teens.

Why should we make teens wait all year long to experience these same feelings again?

When Teens Return Home

Most teens returning to ‘normal’ life after camp don’t experience a transition between these two worlds. Instead, there is a disturbing disconnect as they see huge differences between the summer months and practices at home and the synagogue during the year, which is like going from one entirely different cultural experience to another.

We can look at ways to maximize their experiences and make sure that the energy is captured, and create more of a seamless transition.  There may be programs working on this, like youth groups that connect campers during the year, but not all groups function in that way or are successful in that effort.

Links between Camp, Home, and Synagogue

We need to create better links, bridges, and supports from one experience to the other for our Jewish teens. So, how can we maximize campers’ experiences when they arrive home?  What I’m suggesting won’t be broad or sweeping systemic change but are definitely do-able. There are activities that can be tweaked for home, synagogue and even youth groups. Below are just some suggestions for optimizing Jewish teens’ experiences at camp and using their creative talents, no matter the level of your observance:

#1.  Make Friday night (at least) different from the rest of the week by getting the teens involved in trying to create a different Shabbat experience at home. It doesn’t much matter how—a tablecloth, cold cuts on Saturday, a change of clothing, challah, candles—can set the tone, even over a pizza dinner. Too much? Choose one small change, but try to commit to it every week. Ask them for ideas, and don’t accept the usual “but this won’t work here” response.  Start slowly, perhaps building on ideas month to month. For example, try an electronic fast, for at least a few hours either Friday or Saturday, or both, every week. Your teenager is already used to it, so making the change won’t be difficult.

#2.  Mentor a group to begin a ‘camp style’ minyan at your synagogue, even once a month for starters.  Or ask them to duplicate a service one Shabbat evening or morning.

#3.  Ask your camp to connect you with other campers/parents in your area to keep the camp spirit going.  Many camps are forming parent groups just for this purpose. You might want to get together with other camp parents to create a different Shabbat experience. This might already be happening at your synagogue through a new program called “Guess Who’s Coming to Shabbas”. Find more about that here:  https://www.facebook.com/GuessWhosComingToShabbas.

#4.  Make sure that your teens are connected to Jewish learning experiences during the year, hopefully in addition to a youth group. Many programs are conducted on a weekly basis–offering teens a ‘camp reunion’ opportunity—and some courses are even online. They are specifically geared toward teens’ interests and expectations. These programs offer expertise in bridging the camp- to- home experiences.

#5.  Feature these Jewish summer camp experts as part of a panel that explores the ways in which the synagogue and home communities can learn and be enriched by their experience. Also, make sure there are ways to put these teens in front of younger students to share their experiences and keep the legacy of Jewish camping a presence at your synagogue.

#7 Put one or more Jewish teens on the synagogue’s ritual committee to infuse it with some new ideas and approaches that they’ve learned at camp. Give the teens a goal to incorporate one new and different thing from camp into synagogue programming for your youth

This issue has been on my mind for quite some time.   I was one of those campers, at ten years old, filled with a spark of Judaism from summer camp that didn’t get replenished until the next summer. The youth group in my area was purely social, and didn’t offer me enough of the “Jewish infusion” that I had at camp.

We can make a difference in how our teenagers experience Judaism during the year. Even implementing one suggestion from the list can send a strong message that as a community, we’re all working together on their behalf.

Photo credit: wikipedia.org

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Betrayal, Abandonment, and Jewish Teen Education

education

This past Sunday I met with a group of parents interested in checking out options for their teens’ Jewish education. They were committed to their children’s education and wanted the best for them.  Currently, their 7th grade teens were in a synagogue school, but were unsure that staying there would meet their children’s needs. One parent found the time to attend this orientation meeting even though her daughter’s Bat Mitzvah was the very next week!  

I am always impressed when parents become ‘smart shoppers’, critically evaluating which program will offer the best environment for their child’s Jewish education.  For sure, not every program works for every teen, but parents will be in a better position to support their teens’ attendance if they feel committed to the program’s goals.  And if it’s a good fit. 

The consumer attitude that we often disparage, can be flipped toward the positive. The desire to find the best possible option from those available, is a good thing and definitely trickles down. Teens will get it; they’ll understand that spending time ‘shopping’ around for the best fit–whether done by parents, teens or both–means that there is no less importance placed on Jewish education than any other choice one would make. It’s an important lesson.

At this point in the orientation, I’m enjoying hearing from these parents what they want for their kids: to be challenged, be with a lot of other teens who are like them, to have many choices of subject matter, be exposed to a large staff of teachers, etc. 

I guess at one point, the conversation shifted. It may have been prompted by thoughts about the reality of enrolling their son/daughter in a different program than the one the synagogue was offering.

I was surprised to hear the words they used next:  “Betrayal, Abandonment, Rejection” were words different parents said that expressed their discomfort with this eventuality. I heard this not just from one parent, but from many.

They felt they were ‘abandoning’ a course that had been set out for them.  They didn’t want to disappoint the Rabbi.  Or the Education Director. Or the Education Committee that had worked on the curriculum. Some felt that by seeking out other options they would be perceived as deserting the rest of the parents who were staying.  Some felt that that making this new commitment would add a layer of difficulty to their lives (arranging different carpools, rescheduling things) and they weren’t sure that it would be ‘worth the change’. Most felt guilty about the decision they were close to making in one way or another.  You could see it in their earnest expressions. They clearly wanted to do the right thing, but were so conflicted.

I appreciated their sensitivity, but had no answers.

I stand on the side of advocating for choice every time.

But this is not so effective unless everyone in the Jewish community agrees to encourage choices. That means making people/members aware of what’s out there, and giving up some influence and control over the information that would contribute to their ‘buying decision’.

This unfortunately, seems a long way off.

Instead of complaining about the consumer mentality, we have to embrace it. That attitude makes us all work a little harder. And yes, there are consequences. However, I believe that we have to be fearless.   


Doing a 360 on Attendance in a Part-Time School

Cover of "Class Clown"

Class Clowns: Not That Funny

Recently, I participated in a webinar, sponsored by JESNA, on issues related to complementary (supplementary, part-time) schools.

This was an unusual experience. I was asked to facilitate a group of about ten online participants and discuss the topic of declining attendance. Aside from one familiar name, I didn’t know any one. We examined the issue from the point of view of these stakeholders; Education Director, Parent, and Teacher, and we brainstormed a list of issues surrounding the topic.

It was interesting that this online group of educators and school directors, representing schools from all over the country, mentioned a familiar list: conflicting activities, less parental engagement, too few class expectations, too much school homework, class management issues, social pressures, plus other reasons that were sound and thoughtful.

I’m sure many of us approached this issue of declining attendance in a variety of contexts and perhaps came up with similar but expanded lists of reasons and issues. So, what’s the news here?

I’m not sure what anyone else took away from this online discussion, but for me, there was a particular enlightening moment.

When I suggested we view this issue from the vantage point of the student, I was literally overwhelmed with all of the emotional baggage that our students have to deal with when they attend erratically.

To be clear, these are not going to be things that haven’t come up in conversations before.

It’s just that listed all together, I felt such compassion for that poor kid having to attend any program in this way.

Would any adult be able to handle such a thing? “Kind of” attending a program? Participating “now and then”?

Really, just think about this for a minute. How comfortable would you be in this situation? Think about the social and academic implications.

Now, think of how you might experience this as an adolescent:

You are lost most of the time. Most likely, you haven’t kept up with the work. You don’t really know everything the teacher is referencing, but you pretend because you don’t want to ask questions or ‘stick out’. You may be out of things socially. You may cover up this inadequacy with acting out behavior. You need some sort of role in the class, and class academic is out. So the other roles available that unconsciously suit you may be class clown, troublemaker, blocker, etc. Other kids may resent the fact that you’re not there regularly, as they are. You  haven’t really formed a connection with the teacher.

Though you’ve been absent often, it actually becomes harder to attend.  So you think of reasons not to go. Like complaining a lot. Finding excuses to do other things. Begging your parents not to send you to that ‘awful’ place.

No surprise then, that declining attendance begets a further attendance drop.

I was totally overwhelmed with what students like this experience when they don’t attend Jewish education programs on a regular basis and the challenges they probably face as a result.

How can we use this information?

I know that as a teacher, I’ve often expressed frustration/guilt when my students did not attend regularly. It’s not that I was ever harsh, I just wanted them to know that I missed them and wanted them to be part of the class.

I’d change that now and say something a little different.

I’d make a real effort to show much more compassion for what they’re coping with, maybe privately even get a reference check about the unique challenges they must feel, and help ease their transition into the classroom world any way I could.

They’re dealing with enough.


“After my Bar Mitzvah, my Dad decided to convert. Will he be a real Jew then?”

Some labels might be useful. Others, not so much.

Some labels might be useful. Others, not so much.

I wasn’t prepared for such a troubling question by this earnest 8th grader in my class. He had been so patient; holding his hand up until the discussion we were having about interfaith families opened for questions.

The topic was Interfaith Families and the teens were very talkative during our workshop on sensitizing Jewish high school students to the many issues these families might face.

They had personal experiences about the issue, since about one-third of them were from those of interfaith families themselves.  The conversation had relevance for them and  they shared personal stories peppered with jokes, hurt feelings, and sometimes defiance.

The program was specifically designed for teens and consisted of film clips to trigger conversation and raise awareness.

His question came after I shared an experience I had when I was a teenager myself, while attending a large suburban Conservative synagogue in my town. I have a very clear memory of asking a congregant who someone was. He pointed to him and then lightly said: “Oh, this is Mr. So and So, who converted to Judaism….” I couldn’t figure out why I needed to know that. This man was forever labeled in my mind as ‘the one who converted.’

I’ve experienced this practice even as an adult. Why must we use labels?

Let’s come back to the boy sitting in front of me. He was obviously very concerned and wanted an answer. Yet, in the format of the program, with a full agenda and little time, I could not engage him in a full discussion of all the questions I wanted to ask him.

For example, why does he feel a need to ask this question? Does this first question represent other, more pressing questions about the choices his father made? What does he think about how the Jewish community responded to his father? Is it what he expected? Did he feel his Dad was welcomed? Rejected? Did he sense a total acceptance of the choice by his father’s family? Is he still wondering about his father’s reasons for conversion? Was it only for the ceremony or was there some deeper reason that his father made the choice he did? What impact did the father’s conversion have on him? Did it make him doubt his own choices going forward or feel more secure in them?

How would you respond to this student when there is so much more to discuss?

What I said next created some comedy, but my intention was to offer a really concrete example for this student: “Here’s how I see it. You know when someone gets his/her nose fixed? Or some cosmetic work done? Once it’s done, we no longer say, “You know, this is Ms. So and So…she recently got a nose job. We accept that the person has a new nose, and we move on. No need to reference it. We don’t need to go back to past history and label that person any differently than anyone else. Similarly, Your father’s Jewish. He’ll always be considered Jewish.”

He seemed to be reassured and we continued on with the discussion.

The students had a lot to say, and more questions to ask as the evening progressed.

The question above demonstrates just how much work we have to do to create more understanding among all of us about those who ‘choose Jewish’. Here are some tips to consider when a family member converts:

  1. Have a family discussion about the decision. Teens are at the stage when they are actively questioning many things. Especially about religion, the meaning of life, their place among their peers, and more. They will appreciate knowing your reasons for the decision, and being included in some thoughts you’ve had.
  2. This is an opportunity to connect with your teen about spiritual journeys. We often reserve conversations with our kids to the mundane. These conversations about religion and faith are of an entirely different level. Personal yes, but it opens so many doors.
  3. You might schedule a meeting with the family and the Rabbi together, so all parties are aware of any new roles and  responsibilities.

Photo credit: BazzaDaRambler, flickr. Creative commons license.