Monthly Archives: November 2011

Why Do We Hate Teenagers?

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Did this headline grab you? You’re not unique. It’s what seems to work for newspapers and television.

This is what I read in the New York Times this morning: “Raising a Teenager? What’s Not to Hate?” Not exactly what I like to read with my morning coffee, and I found the wording pretty distasteful.

What I wondered is how many click-throughs that headline got. But it got worse.

The article turned out to be a review of a tv show debuting tonight and actually said very little about teens and their parents. Except when the author made this indictment of children and teens everywhere:

“There’s nothing wrong with hating children, and teenagers all but ask for it.” 

I don’t think the writer said this in jest; the article was more serious than that.  Now my distaste has turned into disbelief and way more than dislike. I’m disarmed.

Why do teenagers seem to get a bad rep?

They are our future leaders, our creative spirits, and sometimes our conscience.  They make us think about who we are and what we represent. They ask great questions.

There have been countless times, when planning programs  in different venues, that the proprietor asked “You mean, your program is with TEENAGERS? How many? Will they be supervised? How many chaperones will there be? Are you insured? Has this been done before?

Even in the space our school shares on a weekly basis, there is an attitude that during break time ‘the kids are loud, create a mess and hang all over the furniture’. 

Break time is what I love.  There are close to 150 teenagers, all hanging out together, connecting with each other and their cellular devices…and it’s all good. 

Put that into a headline.


Jewish Teens Need More

Great Synagogue interior

  

We need to define Judaism more broadly.  

The Jewish teens I work with in a Jewish community high school are looking for more ways to connect with Judaism other than the synagogue/religious experience. 

The most lush and plush indoor spaces don’t help them feel more connected.  Many don’t get ‘prayer’ or the focus on a ‘higher being’.  It’s as if  belief in God is ‘so yesterday’ and they feel way past that intellectually.

 

At least these teens are in a Jewish academic and social environment on a weekly basis, where we touch on these issues. What about their Jewish friends (most) who don’t attend?

We know that Judaism is more than a religion, but on the American Jewish landscape, it sure seems that’s how we’re defining it for them.  And as long as they see Judaism strictly in those terms they can choose to opt out if they don’t ‘believe’. 

What’s the answer? For teens who don’t go to day school or Jewish camps, it could be sponsored trips to Israel that take place while in high school, instead of waiting for the Birthright bonus in college.  Perhaps incentives that would encourage them to participate in American Jewish World Service trips, Panim, teen fellowship programs and other successful ventures. How about communal scholarships to continue in a Jewish community high school? 

It could be many things that we haven’t even thought of yet. But we need to try.

I’m so glad that these teens are in a setting where we get to discuss these issues together.  When they’re here, they know they’re in a zone of non-judgement and impartiality that is palpable.

Just in the past two weeks, our school partnered with other youth movements and organizations (Habonim Dror, BBYO, Interfaithways) to bring our teens programs that challenged them to become aware of several real issues facing the Jewish community (hate speech, issues faced by interfaith families, personal comfort zones, and more). 

I’m not saying that this experience is the magic potion we need, but working with Jewish teens on these issues in an environment of a Jewish community high school sure makes me feel a lot better about options we’re giving them for future engagement.


What today’s Jewish teens are ‘okay’ with

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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.

 
 

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