Tag Archives: Reform Judaism

How We Undersell Zuckerberg and Jewish Teens

For Sale by Owner (film)

What are we selling? Why would Jewish teens buy?

This morning I read a piece by Reform Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan titled “We Failed Zuckerberg” about the movement’s failure to capture the facebook mogul’s attention in a meaningful way.

He referred to the fact that Zuckerberg does not seem to be living a committed Jewish life, though Mark celebrated a bar mitzvah and his parents are long-time members of a reform congregation.  (Okay, so was there any Jewish education post-Bar Mitzvah when teens are actually ready to grapple with questions of belief and practice?)

Kaplan mentioned that Reform theology might be to blame, as it is a bit vacuous, and the big miss by the movement is in failing to attract young adults, who do want a more rational and intellectual approach to Judaism.  It was a really well-written piece that encouraged some cheshbon-hanefesh (soul-searching) of the movement.

Yet, something in the piece troubled me.

With all the effort at pluralistic thinking and embracing others, the movement seems to have lost its guts.

Yes, guts to stand up for what might make a difference for Jewish continuity. My intention here is not to blame, but to challenge all of us to clarify for ourselves what our goals are in Jewish education. What exactly are we ‘selling’?

If it’s about a personal spiritual journey, with the goal of connecting to a Higher Entity than say so.  But if it’s about the continuation of the Jewish people, every movement needs to back that up with words, actions, programs and educational efforts that match that intention.

In short, what do you want your teens to live like in a few years? If it’s the Zuckerberg model Kaplan refers to, then continue as is. If not, then roll up your sleeves because there is a disconnect in what Kaplan writes:

“…. as a Reform rabbi, it would be hard for me to tell a congregant not to  date anyone who was not already Jewish (all bolded words, my emphasis). I would urge congregants to talk about  their commitment to Judaism with any potential romantic interest and make it  clear from the beginning that Judaism is an important and hopefully central part  of their life. But it is simply impractical to tell single people to restrict  their dating gaze to those who are of the Jewish faith. Even if we wanted to say  such a thing, the reality in our congregations would make such exhortations  antiquated and irrelevant.

Have we become membership machines? What would be the result of this ‘antiquated’ and ‘irrelevant’ request? Members may be insulted, get in a huff, feel that they may not be up to certain standards…and then leave. Really? Then we are selling ourselves short. It isn’t a zero sum game.

We need to straddle both camps, that of the committed and that of the embracing. It is possible. Hard, but possible.

Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan affirms this himself when he states that “many of the most devoted Reform Jews  are non-Jews who married Jews and embraced Judaism later, sometimes years or  even decades later.”

I believe we need to welcome Interfaith families. Yet, that doesn’t mean that we give up entirely on what we feel can be a change-maker for Jewish identity and continuity….staying and marrying Jewish and raising Jewish families.

Have we become so politically correct that our values are slipping?

We are underselling the intelligence of our Jewish teens if we think that our wishy-washiness will bring them closer to our point of view.

The opposite is true—-having the guts to say what we believe, and providing sound reasons for it (all we need to do is share some statistics to make the point), we can emerge from any discourse feeling proud that we stand for something.  If we have something of value to sell, then let’s sell it–proudly.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The answers were very rich and textured.

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

Interesting no?

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

They GOT IT.

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

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

What do you think the parents you know would say?


News Flash! A Collaborative Model in the Jewish Community

Circle Design
A tightly knit collaborative circle. Image by matley0

I’m by nature an optimistic  person (I’m a Jewish educator, after all). But, there’s no doubt that when I consider the topics I’ve written about the outlook seems a little gloomy, and the word ‘kvetch’ comes to mind.

The process of change seems to tug along slower than a cruiser trying to glide through oil.  

Even though I tell myself that what I’ve observed and written about is true  and some would say it’s in the best interest of the Jewish community for me to point these things out, the overall vista is more than gray. “Kvetch” is still the word stubbornly sticking around.    

Since the month before Rosh HaShanah is a time of introspection, I decided to get back to my optimistic core and write about a program that works as a model of collaboration on behalf of Jewish teens. 

I recently spent time during our evening program with over 45 students in 11th and 12th grade who are making an incredibly serious commitment to the Jewish community.  They are amazing, many will be our future leaders, and I owe it to them to talk about what they’re doing. 

In partnership with the URJ, local synagogues, and a Jewish community high school, Jewish teens participate in a win-win situation. 

Students work in their synagogues one day a week as classroom aides, and attend a second day (YES, a second day) taking classes which complement their experience and add to their repertoire of teaching techniques. 

In the final year of the program, students take a freshman college course in Foundations of Education (child development, multiple intelligences, classroom dynamics, lesson planning…) plus a college level Bible course.  

“Training Students to Become Jewish Educators”  is an article I co-wrote which is relevant here and outlines only some of the benefits of the Education course.

In this arrangement, synagogues get the benefit of classroom assistants who are role models for their school, but not only as paid staff, but as students who are making a continued commitment to their own Jewish education

Working to make this program successful are local Reform Jewish Educators, Rabbis of the reform synagogues, administrators and educators at the Jewish community high school, plus parents who encourage and support their teens in the program.  When I think about this program, the word optimistic fills the space in my mind, as the word kvetch silently skulks off stage.