Category Archives: Synagogue

Does the Jewish Community Connect Teens to a Jewish Network?

Judaism

Are we reaching high enough?

I doubt that anyone would say that mentoring teens during the coming-of-age years is not a good thing. It’s also doubtful that based on the data we have today, anyone would disagree that we need to connect Jewish teens to the community more, not less.

Doing so helps create a sense of community while building connections, awareness, responsibility, self-esteem, problem-solving skills, and gobs more of all the good stuff. So why don’t we do it more?

Relationship building needs to be at the core of any effort to connect teens with Judaism, and though many programs meet those goals, few consistently deliver over a period of time on communal connections beyond the program itself.

Let me give a few examples.

There are many discrete programs, some gender-based, some philanthropically oriented, some at camps, some in synagogues, some not….that connect Jewish teens to each other and their individual mentor/educator/volunteer but don’t build lasting bridges to the larger Jewish community.

Those programs, successful as they are, often function as “Jewish island experiences” (my term) that are wonderful options while teens are there, but don’t build enough bridges for teens to get off the island.  There seems to be little integration between the groups and the greater Jewish community, either in formal or informal ways.

I remember when I was at summer camp, there was a special program in the last week titled “How to Take Camp Home.” That, in itself, was a great idea and a start to help bind the two experiences. The trouble was, no one in my home community had a similar program called “How to Create Camp Here.”

Recently, I accompanied a group of Jewish teens to local college campuses, specifically to check out Hillel and Jewish life.  The students were so appreciative that this world was opened up to them before they had to make decisions about college. Yet, this trip was clearly a one-way effort.  It was in the best interest of these teen’s Jewish education to have them tour Jewish life on campus, but there is no outreach the other way, from campus to community.

Many programs are like that: one-way avenues to Jewish identity.

We need to make sure that the content we’re offering our teens is not limited to Jewish island experiences but instead function as experiences which connect, web-like to other Jewish organizations and future Jewish activities.

Why not encourage the teens in our programs to further their Jewish education into areas that are not explored in the curriculum that go way beyond the specific setting? Information is available on so many topics, in so many venues, that we really have no excuse for not constructing those bridges when students are in our programs or when they’re getting ready to leave.

In order to build Jewish community in an organic and authentic way, as leaders we need to think beyond our own programs and build-in fundamental ways of integrating those experiences into a larger framework. Building programmatic scaffolds to connect and weave the experiences so they don’t stand alone would be an important step to secure Jewish continuity. In addition we would, as leaders, model the very behavior we want our teens to develop.

(Photo credit: Jrwooley6)


Are we reaching middle school students?

Introducing hands-on computing in secondary ed...

When did things get so serious for middle-schoolers?

A new Gallup poll studied factors related to student engagement, optimism, and well-being revealed that students scored relatively high on all these factors.

Except when you examine the findings for middle school students: (italics mine)

“Many adults are apt to blame hormonal and other life changes for the drop in student engagement at the middle school level, but that is not how students tend to explain it, he added. Instead, students are more likely to say that they are “not known, not valued, not recognized” at the secondary level, as they were in elementary school. They also indicate that their school days are stripped of “play” in middle school.

So, turn that reality into goal statements and we should have a very clear idea of the work we need to do.

Public school teachers have their challenges for sure. On top of handling large class sizes, coping with intense student tracking and detailed record-keeping, managing curricular pressures, there needs to be a focus on emotional and social learning.

They would think our work in these areas with students is a piece of pie.

As Jewish educators, we have the luxury of working with teens on an emotional and spiritual level.

For the most part, we have small classes, little curricular pressure, less record keeping.

We should be aceing this challenge and making such a difference with students in this age group.

Instead, students face the middle school reality, along with the intensity of the 7th grade (Bar/Bat Mitzvah) year.

How playful is that?

Not very.

So, how can we make it more so? Mentoring? Trope contests? D’var Torah write-ins?

We can not continue with the ‘business as usual’ paradigm.

So, I know, Gallup’s results aren’t directed at Jewish educators.

And, there is no call to action in the article detailing Gallup’s results.

But we know that we’re not succeeding with this age group.

And yet, again, we need to step it up, quickly.

Photo credit: License, Free-use,  creative commons.

 


Why do buildings substitute for substance for Jewish teens?

List of Jews in literature and journalism

It used to be Culture vs Content. Now is it Building vs Substance?

 

 

 

 

 

 

I call this the IMBY* Phenomenon: In My Back Yard.

It’s the reason that often holds synagogue communities back from collaborating. It’s the pull of the building.

And often, programs that would offer more substance are foregone in favor of holding programs right where everyone wants them to be, in their own backyard.

I remember years ago, a beloved teacher (who has since moved to Israel) used to mourn the sad state of Jewish education when she grimly noted that parents were interested in “Polaroid Judaism”, meaning that as long as their kids were ‘exposed’ to Jewish culture they’d stay connected.

So, if they attended a Jewish film, ate some Jewish food, and speckled their language with a few Jewish words, that would suffice to strengthen their tenuous ties to Judaism.

Well, this is one step further than that.

This is a quote I heard recently when a parent was discussing her son’s involvement in synagogue:

” Well, at least he walks into the building (one night a month). I’m happy he does that.” 

It seems like it’s enough for some parents that their kids connect with Judaism just by walking in the synagogue.

As if one can believe in a building.  Or that kids can ‘get’ Judaism by osmosis.

Sometimes, against all financial odds and educational common sense, the powers that be want the programs at their particular location precisely because they want kids to be in the building.

Do we have so much invested in the membership/mortgage structure that we’re happy just when the building is used?

There’s a well-told story about a Rabbi who asks a camper (who participated in a camp’s weekly havdallah ceremony by the lake) if she was continuing the practice at home.

“I can’t”, she replied.

“Why not, don’t you remember the service?”

“Yes, of course. But I can’t.”

“Why then?”

“Because there’s no lake.”

Let’s make sure our programs are created and continue for all the right reasons not  just because they’re in the building.

We all know that buildings don’t substitute for substance.

What are your thoughts? Have you experienced this phenomenon in your area?

 

*The original term NIMBY is an acronym for Not In My Back Yard, which became shorthand for the attitude that people did not want anything that might be construed as unsavory located in their neighborhoods.

Photo credit: Wikipedia


Let’s hope Jewish parents are smarter than this

Are we just being stupid or stubborn?

There are some obvious signs that parents might not be as smart as we’d like them to be.

Do you want to hear some of the comments I’ve heard from parents who choose not to continue their teens’ Jewish education past the age of bar/bat mitzvah?  Or  Confirmation? Keep reading.

First, you need to know that really, I understand that today’s teens are busy, committed to many activities, are often holding down a part-time job, and dealing with the pressures of scoping out a future in college. I think my posts will convince you of that.

But hey, we know in our working and personal lives that the timeless often gives way to the trivial unless we prioritize and begin thinking of outcomes.

Yet, innumerable times, I’ve heard parents opt for the immediate, for the path of least resistance, for the easiest option instead of the best option.

I’m not saying  that Jewish education is guaranteed insurance for success in college (maybe we could market that), but building a strong identity, critical thinking skills, a social network, and even earning college credits (or engaging in serious analysis) in a Jewish environment will help with college competencies.

I’m not just assuming all of these benefits, I actually hear it from our graduates.

Here is a sample of some parent comments that focus on the immediate instead of the timeless, on a path of ease instead of a path of priorities. They are not the smartest things I’ve ever heard. (My advice for parents about some of these issues are here).

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“How will this be useful? I mean, we know the value of other activities (ouch, activities?), but I’m not sure about this…..”

“So and so will probably do a birthright trip in college….and that will solidify his/her Jewish identity, I’m sure.”

“In our family we’ve decided to emphasize ‘regular’ school….because, you know, it counts.”

“This falls very low on the priority scale, compared to other things that will look good for college.”

“So and so is planning on going to a college with a large/big/sizeable/impressive Jewish population, and socializing at Hillel will insure that he/she will stay connected.”

“The synagogue offered to pay so and so–and having a job instills a sense of responsibility, and besides–there just isn’t that much time to do so many Jewish things.”

Should we accept the obvious signs that parents have written off what we have to offer? Or should we continue to be stubborn optimists?

I hope that Jewish parents are smarter than this, but the burden is on us to change the game where we focus on  the benefits that our programs offer instead of features.


From Jewish Camp to Synagogue: Five No-brainers

Stanford Sailing Summer Camp in session in Red...

The more things change, the more …..well, you can fill in the blank here. This is on my mind as we approach the summer and thousands of Jewish teens anxiously await the beginning of Jewish camp.

I thought that by now there would be some changes in the synagogue world.  I’m not even talking about broad, sweeping, systemic change.  Or the changes suggested by some 15 teens a few months ago. Incredibly, I have been hoping for one small specific change ever since I was about 10 years old and attended a Jewish summer camp (which I did for 6 years after that and for 9 more in assorted roles from teacher to Assistant Director).

That change is maximizing campers’ experiences when they arrive home to their synagogue communities.  Specifically, at services (I so dislike that name for what we’re looking to experience during that time of prayer).  The disconnect I experienced then still holds true in most synagogues now. Jewish teens have described it to me.

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 new experience for them.  Their weeks have the rhythm of Shabbat in camp that usually doesn’t occur at home. They’re also 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.

That’s why many Jewish Federations around the country and the Foundation for Jewish camping are trying to get our kids to go there through incentive scholarships.

Okay, let’s get back to focusing on the one thing: services.  At camp? Not boring at all. Sure, they’re tired in the morning, can barely keep their eyes open, but their peers are usually in front of the room leading the group, and this already makes things rather interesting. Plus, there’s a lot of interactivity and singing.  Do you have this mental picture?  Good.

Let’s switch now, to what they experience at their home synagogue. If it’s hard for you to keep a connection to services comprised of ‘readings’ interspersed with cantorial singing, how might they feel after just experiencing what they did for weeks in the summer?

It might not be too harsh to say that experiencing ‘services’ at their home synagogue amounts to listening to someone else chant—-like in a production where you buy tickets and wait for the entertainment.

If guests go up to the bimah (raised platform), it’s usually to offer a reading. Yawn.  But what about synagogues that hold a camp Shabbat honoring those teens who attend Jewish summer camps? Oh that? Yes, that’s when most often, campers are invited to lead prayers but not asked to bring their style of prayer to the “Jews in the Pews”. Usually the reason given is that people like to sing/read/chant what they already know….it’s comfortable. (I’m not making this up, I’ve been told this very thing).

It’s frightfully a sad state when there are no links, bridges, and supports from one experience to the other. There may be programs working on this, but I haven’t encountered any.

So, here we have Jewish teens who spend the summer being energized about a Judaism that is alive, pulsing, vibrant, and changeable, coming back home to experience a sterile, cold, inflexible environment. And again, I’m just talking about services. What should we do about it? Here are some suggestions for using the talents of our teens:

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

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

#3.  Give the teens a goal to incorporate one new and different thing from camp into synagogue programming for your youth.

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

#5.  Get these teens in front of your younger students to share their experiences and keep the legacy of Jewish camping a presence at your synagogue.

I bet you’ll notice a change. Even if it’s a really small specific one.

Related articles

Photo credit: Wikipedia


Hiring Jewish teen aides? Five things to know

The title of this post offers you some tips, however first, I’d like to ask you for some advice…..to 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 save money 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 put Rachel in the position of having had a Bat Mitzvah, and 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 that 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.


Yizkor and Memorial Day: An American Jewish Experience

northwestjewishartists.org

I don’t remember experiencing the juxtaposition that occurred today: there were so many strong emotions swirling through my head related to being a Jewish American praying in synagogue on Shavuot.

On Memorial Day.

No mall shopping. No barbecues either hosted or attending.  No parade watching or flag waving. No trips to the shore to inaugurate the summer’s sun.

But I did memorialize on this day–my parents z”l of blessed memory.

 

I said Kaddish for my father who earned a bronze star and purple heart in WWII as a new immigrant soldier–for my mother who came to this country for refuge after losing her parents and nine brothers and sisters in the holocaust — for the millions who perished in the Shoah, and for our valiant soldiers who risk their lives so I can have mine living in freedom.

These emotions were in the context of a holiday that celebrates the gift of Torah to the Jewish people.

On Memorial Day and at Yizkor, we remembered loved ones who died for a cause, and those who died for no cause.  And we hope and pray that through the message of Torah, the world will be a better place.


‘Wow, You’re Soooo Jewish!”

What image comes to mind when you read the headline?

Is it the consummate Jewish nebbish, portrayed here by Woody Allen?

The words “You’re soooo0 Jewish”, said in that tone of voice, from one Jewish teenager to another, is not meant as a compliment.

So, what does it mean?

Really, take a minute.

What would it mean to you?

 

To this teenager, it meant that his Jewish friend was taking Judaism seriously, too seriously.

Not only was he Jewish, he was acting Jewish.

Forget that being ‘so Jewish’ is a little like being a human. You either are or you’re not.

But that’s not the point.

The comment was meant as a put-down, a derogatory statement about identity.

Clearly, there is no ‘cool’ factor when it comes to Jewish education for these students.

Okay, you’re wondering, what is it that this student is doing that makes his peers say he’s so Jewish?

He attends a supplementary high school program two days a week.

He’s in 8th grade, and says that he wants to graduate the program in 12th.

He belongs to a youth group.

He sometimes attends synagogue on Shabbat. And he sometimes studies with a Rabbi.

Okay, by now you’re probably convinced that his Jewish involvement is unusual, and you might be shaking your head.

Years ago, this student would not have been labeled ‘SuperJew‘.

On the contrary, that’s what thousands of teens were doing. Then.

Before their lives got so busy, complicated, college-focused and pressured. Now, based on today’s new realities and priorities, our expectations have changed. So, is the student I described s00000 Jewish, or have we bought into diminished standards?

What Jewish involvements are too much? Too little?

How do you feel about the term s0000o Jewish?

What I will say, is that the one thing, the Jewish identification thing, that will help Jewish teens be more grounded before they run off to college is the thing that tends to get low priority.

Unless of course, you’re “SuperJew” and one of the kids who is “sooooo Jewish.”


Why some teens ‘get it’ but their parents don’t

I just came back from visiting a synagogue with an enviable number of teens in their Confirmation Program.

What number, you ask, counts as being worthy of envy? About FORTY.

I was talking to them about continuing their Jewish education and framing it in the context of choices they make.

For example, I asked and the majority answered, that they play sports or a musical instrument.

I asked them if faced with a choice about whether to practice scales, do drills, or go to the movies, what they would choose.

Most chose the movies. No surprise there.   I then asked which activity they thought was the most important.

The answers were very rich and textured.

They mostly all opted for the drilling and practicing. They talked about those activities as building character, teamwork, responsibility, and doing something for their future.  The felt it was time well spent.

Interesting no?

I then facilitated a conversation with them about how being involved in continuing education might be a little like that.  Like it would build character and identity. Things that would make them better people, but that take some time.

They GOT IT.

Do you think their parents get it?  When thinking about how or what these teens might say to parents about what we just talked about–continuing their Jewish education—-I wonder how many parents will say:

“Wow, that makes a lot of sense” or what I often hear instead: “How can you possibly do one more thing, you’re already overbooked!”

What do you think the parents you know would say?


Jewish Teens Need Us to Work as a Team

English: Students cheer their team on Sports DayI have resisted writing about the following for some time. But I can always tell when I’ve reached my own ‘tipping point’: it’s usually when I get tired of hearing myself repeat the same thing over and over to different people.

Secretly, I hope they’ll do something about what I’m telling them, but that hasn’t happened yet.  So, here I am, blogging to you. At least you can listen and perhaps share my frustration, and who knows? Maybe things will change.

First, we need to cooperate more. We are not working as a team on behalf of our teens.  I’ll define a teen team player as anyone or any organization that has the teen’s best interest at heart for involvement in Jewish life. Period.

That team, the teen team, has a shortage of players which is why we’re losing the Jewish identity game.  Here are some reasons:

  • There is little to no list-sharing among providers of Jewish educational experiences, both formal and informal.  What about privacy you ask? Well, how many groups even ask if their teens might want to have their names shared with other teen non-profit groups (non-profit stressed due to obvious reasons). How many teens do you know that would not want to be with as many other Jewish teens as possible?
  • Since groups wish to maintain their “members” and teens’ time is limited, there is little collaboration among groups, fearing that teens might ‘defect’ if exposed to the other group. (I could have said ‘leave’ but I’m making a point here). This plays out among synagogues, youth groups, interest groups, educational providers, and camps. Yes, there are joint programs out there, but often they partner with  ‘their own’ of the same denomination. I have experienced too many anecdotes about this that would curl your ears, if your ears could, in fact curl.
  • So, the takeaway for teens, though not intended, is that “membership” dictates who is in your community. How’s that for teaching teens that the Jewish community is a fluid, open-networked concept?
  • The above mentioned groups feel no guilt about deciding destiny. So, for example, if a teen belongs to a movement-affiliated synagogue, the chances of finding out about other options are pretty limited. If a synagogue is affiliated with a movement, only that youth group and camp are promoted.
  • Synagogues often want their teens ‘on-site’ as if keeping them physically in one place assures commitment (it doesn’t). Those teens may end up defining Judaism very narrowly. In fact, they do just that when they get to college. How can Judaism be more relevant to them if their experience of it is primarily synagogue-based? I am not referring to those teens who seem to straddle multiple worlds, and who are natural networkers. And I’m also not saying that synagogue/youth group/movement camps are not a good thing, we know they are. I’m specifically talking about those teens, for whatever reasons, are the minimally engaged to begin with and not making those choices. What are the options for other Jewish connections that we’re giving them?
  • The above does not apply to broad-based efforts, like the Foundation for Jewish Camping, that make a point of going beyond those limitations in awarding grants by saying in effect: “we don’t care which camp or where, just pick one!” We should all be taking that cue regarding Jewish youth involvement: we don’t care which program or where, just do something!
  • How about other open groups you ask? What about groups like teen philanthropy, teen fellowships, gender-based groups? Those are defining Judaism more broadly, but are there bridges to other programs which could increase identity building? Many times, those connections are left for each teenager to figure out. The connections must work both ways: to and from other organizations and synagogues.
  • How are we doing those teens a favor? Shouldn’t we be giving them a better sense of Jewish communal collaboration before they get to college? How can we, as a Jewish community, talk about pluralism and Klal Yisrael when we don’t really act that way ourselves. Could it be that we are modeling the very behavior they can’t relate to? Is this close-mindedness a contributing cause for the fact that most college students see no need to affiliate denominationally in college? I’m not saying that youth movements don’t work as leadership preparation for the future. I’m saying that we need to rethink our strategies and behave in ways that model collaboration or cooperation. We can’t be on the teen team if our organizations are based on a scarcity model.  

We have to decide if we are playing on an organization’s team or the teen’s team. If we’re on the same team, then we need a shared mission of youth leadership.

We’re in need of players for the teen team if we want to win this.  It’s like we’re in the 9th inning, with no runners on base. Will you step up?

I’d love to hear about collaborative models that defy these descriptions. I’ll post and share your responses so we can learn from each other.

Image via Wikipedia


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)


Judging Jewish Education by Fun

English: Kirnu, a steel roller coaster in Linn...
 

Jewish communal organizations have been in consumer mode for some time.  As individuals progressively decrease their involvement in traditional Jewish organizations (synagogues, Jewish Federation, volunteer groups) programmatic initiatives proportionately increase in an attempt to figure out just the right mix to draw people in. Sometimes those programs flaunt the ‘fun’.

Figuring out what consumers want and providing them with a great service at a great price is what business–both profit and non-profit–is about.

My problem with the fun model is when the goals of the enterprise become compromised in the process.

An op-ed article in the New York Times  referred to lower enrollment and the subsequent desire to attract students.  There is a lesson there for those of us in Jewish education:

“And since resources are typically distributed based on enrollments, rigorous classes are likely to be canceled and rigorous programs shrunk. Distributing resources and rewards based on student learning instead of student satisfaction would help stop this race to the bottom.” 

I don’t know what definition of student satisfaction was used but unlike the quote, I would disagree and say that students need to be satisfied with their learning experience.

My point is that we should not confuse satisfaction with fun. When we reinvent our programs based solely on that criteria, we sell our goals short and shortchange our mission.

An amusement park is fun. Learning can be life changing and occurs over time.  When a parent asks: “Will my child have fun, because otherwise it just isn’t worth it….” we need to take parent education more seriously.  If this is how parents frame Jewish education, it’s wrong.

In 2004 a national  survey of entering college freshmen found that most came to college with a goal to grow spiritually.  The study authors write: “It is our shared belief that the findings provide a powerful argument for the proposition that higher education should attend more to students’ spiritual development, because spirituality is essential to students’ lives.

As Jewish educators, we are in a unique position to change lives and attend to teens’ deeper needs for spiritual connection. That sounds important, relevant, and purposeful. Fun? Save it for the roller coaster ride.

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Jewish Teens:The Young and (thankfully) Restless

English: The Young and the Restless, logo of t...

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With a nod to the TV show, I recently encountered a unique version of the restless young; amazing and energetic young adults staffing or attending an International Youth Convention. They are eager to change things up in the world of Judaism.

I needed this dose of inspiration because sometimes being a Jewish educator can slowly gnaw away at one’s naturally optimistic nature.

The people I met are committed to doing some great work.

Harvard graduate, now in Israel attending rabbinical school, is the Rabbinic Intern at a synagogue south of the Lebanon border.  He’s chosen this career over countless other opportunities.  He leads parent and teen educational sessions, capitalizing on upcoming b’nei mitzvot as a natural interest builder. The parents are highly curious and very engaged in learning.

Jewish future? Score one win!

A graduate of our Jewish community high school who is now a college senior happily told me that beginning in August, he plans to make Aliyah to Israel. He will be joining Garin Tzabar, the organization that facilitates this process. He sees this as his next step after college. I also met up with the daughter of a colleague, finishing day school this year, who also plans on making aliyah through this organization.

Jewish future? Score another win!

Then I briefly met a young Rabbi of a synagogue in central New Jersey who I remembered from my days at Camp Ramah, interested in dynamic ways of reaching out to congregants and whose wife is working professionally in informal Jewish education.  What a young  power team.

Jewish future? Score!

I suddenly felt as if I was attending a Jewish education movie preview where I was on the red carpet, interacting with our team’s all-stars.

I then met that Rabbi’s brother, also in Rabbinical school, serving as kitchen kashrut (kosher) supervisor (mashgiach). He made sure that he connected and made friends with the kitchen and hotel staff because they need to know that in Jewish practice, everyone is important.

Jewish future? I’m still counting wins!

I forgot to mention that the college senior’s sister, also a graduate of our program, is now spending the year in Israel. On my way out, just when I felt that it couldn’t get better, I met another graduate of our program, who is teaching in a day school.

Wins? For sure. It seems from my small vantage point that the collective we are doing something right when just these few young adults have been inspired to change things up.

They are young. They are restless to get started. Let the Jewish future begin!

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“Jewish Education? I’m Done!”

You gotta read it to believe it. 

The following is an actual dialogue (with a name change) I had a few days ago with a student, now a junior, who left our Jewish educational program after 10th grade.

I was happy to run into him at a youth convention:

Hi, Adam, how are you, how have you been?

Hi. I’m good. You know I’m not there any more, I mean taking classes….

Yes, I know. I kinda noticed since I’m still teaching there.  We miss you. 

It’s because I’m done.

You’re done?

Yes, I’ve been Confirmed so I’m done with my Jewish education. My parents said that I didn’t have to go past Confirmation.

There it is. DONE. Like a finished bottle of water. “I reached the end (Confirmation) and now I’m DONE. Besides, my parents said I could be DONE.’

I continued the conversation a bit, and talked about what Jewish education means and perhaps that he might think about taking Jewish oriented classes in college.  Even Hebrew language.

He did not get this at all by the way, and couldn’t figure out why a college would offer courses in Jewish Studies, let alone teach the Hebrew language.

Did I mention that he’s a junior?

And that his parents are involved in synagogue life?

So,  in this post, I won’t even begin the conversation about Confirmation programs.

I just wanted you to know what’s really going on out there. Just in case we’re under any illusions about the enormity of the work we need to do.


Jewish Teens Need More

Great Synagogue interior

  

We need to define Judaism more broadly.  

The Jewish teens I work with in a Jewish community high school are looking for more ways to connect with Judaism other than the synagogue/religious experience. 

The most lush and plush indoor spaces don’t help them feel more connected.  Many don’t get ‘prayer’ or the focus on a ‘higher being’.  It’s as if  belief in God is ‘so yesterday’ and they feel way past that intellectually.

 

At least these teens are in a Jewish academic and social environment on a weekly basis, where we touch on these issues. What about their Jewish friends (most) who don’t attend?

We know that Judaism is more than a religion, but on the American Jewish landscape, it sure seems that’s how we’re defining it for them.  And as long as they see Judaism strictly in those terms they can choose to opt out if they don’t ‘believe’. 

What’s the answer? For teens who don’t go to day school or Jewish camps, it could be sponsored trips to Israel that take place while in high school, instead of waiting for the Birthright bonus in college.  Perhaps incentives that would encourage them to participate in American Jewish World Service trips, Panim, teen fellowship programs and other successful ventures. How about communal scholarships to continue in a Jewish community high school? 

It could be many things that we haven’t even thought of yet. But we need to try.

I’m so glad that these teens are in a setting where we get to discuss these issues together.  When they’re here, they know they’re in a zone of non-judgement and impartiality that is palpable.

Just in the past two weeks, our school partnered with other youth movements and organizations (Habonim Dror, BBYO, Interfaithways) to bring our teens programs that challenged them to become aware of several real issues facing the Jewish community (hate speech, issues faced by interfaith families, personal comfort zones, and more). 

I’m not saying that this experience is the magic potion we need, but working with Jewish teens on these issues in an environment of a Jewish community high school sure makes me feel a lot better about options we’re giving them for future engagement.