Monthly Archives: May 2011

Classroom and Community: Making It Real for Teens

courtesy of katerha's photostream

Recently I was teaching a class the Jewish value of G’milut Hasadim (acts of loving kindness). I asked them to think about a time when someone (friend, family–anyone) did something for them that they would define as an act of G’milut Hesed so we’d have an example of how the value is applied to real situations.  This is a class of intelligent and outspoken students, grades 8 and 9, who attend public and private schools in a suburban area. No hands shot up. I waited and gave some examples in case they didn’t understand the concept yet, suggesting that it was a difficult question and to take as much time as they needed. Still nothing.  Not one student had anything to say.

I discovered that the way  they experience kindness is through gifts or exchanges of things.  At this point we brainstormed about what they could do for others.  At first, they also thought about things: buying someone lunch, buying them an itune, etc. It took some work to move beyond that, but we did.

I don’t know if this lesson will ‘stick’, or if its ramifications will affect them in any way. But it stuck with me.

I learned that this is pretty much their world.  It’s not that gifts are bad (which we talked about). It’s just that in their experience there seems to be little in the way of true community at work.  In a non-Orthodox Jewish community it is really hard to build that into Jewish life.  I didn’t hear anyone talk about their synagogue or their youth group in this context, let alone the public arena.  This is the setting in which community and classroom have to go together.  The classroom needs to be the vehicle to put G’milut Hesed into action and any other value that we try to teach.   We need to make it real.


Talented Teens and Performance Highs

America’s into talent of all types, and we seem eager to watch, based on show ratings and tallies of millions calling in to vote for their favorites. This past Sunday we had a school talent show.  In what was a thoroughly enjoyable display of amateur ability we had singing, dancing, a fencing demonstration, quick sketching, a song parody, comedy, and dramatic readings.  What made this display of skill so energizing and exciting?   I think part of it was giving teens the opportunity and freedom to express themselves in ways besides the academic.

We say that in our environment teachers should share more of “who they are” with their students, as these role-modeling opportunities are built into the fabric of Jewish educational programming. This works both ways. Students also need to share their talents with teachers, and not in ways that are limited to annual classroom ice breakers.

At the show, we were able to see these students at their best, doing what they love while being generous enough to share it with others.  It’s interesting that as much as we think they might be afraid to be judged by their peers, they were incredibly open about performing in front of them.  I hope that we will continue to give our teenagers opportunities to shine and get applause.


Jewish Parents: Four Things I Wish You Wouldn’t Say to Your Teenager

 

Making decisions about continuing Jewish Education  is often a challenge, though I’m not sure why. 

The comments below are ones I’ve heard directly, usually on the phone when asked whether their child will continue in our program, or sign up for the first time.  

Every year, unlike with other educational venues and opportunities, the conversation about Jewish education is reopened.  I’m not sure why Jewish education gets the blow-off.

Parents would never question other identity-building, intellectually engaging, social-emotional experiences and leadership opportunities, but in this case they do. (Le’ts see…do you want to continue editing the high school paper next year? Do you really want to put that effort into the advanced calc club?).

So, this posting is my way of  assembling the most common things I’ve heard, and  my responses.  I’d love to hear yours. Here is my brief list:

“It’s your decision”

Why? Why is furthering education a child’s decision? Parents make decisions about other forms of education, why abdicate here? Generally, teens are not wired for more school, they’re wired for less, so this becomes no decision at all.  Would parents ask if their child wants to ‘go on’ in Math or English? Of course not. Because in order to be an educated person you need a modicum of education. Putting Jewish education in an optional category makes more of a statement about its relevance for the parents, which speaks volumes.  Say no more, your child has already figured out your priorities.

“Your school work is more important”

Ditto, plus is school work always more important? More important than identity-building? Personal development? Creating a network of like-minded peers? Students will often need to juggle responsibilities between numerous commitments. You’ve  just told them there is no choice.  But is this really true? Won’t they have to make decisions about these commitments and sometimes choose the non-secular choice? Like whether to attend class on a Jewish holiday? Like whether to speak up and challenge a professor when tests are given on those holidays?

“Are you having fun?”

Ask any student involved in athletics if they’ve had fun at practice.  Yet, everyone knows that the end result: inner satisfaction with an accomplishment trumps ‘fun’.  Also, teens love learning and grappling with issues. Why do we underestimate them in this way?  You might ask what they’ve learned, what questions they’ve asked, what new issues they’ve explored.  This is our hope for the substance of their experience.

“You don’t have to go if you don’t want to.”

Really? If they’re part of the Jewish-people team, than isn’t showing up part of the obligation? Should they miss marching band? Practice? The reasoning used there is that they’ve made a commitment to be part of a group, and that holds responsibilities. Each person is depended upon to hold his/her own weight. Why should our language be any different here? They’re part of a team….why not transmit that message early on?

Please share your comments and thoughts, I’d like to hear from you.


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.


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