Tag Archives: Bar and Bat Mitzvah

“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.

creative commons license

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

KJeanPhotography. Use does not imply endorsement

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.