Tag Archives: youth groups

Jewish Teens Need Us to Work as a Team

English: Students cheer their team on Sports DayI have resisted writing about the following for some time. But I can always tell when I’ve reached my own ‘tipping point’: it’s usually when I get tired of hearing myself repeat the same thing over and over to different people.

Secretly, I hope they’ll do something about what I’m telling them, but that hasn’t happened yet.  So, here I am, blogging to you. At least you can listen and perhaps share my frustration, and who knows? Maybe things will change.

First, we need to cooperate more. We are not working as a team on behalf of our teens.  I’ll define a teen team player as anyone or any organization that has the teen’s best interest at heart for involvement in Jewish life. Period.

That team, the teen team, has a shortage of players which is why we’re losing the Jewish identity game.  Here are some reasons:

  • There is little to no list-sharing among providers of Jewish educational experiences, both formal and informal.  What about privacy you ask? Well, how many groups even ask if their teens might want to have their names shared with other teen non-profit groups (non-profit stressed due to obvious reasons). How many teens do you know that would not want to be with as many other Jewish teens as possible?
  • Since groups wish to maintain their “members” and teens’ time is limited, there is little collaboration among groups, fearing that teens might ‘defect’ if exposed to the other group. (I could have said ‘leave’ but I’m making a point here). This plays out among synagogues, youth groups, interest groups, educational providers, and camps. Yes, there are joint programs out there, but often they partner with  ‘their own’ of the same denomination. I have experienced too many anecdotes about this that would curl your ears, if your ears could, in fact curl.
  • So, the takeaway for teens, though not intended, is that “membership” dictates who is in your community. How’s that for teaching teens that the Jewish community is a fluid, open-networked concept?
  • The above mentioned groups feel no guilt about deciding destiny. So, for example, if a teen belongs to a movement-affiliated synagogue, the chances of finding out about other options are pretty limited. If a synagogue is affiliated with a movement, only that youth group and camp are promoted.
  • Synagogues often want their teens ‘on-site’ as if keeping them physically in one place assures commitment (it doesn’t). Those teens may end up defining Judaism very narrowly. In fact, they do just that when they get to college. How can Judaism be more relevant to them if their experience of it is primarily synagogue-based? I am not referring to those teens who seem to straddle multiple worlds, and who are natural networkers. And I’m also not saying that synagogue/youth group/movement camps are not a good thing, we know they are. I’m specifically talking about those teens, for whatever reasons, are the minimally engaged to begin with and not making those choices. What are the options for other Jewish connections that we’re giving them?
  • The above does not apply to broad-based efforts, like the Foundation for Jewish Camping, that make a point of going beyond those limitations in awarding grants by saying in effect: “we don’t care which camp or where, just pick one!” We should all be taking that cue regarding Jewish youth involvement: we don’t care which program or where, just do something!
  • How about other open groups you ask? What about groups like teen philanthropy, teen fellowships, gender-based groups? Those are defining Judaism more broadly, but are there bridges to other programs which could increase identity building? Many times, those connections are left for each teenager to figure out. The connections must work both ways: to and from other organizations and synagogues.
  • How are we doing those teens a favor? Shouldn’t we be giving them a better sense of Jewish communal collaboration before they get to college? How can we, as a Jewish community, talk about pluralism and Klal Yisrael when we don’t really act that way ourselves. Could it be that we are modeling the very behavior they can’t relate to? Is this close-mindedness a contributing cause for the fact that most college students see no need to affiliate denominationally in college? I’m not saying that youth movements don’t work as leadership preparation for the future. I’m saying that we need to rethink our strategies and behave in ways that model collaboration or cooperation. We can’t be on the teen team if our organizations are based on a scarcity model.  

We have to decide if we are playing on an organization’s team or the teen’s team. If we’re on the same team, then we need a shared mission of youth leadership.

We’re in need of players for the teen team if we want to win this.  It’s like we’re in the 9th inning, with no runners on base. Will you step up?

I’d love to hear about collaborative models that defy these descriptions. I’ll post and share your responses so we can learn from each other.

Image via Wikipedia


What today’s Jewish teens are ‘okay’ with

KJeanPhotography. Use does not imply endorsement

My weekly experience working with a class of 8th graders serves as a counterpoint to the doom and gloom I’ve read about lately in studies that report on the current state of Religion in America (specifically those concerning Jewish youth).  

The students are upfront, forthright, and spiritually aware and are not afraid to talk about what they do and don’t believe.  They have already formed some really strong opinions about Jewish belief and practices, though it was evident from our talks that they are looking at Judaism through fogged glasses (no fault of theirs, their education has been limited).  

We need to pay attention to what they really need, and not what we think they need.  Even if we didn’t change anything about our current organizations and programs, and continued with things just the way they are, we’re already missing countless opportunities to help students create a meaningful Jewish experience.  

About 45% of these students attend this supplementary high school twice a week.  About 25% go to a Jewish summer camp (they see it as a social, not a religious experience, and go to be with their friends).  About 75% have older siblings that are or have been in the program.  Yet, most haven’t discussed their ideas, feelings, and opinions about God…either with their parents, siblings, or friends. 

Not because they wouldn’t want to, but because the subject never came up. I asked what they thought about that, and they said they were ‘okay with it’. 

When we talk about what their conception of God is, they are surprisingly articulate.  Some retain the ‘puppeteer’ idea (that God is pulling all the strings and is responsible for everything) while others see God as a ‘helping hand’.  Some don’t believe in God at all. These ideas will all be explored with them in future classes, but in the meantime, catch the following:

In the year immediately preceding their Bar/t Mitzvah they do not remember any serious prolonged conversation with a Jewish professional (educator/clergy). They were not asked about their beliefs, doubts, concerns, or what they thought about God.  They seemed not to expect more, and were ‘okay with that’ too.  

They remember that they were busy with the pre-ceremony stuff: speech writing, practicing chanting, public speaking skills.

When they were asked questions about their present and future connection to Judaism, predominantly it was through a youth group lens: would they join? Be involved? Take a position? 

I asked them about these things. It’s not that they wouldn’t have wanted to engage in deeper conversations, it’s just that they weren’t asked.  And yes, they seemed to be ‘okay’ with that.

I’m not. I’m not fine with ‘okay’. Not in the precious time we have with them. Are we settling for just ‘okay’ when it comes to how they will connect with Judaism? 

What if we began to have these types of conversations with our teens? On a regular basis?

Even if we create the smallest pinholes of opportunity, light can come flooding in.

It’s not that they’d mind, and actually, they’d probably be okay with that.

 
 

Jewish Teen Engagement: Don’t ask me for a tissue

Why is the Jewish community crying? I’ve worked with teens in the Jewish  community for many years, and feel privileged to work with such a talented group who are in the minority among their peers.  In study after study I’ve read about how the ‘younger generation’ is not connecting to the Jewish community. Since silence assumes agreement  (Shtika kehodaya dami) I’ve decided to speak—actually write.  I’ll define ‘younger generation’ here as those high school junior and seniors who are not enrolled in day school.  It is a time in their lives when they’re making decisions about their identity. I’ve gotten to know them and a little bit about their lives.

Let’s pretend you’re one of them.

Your bar/bat mitzvah was several years ago.  Against all odds, you decided to ‘stay the course’ after that and remain in your synagogue’s Confirmation program, though 50% of your friends dropped out.  So, let’s say that makes it down to 10. After that, you decided to go for more learning, and enroll in a community Hebrew high school for 11th and 12th grade.  About 75% of  the 10 decided not to.  Now you’re down to about 3. You’re clearly in the minority, swimming upstream as they say.  The good news is that by being a part of a larger community school, you now have a whole new peer group, and no longer feel that you’re one of a few, relatively speaking.

In what ways have you been involved in the larger Jewish community?

You may have been invited by the Jewish Federation to participate in the equivalent of a “Super Sunday”: spending a  few hours of cold calling to the most disengaged members of the Jewish community and trying to convince them to donate money.  It was not a great experience, but hey, you got to be with some of your friends and eat a bagel.  You may have even gotten a T-shirt out of it.

You may or may not have been involved in some youth group activities.  That could have been iffy. Some chapters good, some not so much. It would have depended on where you live. If you ‘moved up’ in the organization, your leadership would have been focused on the particular movement. 

You may or may not have gone to a Jewish camp.  It’s doubtful that when you returned from camp, enriched by all the amazing  Jewish experiences, that you would’ve been called upon to take on any leadership roles in the community, but hey it’s your friends at the camp that matter the most to you right now.  Thank goodness you’ll see them at the camp reunion. Maybe you can even work there as a counselor when you’re in college.

You may or may not have gone on an Israel trip, though you know that if you did go while in high school, you’d be disqualified from going on a birthright trip in college, while most of your friends who didn’t already go will be entitled to. 

The above is what has been called “engagement”.  And here you are, the ‘cream of the crop’  (among non-day school kids).  What experiences have you had (beyond the discrete denominational connections) with the larger Jewish community? In what ways have you been reached out to? In what ways have you been made aware of Jewish communal needs? Interests? Leadership opportunities? Internships? Jobs?

You probably will be among the future leaders, simply because the education and involvement you’ve had puts you there.  All of the activities you’ve had provided you with wonderful ways of connecting you in some ways with your Jewish heritage. Participating in all of those things are truly beneficial to building Jewish identity. 

Back to now. Is this all thatwe can do?  Are these all the resources we can muster? Is this how we’re modelling engagement? By denomination? Through fundraising?

If things were substantially different, we wouldn’t be lamenting and crying so much.  The Jewish community will need leaders for the future, no question about it.  It’s been called a crisis.

I just don’t think we’ve done our part.  So, no tissues from me.