Category Archives: Parenting

Jewish Parents Who “Get It” and Why: Generational Gifting of a Jewish Education

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Why do some parents understand that continuing their teen’s Jewish education after Bar/Bat Mitzvah is essential, while others don’t make the same choice?

All teens are busy. Many are taking AP classes, active in extra-curriculars, and involved in volunteering. Many parents are busy as well, juggling work and home schedules, carpooling, and giving back to the community.

Why is this an automatic, affirming choice for some parents, yet clearly a very difficult decision for others?

In the past two weeks, I’ve met parents and students at several orientation sessions, and as a result, I’ve gotten a glimpse into the dynamics of this process of choosing. It’s been a unique opportunity for me, as I always wonder why, in a program that boasts over a 90% success rate, more parents are not sending their teenagers.

By the way, the teens in attendance were not unhappy that their parents chose this route for them. They were excited to be at a new stage in their lives, when thinking critically and analytically about big life issues is the core of the curriculum.

What follows is obviously not the product of a formal research study, but a casual sharing of my observations.

Parents who have had post Bar/Bat Mitzvah education themselves, understand very clearly what the benefits are.

They’ve appreciated the decision their own parents made on their behalf.  They want to do the same for their children and pass along the gift of a Jewish education. 

For those who left Hebrew school after 13, it’s a much harder sell.

They don’t have a clue as to what they’ve missed so there’s no reference point or context for making this choice for their teen now. They also may need to rationalize the fact that their path, in the end, ‘worked out for them’.

It’s clear that passing on the tradition of Jewish education is highly important to the parents who do decide to send their teens to a high school program. Some were so adamant about the reasons for their choice that they were beyond baffled as to why others would ever opt out.

Those that were the products of their own parent’s extended Jewish education felt that Jewish education is a generational gift that keeps on giving. Isn’t that what our tradition says is at the core of parenting?

Curious, I asked these parents about circumstances at their synagogues, and whether or not these dedicated parents were offered any formalized opportunities to discuss their decisions with other parents. That would seem to be a highly interesting and enlightening program in and of itself, with plenty of opportunities to bring in relevant Jewish texts.

Negative.

There were no parent sessions on Post B’nai Mitzvah education and how it differs from the goals of an elementary supplementary school curriculum.

Nor were there chances for the teens themselves to get in front of younger students to talk about their choices.

All were missed opportunities. All are low-cost, low tech, low risk activities. All would have created connections among the parents which might have opened up some new ways of thinking.

So, why aren’t we creating better modeling opportunities?

Why aren’t we connecting the generational dots?

 


“You’re Not Invited”: Teen Victims of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Years and What To Do About It

Mazel tov hats at a bat mitzvah

Party time (for some)

We know that many Bar/Bat Mitzvah Celebrations have gotten way out of hand. Thousands have seen Rabbi Wolpe’s Washington Post article “Have we forgotten what Bar Mitzvahs are about?” although fewer may have read the Rabbi’s apology for what some have said was an angry tone.

Beyond the materialistic approach that some of these affairs take and the message it sends, there is another consequence of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah years, regardless of how ‘over the top’ and excessive the extravagance is.

That is the social rejection experienced by those that are left out, not invited—not considered ‘worthy’ of sharing the celebration.oii

The ones who aren’t ‘cool’ enough to be invited or who aren’t in the ‘in’ group.

The ones who get a sick, stinging feeling when finding out they’re one of the few kids who won’t be going to what should be a communal celebration of a life cycle event.

It is a Jewish experience within a Jewish context that leaves scars. This awful irony does not escape them.

During the Bar/Bat Mitzvah years, we would want them to feel wanted, accepted, and comfortable and instead they experience an extreme version of the already intense adolescent social pressures.

One parent told me that his son told him he was ‘never going back to that place’ referring to the synagogue that he felt failed him by allowing such obvious exclusionary behavior.

Here they are, ostensibly learning Jewish values, (B’tzelem Elokim, Kavod HaBriut, Tzniut, and many others) with a huge chasm between learning these values and what they’re actually experiencing in their lives…within the community of a synagogue no less.

How sad. We certainly make a lot of effort to make other environments fair (no scores in Little League?).

Can’t we figure this one out? Although the scenario above does not happen in every single synagogue, I know that you know it happens often enough for us not to ignore it.

Understandably, making rules and not allowing free choice in this area is extremely tough, but in not choosing to set policies, we are choosing and allowing our highly impressionable teens to be victims of this socially isolating experience.

And it’s just a shame that some teen’s experience of a Jewish religious rite becomes a place where popularity plays out.

With some effort, these issues might be solved in some creative ways. Our teens, at least in a Jewish environment, deserve a safe haven from some of the most painful social experiences of adolescence.

Quick, let’s think of some alternatives:

1. We go back to the ‘old-fashioned’ ways, and truly make this opportunity a communal experience.…held in the synagogue with the entire synagogue community plus friends and family included. Expensive? Not when done without the glitz and glamour.

2. Have all the families agree to invite everyone, no matter what type of celebration.

3. Discuss the social implications of this event with the teens, making it part of the supplementary school curriculum.

4. Families celebrating in that year agree to donate monies into a joint fund, and hold a celebration for everyone in the class at an agreed-upon time.

5. Raise awareness of this issue at parent education opportunities.

Do you have creative ways of dealing with this issue? I’d love to hear what some synagogues have worked out, I’m sure so many parents and Jewish educators would love to have some options. Please respond and share.

Photo credit: Wikipedia


Why Should Our Teens be Jewish?

Being Jewish? Too easy!

Being Jewish? Too easy!

The image above came up in a Google Image advanced search (free to use or share) for “Why be Jewish?”.

The image speaks to the casual nature of being Jewish, and some might think that it actually pokes fun a bit…after all, how many Mountain Jews do you know?

The fact that we might just accept this image without even thinking twice, kind of makes my point.

Answering the difficult question “Why Should Our Teens be Jewish”  is an extreme challenge for parents and Jewish educators.

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.

Religion is pretty much a non-issue among 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 my 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 letting them see how much we love it. 

Photo credit: Deviantart.com “MountainJew” by grenadah


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

Related articles


How We Are Shortchanging Jewish Teens

Teens need to be with other teens. Lots of them.

Teens need to be with other teens. Lots of them.

Some time ago, I wrote a post called What I learned about marketing from working at a Jewish Community High School. The “Aha, yes, you got it right” e-mails never came,  but I wrote that post mostly for myself anyway. It was a way to help me clarify some of the challenges inherent in my part of the Jewish world, because getting buy-in from Jewish teens was just too impossible of a job and I needed to explore why that was so.

Well, things have gotten much, much harder.  Then, I carefully outlined the primary reasons for the recruitment struggle, giving much detail of the built-in synagogue realities that make it even harder than anyone would think it would be.

Taking stock is a helpful exercise, but expecting change is another matter entirely. In fact, looking back, I was naive because I thought the challenges I referred to were the major obstacles to scores of teens signing up for enhanced Jewish education programs.

Boy, did I underestimate things.

What I didn’t experience so much then was turf, mostly because things just a short time ago, weren’t that bad. I’ve encountered it so much that I feel shell-shocked from the experience.

Let’s say that in a sea of drowning people, no one is going to throw you a lifesaver.

Specifically, no one is going to ‘share’ precious resources i.e. members. The Jewish community is in a period of deep change (though some have said chaos), and I can almost see the curtains being drawn and shutters being shackled as many organizations and synagogues are just trying to weather the storm and hold their own.

This behavior has not necessarily held true for the number of partnerships that are beginning to sprout up everywhere, albeit out of necessity. The economics of sustaining organizations has driven collaboration and that is a good thing to come of all this.

The issue I’m focusing on is limiting choices for others when the desire to hold on to them becomes paramount.

I respect and value the desire of synagogues to create ways of keeping their teens involved–especially as it pertains to keeping Post Bar/Bat Mitzvah teens on site—-we know how powerful Jewish role models can be, and that goes both ways. Jewish teens are role models for the younger students, and the professional leadership are mentors for the teens. That works.

Except when the teens themselves are being short-changed out of their own educational opportunities.

Holding onto your Jewish teens is wonderful, as long as you’re providing them with substantial, content-laden experiences. It’s just not okay if you simply want them on your real estate.

I’ve heard comments like “We just like to have them in our building” to “Our teens are needed here because they sell snack at break”

Sorry, but the way to have teens on hand, is not simply to have them give a hand. They need more.

Having classroom aides is not a bad idea in and of itself,  when done correctly. As an experience that stands alone, I don’t think it gives teens a fair deal. Please read here for some of the reasons why I believe that to be true.

In order to ‘weather this storm’, there needs to be some long-term planning on creating better business models, one that allows teens some choices as to how they want to play out their Jewish journey.

The reality, is that building those skills now, of helping teens actively choose their Jewish involvement, is what may make a difference for Jewish continuity when they get to college.


Jewish Teens: Thinking About Religious Truths and Scientific Lies

Science and Religion: Not a good fit

Science and Religion: Not a good fit

Among students I’ve worked with, the majority are really not comfortable talking about Religion, at least in the way that American Judaism seems to define it for them. As they describe it, Judaism involves prayer to a Being they can’t comprehend or even believe exists.

Granted, these conversations are held with high school students, who haven’t yet been exposed to deeper scientific or philosophical thinking. They live in a daily world where logic and  mathematical constructs rule supreme.  The unknowable, the impenetrable, the effervescence of life itself….those deep thoughts might come later, after they’ve captured the basic constructs they need to.

But we do need to meet these teens where they are, and most remain dubious about what they call ‘organized religion’, and words like ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ tend to make them wince.

When I’ve probed, to explore these ideas with them, the responses I get come from their limited exposure to courses in science, biology, physics–all good reasoned and rational things to know in order to be an educated person.  Thoughts of anything else seem to go against what they’re learning in a secular school.

This will not come as news to most, as there are studies from both Christian and Jewish sides about the disengagement of our youth, but this post is not about new initiatives or programs, it is about the conversations that never happen, even in the best of programs.

Those are the conversations that usually occur in camp late at night, or in a dorm room somewhere, where students might grapple with the inconsistencies of life in a deeper and longer conversation.

We are limited, in our once or twice a week programs, to touch students in this way. I’m not even sure if enough day schools are tackling these concerns.

How can we jump start that process?  Here is one way:

I happened on this video, on of the University of Pennsylvania’s 60 second lecture series, and thought that it would provide a great trigger to these kinds of conversations. Lying Your Way to the Truth

The video explores the need to dispel any notion that science can provide truths: “Science lets us find out the truth at the independent intersection of lies” the professor boldly states. A Penn Professor at that.

I hope you will find this helpful. I’d love to hear the feedback!


Teens: Cheating on Standardized Tests?

No digital devices in sight

No digital devices in sight

The Los Angeles Times reported that California is coping, almost feverishly it seems, with new measures that require students to turn in digital devices before taking standardized tests.

“The proliferation of cellphones and their potential use for cheating has prompted heightened security measures on this year’s administration of standardized tests in California schools.”

In the previous year, students posted 36 questions from standardized exams on social media platforms.  The consequences were serious for those schools where the posts were from. The 12 schools are not eligible to receive academic awards the next year.

I’m sure that other states will soon need to create their own guidelines to prevent just such a thing.

So, what is the news here?

This is almost too obvious–taking away cell phones and digital devices during a test?

Teens would say “no kidding.”

What I found remarkable about the article, was that although very specific details were given of the egregious acts, the article did not mention that there was a concerns over so many teens engaging in cheating behaviors:

“In all, 249 individuals posted 442 images of test materials that were linked to 147 schools in 94 California school districts.”   (To be fair, “Most images were not of actual test questions.”)

There were no consequences mentioned in the article for the teens who posted the images or content.

However, we do know clearly the measures being taken to prevent such a thing in the future:

  1. Signage in the testing room warning students not to use digital devices
  2. Better proctoring of exams
  3. Strong suggestions to teachers to move around the room to monitor students

But we’re still left wondering if anyone is asking the big questions tied to these occurrences.

Specifically, was there any follow-up with the teens themselves?

What was the intention for these posts?

What are the ethical implications of these behaviors?

Did the students involved do this as a joke?

Was this an act of rebellion?

Or even the most primary question: Did the teens even think this was cheating?

I wrote some time ago about our role in guiding students toward moral clarity. At a later point, I wrote about how teens view cheating, and how shocking their experiences were to me.  This is an issue that won’t simply go away. It will get worse.

I remember not being surprised when corporations, in the realization that so many ethical issues were on the line, and after so many improprieties and illegal allegations, began hiring Chief Ethical Officers.

“The position of ethics officer is of relatively recent vintage, first appearing in the early 1990s, according to Forbes.com.

The job descriptions for Ethics Officers insures accountability between a code of ethics and actual operational procedures.

It’s not a bad idea to institute this position in some school districts. An even better idea is starting to think that way now.


How Jewish Teens Might View Rights, Responsibilities, and Radicalization

The Ten Commandments, In SVG

The Ten Commandments, In SVG (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

A while back, I was listening to a televised lecture by Joseph Telushkin on Shalom TV about the differences between Jewish and American Law. To greatly paraphrase him, Jewish law is about taking responsibility. There are so many laws in Jewish tradition that are based on individual accountability: regulating weights and measures, building proper roof safeguards, being responsible for a student’s progress, even watching one’s words and the effect they might have on others.

 

American law stresses a person’s rights: The right to free speech, to gather in protest, to be protected from search and seizure, and more. Not that there aren’t areas of responsibility assumed in the laws, but the different emphasis is clear.

 

So, I am holding this information against my visceral response to the news of the past week that talks of the “Radicalization” of the Boston Marathon Bombers. I wonder to myself how the power of words influences the way we think. The image of radicalization to me is of someone being deceived, duped, or similarly drawn into a process that he had little to do with. It’s almost as if that person was dunked in a pool and then came out “radicalized”.

 

Someone ‘gets’ radicalized, it happens to them.

 

What does that say about personal responsibility? What does the use of that word say about our ability to regard the person as perpetrator or victim?

 

What is the message the media is giving our teens? They may be just taking this in at face value; after all, it’s the media.  I know there has been much talk about this issue, but frankly, I’ve tuned much of it out, and have put serious limits on how much I will listen to concerning the bombers themselves, so I apologize in advance if all this seems like it’s revisiting the obvious.

 

All of this stuff however, does lead us to think of the many opportunities we have to engage in serious conversations with teens about this issue more.

 

What do we do in the face of evil?

 

Is there ever an excuse for violence?

 

How do we cope when we see how, in seconds, life can change?

 

What opportunities are there to see a totally different side than the one we’re seeing in the media?

 

How might you write this story? What would you want to know….and why?

 

 


Teens: Watch Your Social Media Presence

twitter logo map 09

twitter logo map 09 (Photo credit: The Next Web)

“Treat every conversation you have on Twitter or Facebook as if it were a nationally televised press conference.”

This advice is not a recommendation from a public relations firm, or from a head hunter, or from a corporate policy book on social media. Nor was it taken from a how-to book on political life.

None of those sources would be surprising.

The quote above is from a sign posted in a Minnesota high school locker room in response to the rampant posting of students taking part in illegal activities online.

Some students, turning against friends, are giving coaches and teachers pictures of them in ‘compromising’ situations at drinking parties and participating in other illegal activities.

Sports scholarships have been pulled based on information coaches glean on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

In a previous post, I wrote that teens’ should make sure their online profiles are clean and scrubbed when applying to college.  As with other things, everything moves down a bit, and what teens do in high school is not exempt from a close look by interested parties.

Opportunities may be in jeopardy based on discoveries online.  Scholarships, nominations, recommendations…..all come into play mostly in the junior year of high school, but since online identities don’t disappear, it’s never too early to start thinking about this issue.

We know that checking someone out online is very tempting and all too easy.

So, for all the teens out there: think about who you are online. Does it match who you want to be? What will you need to do to make the image you want equal to the one you have?  Would you feel comfortable if a scholarship committee saw your posts? Think about the quote at the beginning of this post.

To Parents: The advice above is worth sharing with your teen as part of  a frank conversation about public and private identity, social media privacy settings, limit setting, trust and more.


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.   


Parent Conversations With Teens

Teens sharing earphones, listening music outdo...

We need to tune in to teens

Life is busy, so how do we get the time to interact with teen-aged kids when everybody is literally on the run?

By the time teens are in high school, the time you may get to spend with each other may be less than an hour per day–including dinner.

Try to take that in. That’s an abysmally low amount of time to talk about the big stuff of life….that is if you ever get to it.

The constant pecks of life’s immediacies, like “When do you need to be picked up?” “When is that report due?” “Did you wash my uniform?” “What’s in the frig/freezer for dinner?” tend to take over any paltry time there is in a day.

It’s tempting to put off important conversations until there’s more time, but when does that time come?

In a very short time, they’ll be out of the house.

I remember when my oldest child was going off to college, the reality came crashing in on me when she came ambling down the steps, carrying an enormous amount of stuff and shifting her weight between the backpack and a duffel bag on her shoulder.

She was taking her stuff! She was really leaving—-and for the next four years, at the minimum, she’d have a home base somewhere else.

Questions and self-doubt came pouring in.

Did I use every opportunity to have meaningful conversations with her? Was she really equipped to be on her own? Had we instilled enough Jewish values so she’d have a strong foundation to draw upon in college? Would she select friends who would be equally concerned about values and ethics?  Would she make the right decisions? Would she make those choice through a Jewish lens?

My questions couldn’t even begin to cover the doubts I had, or most parents might have, before sending their teen off to college.

So, how can you capture this very precious time before your teen bounds out of the house for good?

For us, the clock slowed its frenetic pace once a week, giving us an opportunity to capture special time that only Shabbat can allow. It was our time to take a breather, catch up and check in with each other…..on a far deeper level than the trivialities of the everyday permit.

It also taught us to make the most of every single conversation and interaction.

What does it mean to maximize conversation? Don’t let things go in favor of waiting for a ‘better time’. Most likely it won’t come.

The expression ‘don’t sweat the small stuff?’….mostly ignore it. Yes, for sure, don’t dwell on the little details of life that in the grand scheme, won’t amount to much one way or the other….but DO sweat about anything that has larger life implications—like things with moral/ethical underpinnings.

Regardless of your personal observances, having an island of time (as Heschel called it) is almost an essential approach in today’s frantically paced world.  So, you  might want to think about instituting something like it….and the period of time between Friday night and Saturday night is a convenient reminder.

First, when making that decision, you must ignore the eye rolls and shrugs. That’s part of the script that just is. You’ll need to get over it. Let the conversations begin.

Photo credit: wikipedia creative commons 2.0 license


“But I’ve already been to the museum!”

Negotiating with teens when they say "been there, done that!"

Negotiating with teens when they say “been there, done that!”

The entire school was taking a trip to the relatively new National Museum of American Jewish History, located in Philadelphia. The museum, with thousands of historic treasures, interactive exhibits, and multi-media presentations, has caused many people to say that they could spend days there and not see everything.

Yet, we heard that one student, when he learned about the trip, went home and confidently told his mother: “I don’t want to go. I’ve already been to the museum once.” 

The comment above is not specific to the museum. It is a catch phrase for all things that kids think they’ve already done, if they’ve done it once.

I remember working with a student on his course selections for the coming year. I suggested a class that I thought he’d find really interesting, based on his background. He didn’t ask me any clarifying questions, and without missing a quarter-note, told me assertively: “I don’t need to take that class, I’ve already taken Talmud!”

Put in whatever word works for you here, so that the comment would be equally humorous:

“I don’t need to take that class, I’ve already taken engineering.” (architecture, medicine, fine arts, or any area of study that could be endlessly interesting if someone had the interest).

So, how as parents and educators do we get past the “been there, done that” syndrome?

With patience, explanations, and the confidence that we know better. 

We should never assume because someone is in school, that there is a deep understanding of the process of learning.

We need the confidence to communicate that when it comes to learning anything, revisits are important and necessary. Gaining depth of a subject matter, seeing things again from a new perspective, is a good thing.

Let’s think about that, and let that very thought bring sweet smiles to our faces when we meet at our Seder tables and hear “But we did this last year!”


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.


Catching Catfish: Real and Unreal Life for Jewish Teens

trust

Just when you think you can keep pace with the bizarre events of the everyday, you find yourself having a discussion with Jewish teens that blows the dust off your brain just a bit.

This is necessary.

It keeps the distance between the generations and confirms for teens why they’re glad they’re not as old as you are.

Last week I sat with a group of teens taking a Current Events class.

After chatting about the Israeli Knesset and the elections, the conversation veered way weird when they got to talking about the Manti Te’o business.

That was not news. What was news to me was the term Catfish, the MTV show “Catfish”  and the verb “catfishing.” I was fascinated, but in a sad way. Just listening to these teens talk about the real, the fake, and the in-between relationships they have to negotiate between real life and online personas, I was overwhelmed with the amount of distrust they experience on a daily basis.

How do they begin to navigate through these murky waters? When shows like “Catfish” keep their interest (most watch the show), how do we counter the values of the day with Jewish values that build character, strong identities, and a commitment to honesty?

There is now, more than ever, a compelling reason for instilling in our teens a strong sense of self.  A way to know who they are and what they stand for.

Plus, we have to always be current. Always on the look-out for the next challenge.–so we aren’t caught acting like a catfish, slinking along on the bottom of the river.


“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.