Tag Archives: Religion and Spirituality

Some important questions you need to answer about Jewish teens

Wandering Jew

Wandering Jew (Photo credit: pellaea).             I’m a wondering Jew

A while ago, I reached some kind of milestone. I’ve been writing incessantly about a niche group within a niche group.

I’ve written over 100 posts on the topic of Jewish teens.

Posts about parenting, marketing, college readiness, Jewish identity, school aides, cheating, allowed me to share observations and frustrations.

I am so lucky to have the opportunity to write about what matters to me in Jewish education.

When I started writing, there were virtually no relevant results for Jewish teens on my Google search.

Thankfully, that has changed, but many things haven’t.

The most important question we need to ask ourselves, especially in light of the Pew study, is “are we doing enough for our Jewish teens?”

Do we have answers for the following?

1. Day schools continue to be the darling of funders, who fail to realize that the largest percentage of Jewish teens are not going to day schools, despite scholarship incentives.  Yet, students with at least seven years of supplementary Jewish education fare very well when compared to day school students.  Why?

2. Serious (yes, I did just say that word) supplementary high school programs work, yet get no recognition for the leaders we send to college campuses, year after year. Why?

3. Research confirms that students are less likely to attend high school programs when they have negative experiences in elementary supplemental education, yet communal incentives are rare for encouraging teens to ‘try out’ programs.  Why? (The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia is taking a lead in this concept).

4. Hillels around the country don’t connect with Jewish supplementary high schools to help teens transition to their new environment. Why is there this incredible missed opportunity?

5. Turf issues continue to pervade many communities, even though some programs offer teens little choices for social and/or academic experiences. (Philadelphia, through an initiative called Jteenphilly is breaking ground in this area).

6. Teen aides in supplementary schools are generally not being served by that experience.  Keeping teens in the building doesn’t mean that their needs are being met.

7. Studies have confirmed that once on the college campus, teens tend not to care about Jewish denominational lines, yet their pre-collegiate youth group experiences are most often confined to movement-related programming. Why?

I don’t get many responses to these posts, which for most, would be a red flag to do something different.

Somehow, I’m content to do what I’m doing, and hope that some things will eventually ‘stick’.

Plus, I know you’re out there (the stats confirm this).

I appreciate you–you’re that very special reader who cares enough to read about Jewish teens.

Thank you!


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


How to Make Jewish School Cool for Jewish Teens

English: Self-made Star of David in Adobe Illu...

Judaism: Where’s the cool?

Over 70 seniors recently graduated from a supplementary Jewish community high school. Why was attending cool for them, and not for their friends? Why are they, who have continued this far in an educational program past the age of Confirmation cut-off, in the minority? I know, it seems everyone is on this question now.

They made this choice, and they’re not odd, nerdy, or weird…so, what’s the deal here? We’ll get to that issue later.

In thinking about how to attract more of these dedicated and amazing teens, a good place to begin is with a report on recent research sponsored by the Jim Joseph Foundation: “Effective Strategies for Educating and Engaging  Jewish Teens” . The report offers very concrete steps to take for a program to have sustainability, and many creative programs are listed, although not representational of an academic environment.

In addition to the dead-on recipe list generated by that report for programs to be successful (cool is not mentioned by implied), there are some suggestions I’d add, specifically related to an educational experience with curricular goals.  Here they are:

  1. Make sure the program holds students accountable. Somehow, we’ve been led to believe that less is better (teens are so busy, how can they possibly have time for a weekly program?). This has not been true in my experience (I think teens elsewhere are not so dissimilar), as demonstrated by the large numbers of teens who show up every single week, despite mid-terms, finals, and scores of extra-curricular activities. Programs that count attendance and record grades are not ‘old school’. Teens have said that in their ‘regular’ world, earning a  grade counts, so why shouldn’t this standard apply elsewhere in an academic setting? However, it is important to give them the choice, since not everyone is motivated similarly, and putting students in charge of how they’re assessed is an important distinction to make here. Most students are academically motivated and respond to programs that stretch their minds and challenge their intellect. When attendance and participation matter, it sends a message that their efforts matter.
  2. Offer well-crafted and executed experiences. Whether in the classroom, on a bus, in a museum, on the floor, in an auditorium…..make sure the program is memorable and worth the time.
  3. Get the parents on board. It helps if the parents have attended a similar program after Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Parents definitely ‘get it’ once they’ve experienced similar programs with substance. The social aspect, and why it’s important to have teenagers be with lots of other teens, is part of their own memories. If they were lucky, they also remember learning something too. However, it’s a hard upward climb for parents who have no reference point as to what the gains of such a program might be.  Holding parent orientations, open houses, educational sessions for parents, and engaging parent advocates are some ways to mobilize parents who might help (but don’t expect them to come in droves, their kids pressure them not to be involved; ‘nerd’ factor at work).
  4. Hire phenomenal teachers, and continually offer professional development opportunities. The best teachers offer a deep knowledge of the subject area, plus a facility for informal, experiential activities. Classrooms need to feel like camp communities. Open sharing, unconditional acceptance, loyalty to each other, and regular contact all help set the tone. However, even the best teachers need guidance and opportunities for reflective practice.
  5. Get your teens to talk to other teens.  This is probably the most difficult challenge of all. Plus, there is a disconnect I  mentioned at the beginning of this post. While graduates talk about how much they’ve gotten out of the program, they don’t understand why others don’t attend. However, the tough truth is that teens don’t like to talk about the fact that they’ve chosen to attend an additional educational program besides their ‘regular school’.  Can you imagine the following conversation?

Cool Student: ” I heard you go to another school besides this one….dude, is that right?”
Jewish Teen: ” Are you kidding? Me, take more classes? Are you nuts?”

Based on the dialogue above, there goes the recruitment opportunity, right out the window marked “nerd”.

So, numbers 1,2, 3, and maybe even 4 are totally doable. The fifth is a real challenge.

We’ve asked our students, who rate satisfaction levels above 80%, why they don’t tell their friends about it, and a version of the above is the response, peppered with comments like: “C’mon, this is on a Sunday morning, you think I’d tell any of my friends that I wake up early to come here?” “Unless there were chocolate cookies coming down from the ceiling, I wouldn’t tell my friends to come with me on a Sunday.” “Oh, there’s no way they’d be interested in this. This is too Jewish for them.”

We understand the difficulty. The question is, what are some ways to deal with this? Please, feel free to comment!.

Photo credit: Wikipedia


“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.


Jewish Culture: Enough For Our Teens?

what will keep Jews marrying Jews?

What Will Keep Jews marrying Jews?

At a recent holiday party, I had been speaking with a Pastor of  the Calvary Full Gospel Church.  He introduced me to his wife who comes from a Greek Orthodox background.

Her choice, to be in a relationship with this person who practiced differently and lived outside her cultural community, set off a flurry of shunning behavior.

Why?

Similar to the themes in the film “My Big Fat Greek Wedding“, her parents felt she was going outside the fold and giving up her Greek culture to marry this man. She would become part of his church. To them and her community, she was assimilating.

Who would continue the cultural traditions? Historical traditions would be lost. Future generations would not know their ways.

Sound familiar? Unfortunately, to many it does.

Here’s just one tiny example, from an article in the New York Times wedding section. Make your own decision about the relevance Judaism has for this couple:

“For Mitch, brought up Protestant, and his wife, Emma (nee Weise, of Jewish descent), religion is best practiced through matzo balls and pickled herring from Zabar’s.”

Here’s what the Pastor told me when he explained that his wife’s parents shouldn’t have been surprised by her choice:

“Culture will never be enough of a pull to keep someone connected to their traditions. There has to be more.”

Becoming very interested in the direction this conversation was taking, I asked:

“Can you describe ‘more’? ”

As he elaborated, his words resonated with me and my work with Jewish teens.

“If you’re not reaching people deeply, through a spiritual and God connection, commitment will never be there.”

His wife joined in at that point. “Sure, I went to church, but it never really touched me. It was so mechanical. I didn’t feel a reason to be there.”

So, what are the reasons we want our teens to ‘stay Jewish’?

I think every Jewish parent and educator needs to answer this question.

Are the primary reasons cultural?

We all know that ‘bagels and lox’ Judaism doesn’t mean a poppy-seed for the long haul. Epitomizing the height of cultural fluff, has Chanukah been enough of an attraction to stave off assimilation and help young adults stay connected?

Luscious latkes and games of dreidel can easily exist within other frameworks as cultural add-ons.

I’ve read about weddings (between two non-Jewish partners) that have incorporated marriage canopies and glass-breaking ceremonies because it’s a nice touch.

Cultural-isms migrate very nicely. Deeper connections are harder to give up.

We do know this. It’s why the assimilation rate of Orthodox Jews is so much less. Community pulls. So does a belief system.

So, where are we with what we’re providing our Jewish teens? When will we decide that in order to increase their long-term connection we have to go deep?

What spiritual connections are we building that will sustain them through adulthood? What will keep Jews marrying Jews?

What is your feedback? I’ll share your comments and add my own in future posts.

Photo credit: FreeDigitalPhotos.net


SuperStorm #Sandy: Getting Beyond OMG!

OMG

OMG (Photo credit: mac.lachlan)

In our terribly connected world, we’re never really far from seeing devastation up close.  Like unwilling voyeurs, we watch some fantastic yet unreal world that is occurring in real-time right in front of us—-on a screen in our kitchens, dens, and yet the media itself creates an incredible distance to whatever we’re seeing.

It’s like the caricature of a parent eagerly taping her child’s recital while missing the real impact of the performance.

We see instant pictures, read tweets and blogs, hear news updates, and feel others’ pain very acutely. But it passes. Too soon.

At these times I’m sure most of us think about the fragility of life. The thread that holds everything together sometimes feels very slippery indeed. We can take this as adults. What we need to do is open conversations with our teens about what they’re witnessing beyond the OMG! reactions.

How do they feel about the loss of human control these events portray?

What other events have happened in their lives when they felt a loss of control?

What helps them gain a sense of strength?

How can they focus on gratitude for the ordinary?

Do they think about G-d in any of these contexts?

Here’s our chance as Jewish educators, parents, and teachers to help facilitate these conversations.


Are we reaching middle school students?

Introducing hands-on computing in secondary ed...

When did things get so serious for middle-schoolers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How playful is that?

Not very.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Why do buildings substitute for substance for Jewish teens?

List of Jews in literature and journalism

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Well, this is one step further than that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can’t”, she replied.

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

“Yes, of course. But I can’t.”

“Why then?”

“Because there’s no lake.”

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

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

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

 

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

Photo credit: Wikipedia


From Jewish Camp to Synagogue: Five No-brainers

Stanford Sailing Summer Camp in session in Red...

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

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

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

Summer camp is exhilarating for our Jewish teens. For most, living Judaism 24/7 and not as an ‘add-on’ like Hebrew school, is a powerful new experience for them.  Their weeks have the rhythm of Shabbat in camp that usually doesn’t occur at home. They’re also socializing in a “Jewish bubble” surrounded by staff and friends who are all Jewish and who are making a commitment to be together for several weeks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related articles

Photo credit: Wikipedia


What is the real job we’re doing for Jewish Teens?

One of the "shakes with a punch" at ...

Milkshakes taste good. Jewish education is good. But what job are we really doing for Jewish Teens?

I read an article about marketing today that focused on milkshakes. (Please keep reading, the fact that Jewish teens tend to like a good milkshake or two is not where I’m going).

The author discovered that while milkshake sellers were trying to ‘market’ according to the usual: breakdowns by demographics, flavor choices, etc….the real question to be answered was: What job does the milkshake do for you, and how can we respond to that? 

This is a very different question that may open up opportunities for those of us who work with Jewish teens.

Are we marketing properly?

The author, Clay Christensen, coined the term ‘job-to-be-done’ as a way for marketers to get into the mindset of the consumer. Doing this is essential, as about 95 % of the 30,000 new consumer products fail.

So, the question about what is the job-to-be-done re: #Jteens becomes very relevant, even crucial for our work.

What is the job we are really doing with teens? Is it Jewish education? Or is it really preparation for life? Is it honing their critical thinking skills?

Is it preparing them to take on leadership roles in college? Is it preparing them for Jewish life on campus? Is it giving them an ‘out’ for taking a foreign language in high school?

I suggest that we figure out what we are really doing, and ‘sell’ that.  Let’s drink a milkshake to that one.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia


‘Wow, You’re Soooo Jewish!”

What image comes to mind when you read the headline?

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

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

So, what does it mean?

Really, take a minute.

What would it mean to you?

 

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

Not only was he Jewish, he was acting Jewish.

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

But that’s not the point.

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

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

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

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

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

He belongs to a youth group.

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

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

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

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

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

What Jewish involvements are too much? Too little?

How do you feel about the term s0000o Jewish?

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

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


Chanukah Ornaments? How some Jewish teens voted

A friend of mine who works for a collectibles company sent me an e-mail last week with a curious query. The company is considering developing a  a new line: Chanukah ornaments. These could be placed either on a “Chanukah Bush”, Christmas tree, or a small miniature metal ornament tree (next to the menorah, probably).

Would I (or anyone on this list serve) be offended? I wondered how a group of Jewish teens would react.

English: A bauble on a Christmas tree.
 

I thought they’d have a lengthy discussion about values, lifestyle choices, religious symbolism.  The conversation was over faster than you can say “December Dilemma.” I was ready to bring on the choices: A Star of David? Hamsa? Dreidel? No one was interested and told me they found the idea offensive.

They thought that Christmas and Chanukah were already over commercialized, so why add to the array of ‘stuff’? By the way, some of the teens who were the most outspoken came from intermarried families.

Not that I have an interest in the success of collectibles, but I proceeded to ask them what they thought about re-purposing the items…what if they would hang them from a car mirror? Locker hook? Nope.  Okay, so I just wanted to make sure.

They wouldn’t buy it. So, what do you think?

Do you agree with these outspoken teens who desire a get-back-to-basics approach?

Lest you think they are against paraphernalia, don’t kid yourself.  They are totally ‘gadgeted out’, it’s just that it seems they have their limits.   How would you respond to this question?  Would this work for your family?

Image via wikipedia


what Jewish teens taught me about family values

English: Heart Planet Earth

Last week I was figuring out a way to teach eighth graders the value of Shalom Bayit (Family Harmony–Peace in the Home).  With teens going through their own struggles for authority in that realm, the notion  of peace and family harmony might not strike the right note. 

The last thing I think they’d want to hear were clichés and platitudes about the topic and I could just imagine the yawns when introducing it.

I couldn’t argue with that.  Would anyone in the class disagree with the concept of such a positive sounding value?  As a teacher, how could you explore that further in a way that would inspire a lengthy discussion?

I needed to find a way in to this topic and create some educational tension.

So, I decided to become “MojojoBo”, an alien from another planet.  In that way, the students would need figure out how to teach the subject matter to me.  The students would need to explain teachings to this being that ‘their people’ practiced, focusing on  Shalom Bayit and family values. Since MojojoBo had a family too, it was an easy place to begin.

I began the class in character, with accent, stunted staccato speech and all.  Corny? Definitely. Campy? For sure.

MojojoBo wanted to be convinced that as a people known as “Jew” they had values surrounding family, preservation of tradition nad mutual respect. I gave more details to MojojoBo’s story so students would have a context and not get caught up in irrelevant details.

I divided the class into groups to study the textual sources. Their task? To break down the language in very easy to understand words and concepts so MojojoBo would understand what they were saying. That meant that no prior learning about the topic could be assumed. They had top break down words and concepts like ten commandments, Torah and Kavod because MojojoBo wouldn’t understand the meaning.  They went to work deciphering the texts, figuring out the best way to explain them and selecting the best ones to convey the concepts.

Taking turns, the groups made presentations. The quote “A home where Torah is not heard will not endure”  instead became: “Your home, where your family lives, needs to be a place where you can learn the teachings of your people. Not only learn them, but talk about them everyday so every one in the family understands why they are special and needs to continue being part of this people in days and years ahead. Your home is where that begins.”

I was riveted. I wish I had a video. These are today’s teens, who often get shortchanged for not being connected, being too self-centered and not always very respectful. I am hearing them say these incredible things about respecting parents, valuing tradition, being partners with God, holding back anger, commitment to Jewish peoplehood, and MORE. Their responses were stunning. I know the lesson would not have gone this way if I had used a more traditional approach.

They were teaching me things I didn’t even know they were thinking, let alone feeling, about their homes, parents, God, and spirituality. I will miss MojojoBo but will bring that dear, sweet, alien back whenever I need to learn from our amazing teens.

Image via Wikipedia


Jewish Teens Reinvent the Synagogue

I’m so lucky.  We Jewish educators trudge uphill a lot of the time, just to keep pace. Yet, every week I get inspired from the Jewish teens I work with. Last week I asked a group of 10th and 11th graders how they would reinvent the synagogue:

Synagogue construction, Baron De Hirsch Trade ...

“Your goal is to insure that people will be active, engaged, and interested. There are no limits. What will you create? What type of organization will speak to you?”

They had a hard time with this initially, not being able to get past what they experience now.  That surprised me. They first offered: more music, shorter services, more comfortable seats.

When I prodded further, they pushed the boundaries a little more.

Welcome to the synagogue as seen through the eyes of a group of Jewish teens: branding abounds, with lots and lots of food available (did I mention that there are mostly boys in this class?).

Someone piped in: “We could have a Manishewitz wing!” Another student shot right back: “Yeah,why not? Companies could be sponsors of the synagogue or even sponsor events.”

“Even Bar/t Mitzvahs I asked?”

“Yea, why not,” they responded. That way, they wouldn’t cost so much.”
Hmmmm. Interesting.

Unanimously, they all agreed that there needs to be more food.  Then they began to dream big, envisioning a cafe-type set-up, with lots of  informal places to sit–like a lobby in a hotel.  Oh, they were also big on sports options.  Basketball and racketball courts and pools. Places to sleep when family comes into town for b’nei mitzvahs. Why not a spa?

What they talked about resembled a newly configured JCC/Synagogue/Restaurant/Hotel.

I told them that they will be the ones to do this, and that we’re depending on them.

Though I don’t see a Rokeach-sponsored Bat Mitzvah anytime soon, I can see the ‘Awesome Osem Auction!’ with these teens in charge of things.  Just maybe we need to take some cues from these young leaders and simply lighten things up a little. Oh yes, and have some food.

Image: Synagogue construction, Baron De Hirsch Trade School, South Jersey Colonies, Carmel, NJ (Photo credit: Center for Jewish History, NYC)


Jewish Teens: Lost?

"Adolescence"

"Adolescence" by Giacomo Manzu Image by Ko:(char *)hook

 

Let’s play a game. Read the quote below and try to guess who said it.

Ready?

No peeking.

“…..we are not preparing today’s teens and young adults for the kinds of pressures they actually face.”

Okay, to make sure you’re testing yourself honestly write your responses, and then share it with me here. Just hit comment at the end of the post.

It will be interesting for us to compare results, no?

Here’s the lead-in sentence to the quote above:

“We hope young Christ followers develop a faith strong enough to last and to influence those around them. However, for too many, their faith does not survive in the real world. Simply put, we are not preparing today’s teens and young adults for the kinds of pressures they actually face.”

Responses?

First, I’ll share more about the quote. It’s from an e-mail I receive from the Barna Group, announcing a new effort to share information, resources, and offer training on this topic to better equip those working with teens. 

They also revealed a new book, called YOU LOST ME,  which is the result of a five-year study about the “spiritual journeys of young Christians, especially how much our culture has changed and what it means for your efforts.”

So, I’d like to unpack this piece of news.

First is the feeling that maybe our Jewish teens are reflecting a greater spiritual need that is felt in other communities. In that case, we shouldn’t berate ourselves so much for our failures.

But the next thought that comes to mind is actually a bit of envy.  The Christian community is marshalling its resources to work on this challenge—and they’re tackling it as a community.

This group thought it important enough to invest FIVE YEARS of time, effort, and money into this issue. Imagine the interviews, focus groups, surveys it took to gather this data. So you’ll forgive me for the jealousy, since I’ve written about this plenty before.  It seems like many posts ago when I wrote that Jewish teens were underserved.

Though I am so very heartened by the URJ‘s new focus on youth engagement, it is a denominational response to a communal problem,and doesn’t create data about this population. And I am appreciative of the new study on Youth Engagement by the Jewish Education Project about teens in New York.

So, until the Jewish community decides that it is important to fully figure out broader solutions to the issue of teens who are ‘spiritually lost’ (without the piecemeal approach of a unique program here, a special grant there) I guess I’ll turn  my envy to respect for how the Christian community is going about this.