Tag Archives: Bar and Bat Mitzvah

What is a mitzvah, really?

 

Mitzvah.

Good deed? Commandment?

You might be most familiar with the word mitzvah as it appears in Bar or Bat Mitzvah which is usually translated as a son or daughter of the commandment.

Or, you might translate the word mitzvah as “good deed”, as in “I did a mitzvah today”.

There is not a thing wrong with those meanings, but let us delve a little deeper into the matter.

First, there is not one place in the Torah (in Hebrew) that the phrase Ten Commandments appears. Not one. You will not find Aseret haMitzvot anywhere.

For purposes of expedient comprehension, we have mistranslated the Torah’s phrase for the Ten Commandments. In Hebrew the phrase that occurs in Deuteronomy 4:13 and 10:4 is Aseret haDevarim  meaning the Ten Utterances/Articulations/Words.

This fact alone opens up all kinds of possibilities for the content. The deeper concept is that the Aseret haDibrot serve as categories for the 613 mitzvot. So we are not solely obligated to fulfill the Ten Commandments…as in “I’m not doing so badly, at least I’m following [most of] the Ten Commandments”.

Our involvement in fulfilling our purpose here goes beyond the ten. There are mitzvot that cover many areas of life.

This post is not about that.

Nor is it about the details as to why these statements are more commonly referred to as Aseret haDibrot and not Aseret haDevarim (there is more about the word devarim here, or you can click here to read a discussion about the usage of dibrot versus devarim).

This post is about the word mitzvah מצוה with shades of meaning that offer us a better understanding of why we do mitzvot (plural of mitzvah) in the first place.

It is very challenging to understand the deeper messages embedded in the Torah without a grasp of Hebrew. So in exploring the Hebrew, we will gain insight into the meaning of mitzvah.

Every word in Hebrew can be distilled to a two or three letter root word.

The two letter root word for mitzvah is tzav  צו (tzadee, vav) meaning a decree, a directive, an order, a command. So far that confirms what we know. However, the verb form mitzah (mem, tzadee, hey), has spiritual significance for us and goes beyond that meaning. Mitzah means to use to the fullest extent, to squeeze and extract from, to drain.

In the Shema, when we say that we will love God to the fullest extent of our hearts and minds, body and soul, and our strength and drive….we can see the connection. Within our capacity, we need to be all in. To the fullest extent possible, we need to squeeze ourselves to the limit. We need to ask ourselves….am I doing what I need to do at my limit? Can I do more?

We need to fulfill mitzvot to have that ideal come to realization. The mitzvot are our connection to God in a complete way.

In mystical traditions, the idea is that you are placed here with the talent and ability to do a mitzvah beautifully. In addition to fulfilling other mitzvot, you were given the tools to sing your own song, to do what only you can do.

What is that mitzvah for you? What do you engage in that makes your heart sing? What are you doing that makes you lose all track of time? What feeds your soul?

How and in what ways can you turn that into a mitzvah?

Because that is what you are meant to do. You are especially gifted with certain talents to fulfill your purpose here.

 



Please comment below if you are interested in participating in an online group to help determine your own personal mitzvot.

 


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.


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

What does it mean to be Jewish?

Is this what it means to be Jewish?

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

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

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

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

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

How does this image make you feel?

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

What are some of your thoughts about Jewish belief?

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

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

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

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

It would make for a very rich conversation.

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

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

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

Kindness to animals? Check.

Respect for the elderly? Check.

Caring for the environment? Check.

Social and humanitarian causes? Check.

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

Not only that,

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

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

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

Chem? Yes.

Advanced Physics? Totally.

God? Don’t think so.

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

What’s been missing is context.

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

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

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

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

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

So, we have a job to do.

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: wikipedia.org

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


2014 in review

Thank you for visiting Jewish Teens this year and reading my blog! Below are interesting stats from the 2014 annual report prepared by the WordPress staff.

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This blog was viewed about 2,900 times in 2014, with visitors staying to read an average of 2-3 additional blog posts!

The next time you sit down for a cup of tea, I’d like to keep you company! Check out some of  my older blogs that are still relevant today, like this one: “Today I am a Brand”

cupoftea

Have you read the most popular posts from this year?

# 1     Teens Lose Out When Jewish Education Becomes an Activity

# 2     “Lesson-Plan” Your Passover Seder: Ways to Involve Teens

# 3    “You’re Not Invited”: Teen Victims of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Years and What To Do About It                                         This post was written in 2013, but still made the list this year

# 4     what parents of Jewish teens told me

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

If there are topics that you think I should write about, please let me know. I’d love to hear from you!

Jewish teens are a very small niche group, if you think about the percentage of total Jews worldwide.

Where do readers reading about Jewish teens live?

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Most blog readers this past year were from the U.S., Canada, and the U.K, however there are readers from a total of 66 different countries!

Thank you for showing an interest in Jewish teens and Jewish education, and I look forward to your visits and comments in the coming year!

May you have have a Happy and Healthy 2015!


Read the Scoop on What Bar and Bat Mitzvah Bios Actually Reveal

What happens after dessert?

What happens after dessert?

Synagogue newsletters: not everyone’s optimal reading material when finding a treasured bit of rare, spare time.
It doesn’t help that many feel like a throw-back to a different era with some of the most musty names like Beacon, Herald or Courier.
The part that I do enjoy reading, when available, is the pithy, brief biographies that young teens write (or have ghost-written by phenomenally proud parents) prior to their B’nai Mitzvahs.
Some are unbelievably artistic and have bios that rival Carnegie Hall performers: (names are changed, but quotes are exact)

“Shaya is an accomplished dancer (she enjoys ballet, jazz and hip-hop) and musician (she plays piano and guitar and enjoys composing, playing and singing).”

Notably the guys in the group, seem to breathe sports air:

“Jonathan is passionate about sports in general: baseball, tennis, squash, soccer and basketball.”

Some are jet setters, even at this early age:

“Shira loves her pets, piano, photography and travels to both coasts and abroad.”

Most are highly involved in the mitzvah part of the event:

“Steve has baked for Ronald McDonald House and helped clean up Yellowstone National Park.”
“Rebecca has been participating in Street Soccer, USA, a nonprofit that helps homeless men and women learn skills beyond the field, by playing soccer with as well as collecting donations for a Philadelphia team.”
“Max participated in the Little League Challenger Program in which he helped kids with special needs play and enjoy the game of baseball.”
“Michal is coordinating donation efforts to bring indoor sports equipment to the JBH playrooms and is organizing and leading several activity nights for the children.”

It doesn’t need mentioning that we want our teens to be active and involved members of the Jewish and American community. Plus, parents want their kids to excel in areas of their interest, and do important service and community work.

But isn’t it odd that the community service these teens accomplished did not occur within a Jewish organization?

Of the ten teens whose faces and bios are featured in the B’nai Mitzvah bios with accompanying meaningful descriptions of their activities, not ONE mentioned what the teenager’s plans were for continuing their education past the much awaited-for ceremony.

Not one.

Even though the information above is excerpted from one synagogue newsletter, from those I’ve read, this one was not unusual.If there is a template that all the kids follow, why is the question about continuing the journey of Jewish education missing?

Is not the ceremony part of an ongoing developmental process in a journey toward Jewish adulthood?

Beyond all the tumult, hype, sweat equity, and of course unparalleled joys leading up to the actual ceremony, we have to ask ourselves questions about why so often the very purpose of the ceremony seems to be absent.

Even in the best case scenario, when I’ve seen teens communicate their intention to continue a commitment to further their Jewish education from the bima (podium), it doesn’t seem to appear in other places.

So, I ask again, why is their place in the Jewish community of the future a mystery?


Jewish Teen Education by the Hour

How much time is too much?

How much time is too much?

How many hours does it take to become knowledgeable about something?

I know, it’s a very broad question….but try to humor me. Your task is to become more learned about Judaism…..to become literate.

How many hours would you need to spend?

Okay, got it?

For comparison’s sake, students spend on average, 181 days per year in a K – 12 school environment, which translates into approximately 900 or so hours per year.

Many people don’t even think this is enough, especially when compared with the more rigorous school schedules of other countries. (And we know the U.S. is continuing to lose ground in the education of our youth).

Hourly disputes aside, no one would say that at the end of high school, one’s education is complete if mastery of a subject area is the goal.

Yet, (you know where I’m going with this), at the end of just  few short years in Hebrew school, at what amounts to a paltry number of hours, parents and students are calling it quits. (This post is not directed at teens enrolled in a Jewish day school).

Think about it…..if you’ve been to college and are reading this….how many “credit” hours did it take as an undergrad to major in something?  And if you added all the studying to those credit hours, what number would be your total?

More importantly, as a result, if you had to rate your knowledge about the subject, what score would you give yourself on a scale of 1 to 10?

(I’d love to read your comments on this).

When I googled the topic online, wiki answers provided me with this clarification of my question: “How many hours in your major do you need to graduate from college?” and generalized (though varying from institution to institution) that between 30 and 40 credit hours suffice for a major, with general agreement that each credit hour represents at least 15 hours of class time (exclusive of studying time).

So, back to Jewish teens and post B’nai Mitzvah education.

How many hours do you think teens should devote to learning about their heritage, language, culture, history?

Remember, these are the years when critical thinking kicks in…and teens can begin to wrestle with beliefs, tradition and change.

So, how much time in total per year? 

How about in aggregate, from between ages 13 – 18?

So, in all, how much time on the clock does the average Jewish teen spend on learning about Judaism?

I think the answer would astound you…..it shocks me.

In the best case scenario, where teens attend a Jewish educational program at least once a week, the time they spend watching TV is more than twice the amount of time spent learning about Judaism.

That’s the best case–and kudos to the parents and teens who are at least making that choice.

What does this say about the teens who are in monthly programs? Or those who are not participating in any learning during the academic year?

Malcolm Gladwell aside, we don’t need to create 10,000-hour experts, but teens wouldn’t even rate in any bare minimum category with the limited hours that are devoted to Jewish learning.

Years ago, a teacher I worked with said that parents were only interested in (this will sound dated) “Kodak Judaism”. When I looked puzzled she said “They’re only interested in exposure…as long as their teens are exposed to Judaism, that seems to be enough for them.”

Right about now, you might be thinking that immersive experiences offer the perfect answer…after all teens are living Judaism non-stop for hours on end in a Jewish summer camp.

The problem is, our teens are Jewish all year-long, not just in summer. Otherwise we’re perpetuating our own pathetic version of the well-worn campaign “What happens in Jewish summer camp, stays in Jewish summer camp”.

Somewhere, between exposure and 10,000 lies a reachable goal. We need to get there.

Related Posts:

Judging Jewish Education by Fun

One Comment I Never Hear as a Jewish Educator

Jewish Parents: Choose your teen’s activities wisely


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

Image

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


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.

 


Jewish Education: How to add value for Jewish Teens

Are we selling the right “product”?

It used to be that you couldn’t use words like “sell”, “product” or “market” easily when talking about Jewish education.

That was when the product actually sold itself.

Jewish education was valued for its own sake; no one needed to be sold on its importance.

In today’s consumer environment, the game has changed.

The terms value-added, cost-benefit analysis, customer base, target markets and more are now part of the consumer’s consciousness.

And we need to respond appropriately.

What are we selling that Jewish teens should buy?

We’re not selling widgets or milkshakes, but we really need to determine the value added of programs past the drop-off age of bar/bat mitzvah.

What are you selling? Fun? Free? Friends? Food?

Or are we selling things that might resonate with today’s teens on so many levels:

For the college conscious population: promoting intellectual curiosity, college readiness, opportunity for debate, free exchange of marketplace ideas, ways to connect with timeless tradition….

For teens who have the gut-wrenching angst of fearing they don’t fit in: discussing issues that happen in public school in a supportive, ethic-laden environment, communicating with a group of Jewish peers about the anti-semitic/Israel/Zionism remark overheard in social studies classes, or talking about the ethical conundrum of knowing  your friends cheat/do drugs/cut themselves/abuse others/are abused….

the lists can go on. These are parts of the program that will make a difference—a lasting impact.

And oh yes, the program also offers fun, food, and friends.

So, what are we selling? And what will Jewish teens and their parents be buying?

Photocredit: Google images free use


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).

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“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.


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.


Five Things Jewish Parents Should Know

Imagine that you’re on a boat in the middle of the ocean in a thunderous storm. Waves are coming fast and furiously.  Water is splashing inside and out, and luckily you’re still afloat. There is no fast escape.

How do you survive? What is the best strategy?

Just hold on–and be as steadfast as you can.

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You’re experiencing what it’s like to be a parent of an adolescent. I can relate to your worries, concerns, problems, and fears.

You just need to hold on to your values and principles so you can stay the course.

How do I know?

I was once there.

From the many comments and responses I’ve exchanged with parents over the years regarding this period of rowboat rocking, and particularly how it pertains to continuing Jewish education, here are five points I’d like you to consider:

#1. you will have push back. Teens are hard-wired to rebel. It’s what they do. Don’t expect them to act differently.  You just need to stay the course and don’t take it personally, but see #2.

#2. the push back will most often be in the areas that coincidentally are important to you. This will make you feel bad and start to question your judgement. You may feel that everything you’ve deemed important will be disregarded. Are you active in the Jewish community? Are you a Jewish educator? Guess what, your teen may give you the hardest time when Jewish education is up for discussion (it shouldn’t be). You’re in for a ride but again, hold on and stay the course. As parents, we are like farmers planting seeds for the future. Teens are into instant gratification. You can see the challenge.

#3. be glad that your teenager is rebelling now, which is better than later, when he/she is in college and faces so many more challenges. Plus, if that happens, you will not be there to set limits, be a supportive ear, or lend in-the-moment advice.

#4. being an authority figure doesn’t mean being authoritarian. Just because you are asserting your right to make decisions for your child, doesn’t mean that you’re ‘bossy’. Parents might be too afraid of taking a strong stance, but your teen will respect you for it, even if that realization comes years later.  Remember the planting metaphor (see #2).

#5. I’ve never met anyone who said to me: I wish my parents didn’t ‘make me go’ to Hebrew High School. Granted, I interact with a select group, but I’ve heard this from both adults and teens. More education is a worthwhile pursuit. As Jews, we believe in the inherent value of study. It’s what has helped us survive through the millenia and it’s up to you to continue that tradition.  Be strong and steadfast.


What today’s Jewish teens are ‘okay’ with

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My weekly experience working with a class of 8th graders serves as a counterpoint to the doom and gloom I’ve read about lately in studies that report on the current state of Religion in America (specifically those concerning Jewish youth).  

The students are upfront, forthright, and spiritually aware and are not afraid to talk about what they do and don’t believe.  They have already formed some really strong opinions about Jewish belief and practices, though it was evident from our talks that they are looking at Judaism through fogged glasses (no fault of theirs, their education has been limited).  

We need to pay attention to what they really need, and not what we think they need.  Even if we didn’t change anything about our current organizations and programs, and continued with things just the way they are, we’re already missing countless opportunities to help students create a meaningful Jewish experience.  

About 45% of these students attend this supplementary high school twice a week.  About 25% go to a Jewish summer camp (they see it as a social, not a religious experience, and go to be with their friends).  About 75% have older siblings that are or have been in the program.  Yet, most haven’t discussed their ideas, feelings, and opinions about God…either with their parents, siblings, or friends. 

Not because they wouldn’t want to, but because the subject never came up. I asked what they thought about that, and they said they were ‘okay with it’. 

When we talk about what their conception of God is, they are surprisingly articulate.  Some retain the ‘puppeteer’ idea (that God is pulling all the strings and is responsible for everything) while others see God as a ‘helping hand’.  Some don’t believe in God at all. These ideas will all be explored with them in future classes, but in the meantime, catch the following:

In the year immediately preceding their Bar/t Mitzvah they do not remember any serious prolonged conversation with a Jewish professional (educator/clergy). They were not asked about their beliefs, doubts, concerns, or what they thought about God.  They seemed not to expect more, and were ‘okay with that’ too.  

They remember that they were busy with the pre-ceremony stuff: speech writing, practicing chanting, public speaking skills.

When they were asked questions about their present and future connection to Judaism, predominantly it was through a youth group lens: would they join? Be involved? Take a position? 

I asked them about these things. It’s not that they wouldn’t have wanted to engage in deeper conversations, it’s just that they weren’t asked.  And yes, they seemed to be ‘okay’ with that.

I’m not. I’m not fine with ‘okay’. Not in the precious time we have with them. Are we settling for just ‘okay’ when it comes to how they will connect with Judaism? 

What if we began to have these types of conversations with our teens? On a regular basis?

Even if we create the smallest pinholes of opportunity, light can come flooding in.

It’s not that they’d mind, and actually, they’d probably be okay with that.