Tag Archives: Religion and Spirituality

What 7 of today’s top headlines tell you about teens today

Where's the good news?

Where’s the good news?

When it comes to teens, it seems that “Headlines” are usually “Dead Lines”….yes….news about deaths, teenage thugs, bullying, and more.

I’m tired of reading all this bad news about teens.

You might ask: “So, just look for the good news, what are you complaining about?”

It’s not that easy.

I get news alerts from Google and Yahoo sent to my Inbox, and generally what comes up, almost on a daily basis, is what you see below.

News

Tired teenagers may need a new mattressFree Malaysia Today  – 20 hours
The researchers found that teenagers’ mattresses were often too small to accommodate their rapid growth. Moreover, they were often worn out …

Teenage thugs locked up after brutally attacking cyclist for being ‘ginger’Manchester Evening News  – 25 minutes
Court is told that the four teenagers launched an ‘unprovoked attack’ on the cyclist as he stopped at lights in the city centre.

New wearable tech Ringblingz to help teenagers stay connectedNew Kerala  – 16 hours
Washington, Feb. 09 : A new wearable technology has been reportedly launched that helps teenagers stay connected based on the social media …

Teenagers held over car theftsThe Herald  – 2 hours
TWO teenagers have been apprehended by police and three stolen vehicles recovered after residents raised the alarm about suspicious activity.

Two Tucson teens arrested in murder plotFOX 10 Phoenix  – 11 hours
Two Tucson teenagers are facing charges of conspiracy to commit murder after Pima County deputies say they were plotting to kill an …

Cincinnati Police arrest four teens in weekend aggravated robberiesFOX 19 Cincinnati  – 14 hours
Cincinnati Police have arrested four teenagers in connection with two aggravated robbery offenses during the past weekend in Northside.

Russian teen project charged with “gay propaganda”Scoop.co.nz  – 9 hours
“The Children-404 project is being prosecuted for “gay propaganda” because it provides sympathetic, supportive advice to isolated, bullied, …

dam nearly finished

I’m not saying that teens are not often a troubled lot, or that teenage rebellion is something we should be surprised about.

After all, James Dean, Catcher in the Rye, and all that…..we’ve all been sensitized to the plight of the adolescent.

However, it is worse now with bullying occupying a virtual limitless space and even bigger social platforms where often teens feel unwanted, unloved, and ostracized.

I’m just saying that I need a break.

So please, to all of you out there working with teenagers or reporting about them…..just write more of the good stuff, if only so it takes up more space in my Inbox.

 

 


“There Is Only One Way to Change the World, and That Is By Education” Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks

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What would you say about how to change the world?

Why does Judaism value education so much?

How are educational values embedded in our tradition?

It’s not possible to improve on the eloquent words of a master writer and teacher, the Former Chief Rabbi of the U.K.

Rabbi Sacks writes a series of articles on the Torah portion of the week entitled “Covenant & Conversation”.

I encourage you to get acquainted with his writings; they will stir you. 

When I read something written so beautifully, that exquisitely states Judaism’s mission of perpetuation through education, all I can hope for is that others like you will read it too.

Education has been the key to our survival, and that notion is at risk.

We’ve often gone for the glitz and forgot the substance.

I’m not bemoaning the loss of old ideas, worn out ways of doing things, or suggesting that we return to unsuccessful models.

But I am saying that whatever we do, we must do it in the name of education.

In today’s world, ‘content is king’.

How fitting for us at this time. We have permission to offer our teens real substantive content.

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If we focus on this, we will guarantee a healthy future.

This must be our unified message.

“The Mesopotamians built ziggurats. The Egyptians built pyramids. The Greeks built the Parthenon. The Romans built the Coliseum. Jews built schools.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks continues: …..”that is why they alone, of all the civilizations of the ancient world are still alive and strong, still continuing their ancestors’ vocation, their heritage intact and undiminished.”

Click, Read, Learn….may your efforts continue our tradition.


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