Tag Archives: synagogue

What do you want to read on a synagogue sign?

 

thou shalt not.jpg

We live in a visual world, right? So why not go with that? My morning commute is peppered with the various church signs I pass on my way to work. I wonder who actually writes these pithy things.  Is there a team of writers in a back room somewhere brainstorming a year’s worth of compelling sayings to post outside on the church lawn? Do they mail a smattering of weekly messages to the church elders who get to select which ones to post on their outdoor billboard sign? Seriously, who writes these? I smile as I drive by signs like “Yes, We’re Open Between Christmas and Easter”, “Home Improvement Needed? Bring Your Family Here”, and “What’s Missing Here? Ch….Ch. UR!”.

Signs like these are old buddies, enticing you in, knowing your faults but pretty much accepting you as you are. “Haven’t been here for a while? Don’t worry, c’mon in, you’re good here.” “Having a bad day? I can relate. Stop by”. The welcoming spirit is what these churches advertise, it’s what they’re about, and they know it, and they’re just waiting for you to come around.  Take a peek at these church signs which are so engaging to read.

Not so with the synagogues I see. When I Googled (in images) ‘synagogue signs’ not a one made me chuckle. They were all quite boring, actually. Not exactly like a beckoning buddy, but an authority figure; more staid, formal, and reserved–and sometimes even indifferent: “Here’s our name. Isn’t that enough?”. “Here’s a list of services and times.”

Am I wrong? Sometimes you can’t even tell it’s a synagogue that you’re passing by  –fear of ensuing graffiti? Attacks? Perhaps. On the whole, synagogue signs don’t accuse you for not believing, cajole you to enter the sacred space, or even seem to welcome you in. Lack of judgement can often substitute for apathy. Okay I’ll admit, there might be some signs that say “Welcome”, fine. But sometimes being so mild-mannered can be construed as disinterest. We all know that person who doesn’t want to ‘intrude’ in our lives by asking us questions, but to us, it just feels as if the person can’t be bothered.

What I do see sometimes are program announcements on billboards: “Rockin’ Shabbat”, “Shabbat Under the Stars” and once I even saw an audacious sign that proclaimed:  “A Synagogue You Can Believe In”.  Take that one in and let its spiritually arrogant message sink in. It’s revealing that the sign is about the building. Really? I’m going to join because of that? What exactly are synagogues of today offering? The most common thing I see on signs is the word “Free”. If a consumer message is what is displayed, what else would someone think about?

Why should the synagogue downplay its message? Are we that insecure about our spiritual lives? Perhaps we’re not as clear as we think about who we are and what we communicate to the outside world. So, what would you want to read on a synagogue sign?

 


What I Learned About Leadership From An Evangelical Minister

lessons-learned

Here’s what I learned about engaging lay people from an Evangelical minister during a holiday dinner party: a faith community’s goals should be reflected in its paths toward leadership.

Last week I sat diagonally across an intense yet energetic, full-of-spirit kind of guy who gives greatly of his time in his church, and who has subsequently become a minister. In that role, he leads study groups and connects closely with church members, taking on their stories and their pain, and in the process, connects them to their faith on a very personal level. The group studies scripture, but the group isn’t just about studying. Teachings are put into practice right then and there.

One of the members of the group said an elderly woman in the parish didn’t have enough money to pay her heating bill. In very short time, group members found the funds for her, paying her electric bill for the winter. I asked if anyone informed the priest, to see if there was a pathway for things like this to ‘bubble up’ to that level. “No,” he quickly responded, “there was no need, this was within our ability to do, and we took care of it quietly”. I didn’t need to ask for elaboration, what he didn’t say filled a huge space. This was true leadership by lay leaders, taking on responsibility to do what needed to get done. No fanfare. No bureaucratic red tape. They knew it was in the mission of their work to care for other members.

He finds immense spiritual nourishment from this work and engages in it while working full-time, attending to his marriage and his two teenage daughters. It’s what he does, what he feels called to do, and it kind of makes you wonder about your own free time.

It took no time at all for us to find common ground about topics that in other circumstances would cause a lot of eye-rolling and polite excuses by others who would choose to converse about much juicier topics. But, we were at a holiday gathering, and the spirit of the season was seated at the table. We soaked up our differing ideas about faith, belief, the bible, and the role of organized religion in people’s lives. I learned a lot from him, and he from me.

Among the things we talked about was the structure of his church, and how lay people who are so moved religiously, are gently led on a path to leadership. The priest encourages them to receive training–doing so incrementally and slowly, and then, when ready, they provide ministry to others within the church. This is accomplished within a small group model, one person ministering to several small groups, even though the church might have thousands of members.  It keeps things small, intimate, and full of personal meaning.

Certain positions within the church lead to ordination by an Archbishop, like that of Deacon, who after years of study and involvement attains a level respected highly by other church members. I thought about what this means, especially when comparing that to the many synagogue lay leader positions that seem mired in fiscal management, operations and building maintenance, and fundraising.

I know that the entire structure of synagogue life is different, but what can I learn from this? How could my experience of synagogue life be so radically different from the picture of spiritual meaning that I heard? It seems like a commitment to living a Jewish life is not generally a requirement for attaining synagogue leadership roles.  What if there was a pathway of leadership that involved religious and spiritual growth?  Can you imagine that? What if there was a requirement for leaders to be personally committed to advancing their spiritual and religious practice? How inspirational would that be, to see people in leadership roles involved in holy soul-work?

If the synagogue’s goal is to build a faith community, how are we working towards that? We know that there are Jewish spaces that have transformed themselves, and it would be interesting to know if their leadership pathways are reflective of that change. What strategies might we employ to incorporate this kind of thinking?

For example, The Union for Reform Judaism developed a strategy for small group work that might operate on the method mentioned above, though I’m unaware of any evaluative material about the outcomes of that enterprise. There might be other innovative approaches to this as well.

We need to learn together, pulling from as many different sources as we can, to reinvigorate the purpose of creating community.

 


From Jewish Camp to Home: Five Easy Things to Do

camp

 

How can your Jewish community maximize campers’ experiences when they arrive home?

Summer camp is exhilarating for our Jewish teens. For most, living Judaism 24/7 and not as an ‘add-on’ activity that so often happens on the home front is a powerful experience.  The ways in which it’s different are probably obvious but some still deserve mentioning:

  • Weeks at camp have the rhythm of Shabbat
  • They’re 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
  • They’re being challenged in unique ways that stimulate thinking and growth
  • Many or most of their activities are highly interactive and engaging
  • The adults they interact with are supporting and non-threatening
  • Camp is a socially safe (usually) environment where problems and issues are sorted out in real-time, when they occur.

So, how can we bridge these experiences to foster a deeper connection with Judaism when they arrive back home? 

How can we assist our Jewish teens,  who have just spent the summer being energized about a Judaism that is alive, pulsing, vibrant, and changeable, return home?

Here are some suggestions for using the talents our teens have gained over the summer:

#1.  Mentor a group to begin a ‘camp style’ group at the synagogue, or community center. Members may have been to camp, or just be interested in this new offering.

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

#3.  Help the teens develop goals to incorporate one new and different thing from camp into experiential programming for your youth.

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

#5.  Get these teens in front of younger kids to share their experiences and foster motivation for a Jewish summer camp experience.

(optional #6: tell me  how it goes!)

 

Photo credit: Wikipedia


One New Way To Join A Jewish Community

Judaism = Community

Judaism = Community

This season, when so many emotions surge through us, it is comforting to be within a community. That’s part of the grand design, for Jews to be together to usher in the New Year. We collectively hear the shofar’s urgency of now and decide that this year, things will be different….we’ll be different. But one thing is stubbornly the same and I need to write about it.

For those who were not part of a synagogue community last year, has their situation changed? I’ve spoken with many people who don’t connect to the formalized Jewish community and miss the experience of belonging. They were once members, somewhere.

Yet they haven’t received any personal communication to return to the synagogue. Not a letter, not a phone call. I wonder what their experience is of Klal Yisrael and what our obligation is to them? (For the most part, these issues don’t arise for those who identify as Orthodox, as their entire experience of community is different).

Their feelings of being separate must hurt and are in total opposition to the goal of feeling close to G-d and community. The pain they share with me is palpable, but often buried.

Most synagogues don’t have the volunteer power to do outreach. Yet for years, as a communal educator, I have listened to stories of exclusion peppered with harsh memories and I feel helpless. The problem is so overwhelming.

Programs like ‘public space’ Judaism, online workshops, concierge services or outreach spiritual leaders are part of innovative responses to this growing problem of disconnected Jews.  But for those who are searching specifically for a re-connection to their synagogue, personal outreach is required. We need to initiate teshuvah  by encouraging them to return.

Sometimes the reasons for leaving a community have to do with finances so we need to change the dues structure paradigm by thinking beyond the synagogue. Ultimately, it might cost more to exclude those we are not reaching. If we want individuals to belong to a community, then we need to offer wider access to that community. Right now, our definition of belonging is defined exclusively by which congregation someone belongs to.

For example, my experience is that even if a synagogue event is open to the public, people from neighboring synagogues don’t attend. I’ve witnessed this phenomena multiple times, though I don’t understand the behavior at all. So, how can we make others feel welcome in any synagogue in a given community….without feeling that they don’t belong? Because every Jew in a Jewish community belongs.

A community could establish a communal membership fee, whatever amount works for them, on whatever scale, which would be a way to say ‘you belong’. A person would then be a member of all synagogues in the area. This manageable fee could be an option for people who are new to an area and want to ‘synagogue shop’ for a year or two. Or it could be for those who would like access to a wider range of social programming.since prayer may not be the way they connect to the Jewish community. The fee would also work for those who are already a member of one synagogue but elect to additionally support the Jewish community in this way. There also might be levels of giving to reflect these different needs.

Just imagine, everyone could feel part of the community, with no artificial borders and boundaries.

If some of these discussions occur, then next year, when it comes time for us to think about Teshuvah, we might just agree that the return to an old paradigm is worth a change.

Related posts: 

When You Say Jewish Community, Who Are You Talking About? 

Patchwork Fixes Don’t Work for The Jewish Community


Why Jewish Organizations Need To Be More Like The Food Industry

Fresh and Appetizing!

Fresh and Appetizing!

Fortune magazine recently published The Food Issue and I was struck by how the CEO’s of major food corporations are facing head-on the huge loss of market share and consumers. I mean large corporations: Campbell’s Soup, ConAgra, and Hersheys just to name a few. A top analyst in the business stated that the top 25 companies have lost about $18 billion in market share just in the past few years: “I would think of them like melting icebergs, every year they become a little less relevant.” 

Since I’ve been on the front lines, witnessing the many ways in which Jewish education is trying to transform itself, the iceberg analogy above sounded all too familiar to me. The issues we may think are isolated are not endemic to Judaism. It seems that much larger organizations need to restructure, regroup, and refocus. So I read on, wondering how the leaders of these corporations were tackling these difficult issues, and if there was anything Jewish organizations could learn from their approach.

One thing was clear, no corporation was pretending that the loss of market share was a fading or fleeting trend.

There seemed to be very little ego involved in these corporate leaders’ decisions to rework things in order to gain footing. There was also recognition and some frustration that it would take time for an upswing to occur.

So, I took in what they said, and found commonalities in the list below:

  • People want simplicity and the companies are striving to deliver: by collaborating with other food purveyors, buying smaller, successful companies, or developing entirely new product lines to meet the demand. There is an honest appraisal of the company’s strengths and weaknesses, resulting in adaptations that are essential for survival.
  • The consumer’s desire for fresh means that the recycling of old products, i.e. “new and improved” just doesn’t cut it anymore. Customers are discerning and pressed for time. There has to be a new, relevant, approach that appeals to the consumers’ needs for what they want, when they want it. Brand loyalty is not generally a factor.
  • The customer wants authenticity and integrity above all. Slick packaging or as one CEO says “the barn on the package” (referring to the false advertising of wholesome nutrients) doesn’t fool the customer into thinking that the product is all natural. There has to be substance beneath the product.
  • Large organizations, with lots of structural barriers, are at a deficit when they aren’t able to move fast enough to meet the demands of the marketplace.

Many Jewish organizations are in the midst of enacting some of the changes, but many are stubbornly hoping the tide will turn back in their favor. Time in this case, is a luxury that the Jewish community just can’t afford any longer.

Related Posts:

Judaism As A Polysystem.

Praying for Pluralism


Hiring Jewish teen aides? Five things you should know

I promise, keep reading, and you’ll get to my five suggestions. But first, some advice…..for a student named Rachel.

Here are some things about Rachel that you should know:

She absolutely loves working with kids, and has done so for the past several summers at a Jewish camp. The kids love her, parents rave about her as well, plus she has a lot of patience. In addition, everyone says that ‘she’s a natural’. And naturally, she’s thinking of majoring in elementary education. If she went to college, in four years, she would earn a teaching degree, and may even decide to go for an advanced degree. College costs are a real concern for her family, though her parents assure her that with loans, they will be able to handle the tuition payments at a state school. Just last week she was offered  a job as a classroom aide at an after-school program. For her, it would mean a real job and money. Now. She could save some money by living at home, at least for a year, and she could also save for college to show her parents that she is willing to help. Besides, she wouldn’t get to work in a real classroom until her junior or senior year in college and the after-school program really thinks that Rachel will be an excellent role model for the younger students, and taking the job would mean that she could make an impact on those children—-now.

What should Rachel do—work as an aide now or continue her education?

You probably are wondering why I’m asking the question, but please continue reading because you know I have to ask: what is your advice for Rachel?

Right about now, you might be thinking that this is a no-brainer. Would anyone recommend that she forego her own education in favor of the immediate: earning some money even though she’d be using her talents and skills? We know that society places a real premium on an education.

So, let’s take a leap and say that Rachel celebrated a Bat Mitzvah, and is being offered a job at her synagogue’s Hebrew School. What could be wrong with that?

In many synagogues around the country, on a weekly basis, students get paid to work in Hebrew schools at the very age when they should be furthering their own education. Sure, their choice is not necessarily to go off to college to earn a Jewish studies degree, but why is their own education sacrificed in order to hire them as classroom aides? I’m specifically talking about the many students I hear about each year who say that they can’t go further in their Jewish education because they’re working as an aide at a Hebrew school and would be too busy.

Here’s FIVE reasons why synagogues should supplement teen aide programs with an educational component:

#1. Why shortchange a Jewish teens’ education at this important time in their lives when they’re ready to intellectually grapple with Jewish ideas?

#2. Hiring teens creates ‘instant role models’ at your synagogue, but you’re also saying that really, continuing Jewish education isn’t nearly as good as getting a paycheck.

#3. Hiring teens makes the statement that there isn’t much to a professional Jewish educator, after all, someone who has just completed a bar/bat mitzvah is perfectly suited to help out in the classroom.

#4. Students working in these classroom rarely receive the additional support or training to deal with the many issues that come up or the questions they have.

#5. Instead of learning to change paradigms, and thinking creatively about Hebrew school options, students often cycle through the very ineffective system that they experienced.

A recent study regarding the placement and retention of close to 3,000 public school teachers found that when they were student teachers, they should have been considered students, and not teachers in order to get the support they needed. How much more so would this hold true for our Jewish teens placed in classrooms? 

Still, it is really wonderful to have the teens around, as a presence in the school. Additionally, it’s a built-in retention tool for engaging members past the usual drop-off Bar/Bat mitzvah age.

So, what is a Hebrew school to do?

Well, for starters, tell the aides that in order to work in your school they must be enrolled in further Jewish education (online, adult study, Hebrew high school—- something). An additional option is to offer teens a training program, to receive the much needed support I mentioned above.

Unless we do that, I believe we are failing our youth with this practice.


Surprisingly Simple Strategies: How a Presbyterian Church Reaches its’ Teens

All Teens Welcome

All Teens Welcome

What might other faith communities teach us, as Jewish educators, about engaging large numbers of teens in religious activities?

We clearly have what to learn, as more and more teens are opting out of Jewish learning past the age of 13, just as they’re beginning their adolescent journeys.

Recently, The Jewish Education Project hosted a webinar called “Interfaith Teen Engagement Exchange” with a team from the Christ Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis.  The purpose was for us to hear how they successfully reach teens in a new engagement model.

Briefly, I’ll distill for you what I believe worked for them.

Some of the strategies will not give you an ‘aha’ moment, and even if they did, some would require a more long-term approach, as in building a culture of volunteerism with active lay leaders.

I’ve simplified things a bit by including several related things in one category. Where that was not possible, you can see additional notes at the end. So, here is my take on the three top strategies that help create their successes:

#1. Empower and train volunteers.

There was an entire system of engagement based on the tireless efforts of unpaid individuals. An army of volunteer coaches, mentors, house group leaders, and peer leaders are part of this model. The volunteers are on board with how important it is to give their teenagers a moral grounding both for socialization in high school and to ensure a connection with their faith later on.  All peer facilitators are trained before becoming a leader, and receive support from a coach or mentor throughout.

#2. Make the program goals ‘stick’.

Create a system of credentialing for leaders. The teen peer leaders have to apply for the position, then are interviewed, trained, and supported in their roles. They can, after a period of time and with further training, move on to other roles. Although the program seems informal at first, with a closer look there is a hierarchical structure that supports the structure and gives teens goals to achieve more responsibility (and status). There are requirements of time and attendance that are clear to volunteers and participants alike. In addition, peer leaders make a multi-year commitment to the program.

#3. Relationship-building is part of the program, not a by-product. Move from small to larger groups. 

The weekly program begins with teens participating in small groups (7-10) where they get to know their peers in safe settings. In those groups, they learn a piece of text that their peer leaders have already experienced in their own training sessions. The discussions are informal, but have a purpose: to relate the text to real life experiences. After the small group discussions, everyone moves to a larger session (100 or more teens). The focus is on fun, interactive, and dynamic experiences: a game, simulation, workshop, or contest.

Additional Techniques:

Branding: the levels of responsibility were given catchy names and logos

Getting out of bounds: An important part of the program was to create relationships within small communities. These meetings were held in people’s homes, with House Group Leaders in charge of the program. People willingly open their homes on a weekly basis to host these programs.

Frequency is key: The programs themselves were not that long (1 hour, 15 minutes from small to large group), but are held weekly. Again, relationships deepen when experiences are shared regularly.

Have you found these strategies to work in your settings?

What would aid in the implementation of such a model?

I’d love to read your feedback! Please share below.

Photo courtesy of wikimedia.org


Seven Things to Do When Teens Come Home from Jewish Summer Camp

How to Bring Camp Home

How to Bring Camp Home

Soon, thousands of Jewish teens will arrive to their home communities, having spent an amazing immersive experience in a Jewish summer camp. These teens, armed with new enthusiasm for Jewish life, should be able to transition successfully into their Jewish life at home, sharing their experiences with peers, their families, the synagogue, and maybe even the Jewish community as a whole.

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 experience for them.  For example, Shabbat at camp is a communal affair, with everyone in the camp community living on the same page. Each week has the rhythm of Shabbat, with the pace at week’s end picking up in a flurry of activity; frenzied preparations of personal and communal cleaning that peak before sundown on Friday night. Daily schedules then ease into a newly relaxed pace of free time and socializing that ends on Saturday night. This arc of Friday to Saturday night is a palpably different feeling than the rest of the week.

A Jewish Bubble That is Alive and Vibrant

At camp, teens are socializing in a Jewish world surrounded by staff and friends who are all Jewish and who are making a commitment to be together, living Judaism, for several weeks. The passion for living a Jewish life can’t be duplicated—there are just too many factors that make that impossible (that’s why many Jewish Federations around the country and the Foundation for Jewish camping are trying to get our kids to go there).

So, Jewish teens spend the summer being energized about a Judaism that is alive, pulsing, vibrant, and changeable and at summer’s end have a decidedly different experience.  At home, the pace of the weekly arc is gone for the most part, unless campers live in a Shabbat-observant home. They may or may not miss any restrictions they’ve had (electronic fasts in some places) but they will miss the natural rhythm that the week holds.  Their home friends won’t have a clue what they’ve experienced, and neither will you, as parents, if you haven’t experienced it. They no longer live in a community of like-minded teens.

Why should we make teens wait all year long to experience these same feelings again?

When Teens Return Home

Most teens returning to ‘normal’ life after camp don’t experience a transition between these two worlds. Instead, there is a disturbing disconnect as they see huge differences between the summer months and practices at home and the synagogue during the year, which is like going from one entirely different cultural experience to another.

We can look at ways to maximize their experiences and make sure that the energy is captured, and create more of a seamless transition.  There may be programs working on this, like youth groups that connect campers during the year, but not all groups function in that way or are successful in that effort.

Links between Camp, Home, and Synagogue

We need to create better links, bridges, and supports from one experience to the other for our Jewish teens. So, how can we maximize campers’ experiences when they arrive home?  What I’m suggesting won’t be broad or sweeping systemic change but are definitely do-able. There are activities that can be tweaked for home, synagogue and even youth groups. Below are just some suggestions for optimizing Jewish teens’ experiences at camp and using their creative talents, no matter the level of your observance:

#1.  Make Friday night (at least) different from the rest of the week by getting the teens involved in trying to create a different Shabbat experience at home. It doesn’t much matter how—a tablecloth, cold cuts on Saturday, a change of clothing, challah, candles—can set the tone, even over a pizza dinner. Too much? Choose one small change, but try to commit to it every week. Ask them for ideas, and don’t accept the usual “but this won’t work here” response.  Start slowly, perhaps building on ideas month to month. For example, try an electronic fast, for at least a few hours either Friday or Saturday, or both, every week. Your teenager is already used to it, so making the change won’t be difficult.

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

#3.  Ask your camp to connect you with other campers/parents in your area to keep the camp spirit going.  Many camps are forming parent groups just for this purpose. You might want to get together with other camp parents to create a different Shabbat experience. This might already be happening at your synagogue through a new program called “Guess Who’s Coming to Shabbas”. Find more about that here:  https://www.facebook.com/GuessWhosComingToShabbas.

#4.  Make sure that your teens are connected to Jewish learning experiences during the year, hopefully in addition to a youth group. Many programs are conducted on a weekly basis–offering teens a ‘camp reunion’ opportunity—and some courses are even online. They are specifically geared toward teens’ interests and expectations. These programs offer expertise in bridging the camp- to- home experiences.

#5.  Feature these Jewish summer camp experts as part of a panel that explores the ways in which the synagogue and home communities can learn and be enriched by their experience. Also, make sure there are ways to put these teens in front of younger students to share their experiences and keep the legacy of Jewish camping a presence at your synagogue.

#7 Put one or more Jewish teens on the synagogue’s ritual committee to infuse it with some new ideas and approaches that they’ve learned at camp. Give the teens a goal to incorporate one new and different thing from camp into synagogue programming for your youth

This issue has been on my mind for quite some time.   I was one of those campers, at ten years old, filled with a spark of Judaism from summer camp that didn’t get replenished until the next summer. The youth group in my area was purely social, and didn’t offer me enough of the “Jewish infusion” that I had at camp.

We can make a difference in how our teenagers experience Judaism during the year. Even implementing one suggestion from the list can send a strong message that as a community, we’re all working together on their behalf.

Photo credit: wikipedia.org

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How We Are Shortchanging Jewish Teens

Teens need to be with other teens. Lots of them.

Teens need to be with other teens. Lots of them.

Some time ago, I wrote a post called What I learned about marketing from working at a Jewish Community High School. The “Aha, yes, you got it right” e-mails never came,  but I wrote that post mostly for myself anyway. It was a way to help me clarify some of the challenges inherent in my part of the Jewish world, because getting buy-in from Jewish teens was just too impossible of a job and I needed to explore why that was so.

Well, things have gotten much, much harder.  Then, I carefully outlined the primary reasons for the recruitment struggle, giving much detail of the built-in synagogue realities that make it even harder than anyone would think it would be.

Taking stock is a helpful exercise, but expecting change is another matter entirely. In fact, looking back, I was naive because I thought the challenges I referred to were the major obstacles to scores of teens signing up for enhanced Jewish education programs.

Boy, did I underestimate things.

What I didn’t experience so much then was turf, mostly because things just a short time ago, weren’t that bad. I’ve encountered it so much that I feel shell-shocked from the experience.

Let’s say that in a sea of drowning people, no one is going to throw you a lifesaver.

Specifically, no one is going to ‘share’ precious resources i.e. members. The Jewish community is in a period of deep change (though some have said chaos), and I can almost see the curtains being drawn and shutters being shackled as many organizations and synagogues are just trying to weather the storm and hold their own.

This behavior has not necessarily held true for the number of partnerships that are beginning to sprout up everywhere, albeit out of necessity. The economics of sustaining organizations has driven collaboration and that is a good thing to come of all this.

The issue I’m focusing on is limiting choices for others when the desire to hold on to them becomes paramount.

I respect and value the desire of synagogues to create ways of keeping their teens involved–especially as it pertains to keeping Post Bar/Bat Mitzvah teens on site—-we know how powerful Jewish role models can be, and that goes both ways. Jewish teens are role models for the younger students, and the professional leadership are mentors for the teens. That works.

Except when the teens themselves are being short-changed out of their own educational opportunities.

Holding onto your Jewish teens is wonderful, as long as you’re providing them with substantial, content-laden experiences. It’s just not okay if you simply want them on your real estate.

I’ve heard comments like “We just like to have them in our building” to “Our teens are needed here because they sell snack at break”

Sorry, but the way to have teens on hand, is not simply to have them give a hand. They need more.

Having classroom aides is not a bad idea in and of itself,  when done correctly. As an experience that stands alone, I don’t think it gives teens a fair deal. Please read here for some of the reasons why I believe that to be true.

In order to ‘weather this storm’, there needs to be some long-term planning on creating better business models, one that allows teens some choices as to how they want to play out their Jewish journey.

The reality, is that building those skills now, of helping teens actively choose their Jewish involvement, is what may make a difference for Jewish continuity when they get to college.


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


Writings About Jewish Teens: Annual Review

The WordPress.com team sends me a summary e-mail at the end of the year (complete with fireworks!) that help me learn about what you find interesting to read about Jewish teens.

There is a list of the most viewed blogs–can you think of a better motivator?  Even in my very, very small niche world, this list gets compared (ready?) to the number of climbers of Mount Everest! See below.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest last year. This blog got about 8,900 views. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 12 years to get that many views.

See what I mean? Here’s the list:

A Few Top Posts

1. From Jewish Camp to Synagogue: Five No Brainers

This post talks about the chasm experienced by many campers when they return home after a summer injection of Judaism, and what synagogues can do to bridge the gap.

2. Judging Jewish Education by Fun

What are the trade-offs between programs that offer fun and those that offer content?

3. Five Things Parents Should Know

I know what you may be thinking. People seem to like the number five. (See number 1.) Interesting, no? These are things that parents should know about Jewish education for their teens.

4. Hiring Teen Aides? (Full disclosure: this title had the number five in it too, but on my end, it’s just how many tips I wrote at the time).

Synagogues use/hire teen aides in the classroom for all sorts of reasons. Here are some reasons to think about the intentions of these efforts.

5. One minute, three reasons why Jewish education helps teens focus on what’s important.

The title pretty much says it.

6.”Please feel free to contact me….”Advice for #Jteens and others

I wrote this in response to an e-mail I received from a job applicant, and found the comment an ironic one from a person wanting to make a favorable impression.

7. “Wow, You’re Soooo Jewish!”

I wrote this post after hearing a student tell this to another student in a Jewish values class. It’s interesting to see the students’ take on just how “Jewish” things are.

One more thing, a 2011 post made the list, and you can read that here:

What I learned about marketing from working at a Jewish community high school 

You might have missed some of the ones above, or want to read more about Jewish teens. Hit the subscribe button, and you won’t miss a thing!


Three Jewish Teens: Tons of Time? Not

What clock do these teens use?

What clock do these teens use?

I’ll paint the picture. Last night I chatted with a group of three 9th grade teenage boys, hanging out in the synagogue lobby, waiting for a ride home after attending a community pluralistic supplementary Jewish high school program in suburbia.

What I didn’t know, is that right in front of me, was such a rich representation of Jewish teen life.

Typical teens. Phones in hand, either texting or waiting for one. Yet they were so willing to answer my questions after I introduced myself.

“So, how are you guys doing?”

“Great!”

“How’s your time here been?”

“Cool, we like it.”

“Glad to hear it! So, do you “do” anything else ‘Jewish’?”

“Yea.”

“Like what?”

The three of them proceeded to tell me what they do.

They’re active (hold positions on committees) in the synagogue’s youth group, USY. There’s more.

They also attend a Jewish summer camp sponsored by HaBonim Dror (not affiliated with the synagogue/youth group). There’s more.

They also participate in a once a month boys-only group sponsored by Moving Traditions.

They also just started high school.

How do these boys have the time?

Do they get more hours in a day than the average teen? Are they more organized? Less social? Less academic?

No. No. No. and No.

You can figure it out. It ‘s what sets some families apart from others. We know who they are.

They’re the ones who know that for teens, multiple connection points to the Jewish community is proven to be a good thing—for character, and all those other intangibles I’ve written about previously.

That’s what the studies haven’t been able to quantify.

Who are those parents? What drives them to make the decisions they do? How can we support them? Find more of them?


When You Say “Jewish Community,” Who are You Talking About?

Image

The largest collection of open-ocean animals found in an aquarium

Who is in your Jewish community? Really, start to define who you consider a part of your community.

Do you get a static or lively impression? Are there people of all ages and religious movements in your community? Or is it limited to who belongs where you belong?

What I’ve written about here, is that often “membership” dictates who is in your community. Whether it’s synagogue or JCC, ‘belonging’ seems to define who is in your immediate Jewish community.  Gone from that definition of community are those individuals who have not signed up right along with you, those who tend to be on the fringe.

Not a great way to teach teens that the Jewish community is a fluid, open-networked concept.

With today’s networked world, we really can move beyond the boundaries of walls to begin to define who we are.

I am not saying that belonging is bad, it’s a very good thing to be part of something greater than yourself.

But if your only connection to the Jewish community is where you hold a formal ‘memberships’, you might be missing out on meeting others who haven’t ‘joined’. What are ways that you might connect to the larger Jewish community?

What if every city had a portal to Jewish life, with links to all things Jewish in the area—one that was interactive, and came with a live chat option with a ‘Concierge’? How great would that be? That helpful person would help you navigate through the many options available to you, no matter what your age.

From a pluralistic point of view, that means that everyone gets represented in the community stew.

And your Jewish community just expanded into an open, fluid, and networked concept, just right for the web 3.0 world.

 


Read what one teen says about teachers

Timken Roller Bearing Co., calendar, September...

From the 1950’s, but great teachers create impact no matter the year

This summer I’m working with an intern through a program that combines work experience with college preparation. Great idea, no? I’m fortunate that this person has also been a part of our school for years, and is somewhat familiar with the world of blogging (and has his own gaming site blog!).

I asked him about his experience in our Jewish community high school, and to be a guest blogger.

“Something I really find a need for in Jewish education is good teachers. I hear my friends complaining a lot that their teachers are uninteresting, and they may find hebrew school, or any religious school for that matter, a waste of time or boring.

I don’t entirely disagree with that. If a teacher cannot find an interesting way to teach a subject or at least a way to keep the students interested, then they won’t want to learn, and they won’t care about Jewish education.

As a highschool student myself I find that the only reason I really keep coming to hebrew school now, is the great teachers and the friends I have made. The teachers that I have found to be the best are the ones that don’t just teach the subject. They know how to really engage us into the topic.

These special teachers have been able to not only get my attention, but to really make me think.

They have been able to start great class discussions that weren’t even meant to happen.  I also think it is better when the teacher treats us like an adult, like we can handle more mature topic matters.

I have had teachers in the past that would break every subject down—spoon-feeding us the material, and would tone down the maturity level simply because we are teenagers.  There was not thinking involved. The best teachers I have had may have provided us with more detailed information, but they do it for a reason, and they would end up explaining why that method was used.

Overall the best teachers make the best Jewish education experiences. If the teacher is really good, they could get any student interested and understand anything.”


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.

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Photo credit: Wikipedia