Monthly Archives: June 2012

Let’s hope Jewish parents are smarter than this

Are we just being stupid or stubborn?

There are some obvious signs that parents might not be as smart as we’d like them to be.

Do you want to hear some of the comments I’ve heard from parents who choose not to continue their teens’ Jewish education past the age of bar/bat mitzvah?  Or  Confirmation? Keep reading.

First, you need to know that really, I understand that today’s teens are busy, committed to many activities, are often holding down a part-time job, and dealing with the pressures of scoping out a future in college. I think my posts will convince you of that.

But hey, we know in our working and personal lives that the timeless often gives way to the trivial unless we prioritize and begin thinking of outcomes.

Yet, innumerable times, I’ve heard parents opt for the immediate, for the path of least resistance, for the easiest option instead of the best option.

I’m not saying  that Jewish education is guaranteed insurance for success in college (maybe we could market that), but building a strong identity, critical thinking skills, a social network, and even earning college credits (or engaging in serious analysis) in a Jewish environment will help with college competencies.

I’m not just assuming all of these benefits, I actually hear it from our graduates.

Here is a sample of some parent comments that focus on the immediate instead of the timeless, on a path of ease instead of a path of priorities. They are not the smartest things I’ve ever heard. (My advice for parents about some of these issues are here).

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“How will this be useful? I mean, we know the value of other activities (ouch, activities?), but I’m not sure about this…..”

“So and so will probably do a birthright trip in college….and that will solidify his/her Jewish identity, I’m sure.”

“In our family we’ve decided to emphasize ‘regular’ school….because, you know, it counts.”

“This falls very low on the priority scale, compared to other things that will look good for college.”

“So and so is planning on going to a college with a large/big/sizeable/impressive Jewish population, and socializing at Hillel will insure that he/she will stay connected.”

“The synagogue offered to pay so and so–and having a job instills a sense of responsibility, and besides–there just isn’t that much time to do so many Jewish things.”

Should we accept the obvious signs that parents have written off what we have to offer? Or should we continue to be stubborn optimists?

I hope that Jewish parents are smarter than this, but the burden is on us to change the game where we focus on  the benefits that our programs offer instead of features.


A Short List of What the Jewish Community Should Do for Teens

Check out the really short list

Check out the really short list

In what seems a long time ago, I wrote a post about the Jewish community’s ‘in-the-box-thinking.’  As a novice to the blogging world, I feared the worst because it was the first time I shared my dissatisfaction about how my local Jewish community was functioning.

Well, sometimes the blogosphere can be eerily silent.  I didn’t receive a single comment or e-mail about it (though who did I think was possibly reading my blog anyway???)

Helping teens figure out their connection to the Jewish community and general direction in life is a worthy goal for those of us in the Jewish communal world.  After all, if we don’t clarify our mission, we’re like a broken compass.  No directional pull, no navigational tools–just spinning like crazy.

So, I’d like to create a short wish list for what I’d love to see happen in the Jewish community.

These things would help teens navigate better:

1. Define the Alphabet Soup. Ready? Do you know the differences between the JCC, JFCS, JCRC, JFGP. Great. Do you think our teens do? How about AIPAC, ZOA, or AJC? Wait, it gets more complicated, how about these fundraising organizations: AFMDA, FIDF, AFHU? Or these viable options for semester abroad programs in Israel: EIE, TRY, MUSS? Well, you can see the challenge. We either could use an app, or a catch-all portal to make all this accessible and understandable.  Whether we agree with an organization’s politics or not, Jewish life should be approachable. Doing this one thing could prompt all kinds of things, from learning the scope of needs the Jewish community deals with, to seeing how responsive the Jewish community is, to thinking of Jewish jobs beyond the synagogue.

2. Invite a teen to sit on a committee where communal activities are discussed. How can we get our teens invested in the future of a community in which they are not real stakeholders? I’m not talking about teen versions of funding and allocations committees, who do a great job of getting teens involved in what it takes to raise money and make decisions about where it goes. I mean positions at the table.  It’s called influence.  Teens know and appreciate when they ‘re offered it and when they have it.

3. Match Jewish teens with Jewish professionals in the field who can give them a sense of what it means to work in the community.  Their knowledge of professional positions in the Jewish community is limited to perhaps these careers: Rabbi, Cantor, Education Director, Youth Advisor, and Teacher. BUT they won’t have an idea that an interest in business, management, marketing, or any number of other careers may find a place in the Jewish community. There are teen mentorship programs that are for a select few, but we need to think broad and wide. There are many teens who are unaware of the many job opportunities in the Jewish communal world. Here, I’m not focused on the dentist or lawyer who happens to be Jewish. I’m specifically talking about connecting teens with Jewish professionals. Again, does our mission match our actions? We want Jewish leaders….how are we growing them?

4. Most Jewish students don’t have a clue about what the local Jewish community near their college campus has to offer, and don’t have a way of connecting with it for jobs, internships, mentorships, etc.  College internships. Somehow, we leave the college population to Birthright, Hillels and Chabad, and less visible, Meor and Aish. Yet, students are looking for real life experiences. Jewish communal organizations should do recruiting on campus. In a time where extra staffing is needed, we can provide teens with the job experiences they need.

Let’s stop the spinning and begin to help teens navigate.

image courtesy of pds photostream


For Teens: Worrying About Being Normal? Don’t.

English: Histogram of sepal widths for Iris ve...

What’s the new normal anyway?

I recently read a great post called Approaching Normal.  It got me thinking about how teens today think about being ‘normal’.

Even as adults, we all wonder about it, and the post describes just how much politicians, advertising gurus, and marketing mavens depend on our desire to be in that state of normalcy.

So, we all think about being normal and fitting in, into some group,  but take yourself back to your teen years.  You might want to add in some thoughts about your identity as a Jewish teen, especially if you lived in an area lacking a large Jewish population.

Try to imagine dealing with the wrenching angst of feelings that you didn’t fit in.

Of being out of the place you coveted for whatever reason. And then think of the reasons you thought you couldn’t make the grade: wrong clothes, image, name, hair, really……it could have been for any reason at all.  Logic, though trying to peek through the fog, has no role here.

Think about what you were thinking, feeling, or even how you were acting….did you think you were totally normal and just like everyone else?

Those years were tough, weren’t they? But you’re done now, and all grown up (debatable, I know).

Well, our teens live and breathe in that world, but now it’s even harder: more pressured, more intense, more public.  There are fewer places to hide.

Did I say the right thing? Wrong thing? Will my peers/teachers/boy-girl friend hate me? Will this be posted on facebook? Who will see? What will my parents think? Where else will it be shared, and how quick? Who will be texting this? Who can I rally? What will happen in school tomorrow? Will everyone on the bus know? Maybe I should stay home?

They live in that excruciating difficult world of alternating fear, wonder and panic. They are surrounded by unanswerable questions and questionable answers that are nearly impossible to obtain with any certainty.

We can’t even begin to imagine. Well, it turns out that there is no ‘Normal’.  Not really for anyone. That’s a relief, because what our teens are going through isn’t really normal, or is it?

Photocredit: Wikipedia


How We Undersell Zuckerberg and Jewish Teens

For Sale by Owner (film)

What are we selling? Why would Jewish teens buy?

This morning I read a piece by Reform Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan titled “We Failed Zuckerberg” about the movement’s failure to capture the facebook mogul’s attention in a meaningful way.

He referred to the fact that Zuckerberg does not seem to be living a committed Jewish life, though Mark celebrated a bar mitzvah and his parents are long-time members of a reform congregation.  (Okay, so was there any Jewish education post-Bar Mitzvah when teens are actually ready to grapple with questions of belief and practice?)

Kaplan mentioned that Reform theology might be to blame, as it is a bit vacuous, and the big miss by the movement is in failing to attract young adults, who do want a more rational and intellectual approach to Judaism.  It was a really well-written piece that encouraged some cheshbon-hanefesh (soul-searching) of the movement.

Yet, something in the piece troubled me.

With all the effort at pluralistic thinking and embracing others, the movement seems to have lost its guts.

Yes, guts to stand up for what might make a difference for Jewish continuity. My intention here is not to blame, but to challenge all of us to clarify for ourselves what our goals are in Jewish education. What exactly are we ‘selling’?

If it’s about a personal spiritual journey, with the goal of connecting to a Higher Entity than say so.  But if it’s about the continuation of the Jewish people, every movement needs to back that up with words, actions, programs and educational efforts that match that intention.

In short, what do you want your teens to live like in a few years? If it’s the Zuckerberg model Kaplan refers to, then continue as is. If not, then roll up your sleeves because there is a disconnect in what Kaplan writes:

“…. as a Reform rabbi, it would be hard for me to tell a congregant not to  date anyone who was not already Jewish (all bolded words, my emphasis). I would urge congregants to talk about  their commitment to Judaism with any potential romantic interest and make it  clear from the beginning that Judaism is an important and hopefully central part  of their life. But it is simply impractical to tell single people to restrict  their dating gaze to those who are of the Jewish faith. Even if we wanted to say  such a thing, the reality in our congregations would make such exhortations  antiquated and irrelevant.

Have we become membership machines? What would be the result of this ‘antiquated’ and ‘irrelevant’ request? Members may be insulted, get in a huff, feel that they may not be up to certain standards…and then leave. Really? Then we are selling ourselves short. It isn’t a zero sum game.

We need to straddle both camps, that of the committed and that of the embracing. It is possible. Hard, but possible.

Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan affirms this himself when he states that “many of the most devoted Reform Jews  are non-Jews who married Jews and embraced Judaism later, sometimes years or  even decades later.”

I believe we need to welcome Interfaith families. Yet, that doesn’t mean that we give up entirely on what we feel can be a change-maker for Jewish identity and continuity….staying and marrying Jewish and raising Jewish families.

Have we become so politically correct that our values are slipping?

We are underselling the intelligence of our Jewish teens if we think that our wishy-washiness will bring them closer to our point of view.

The opposite is true—-having the guts to say what we believe, and providing sound reasons for it (all we need to do is share some statistics to make the point), we can emerge from any discourse feeling proud that we stand for something.  If we have something of value to sell, then let’s sell it–proudly.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia


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.

Related articles

Photo credit: Wikipedia


The story we don’t tell about Jewish teens

An blue icon with a graduation cap and tassel.

An blue icon with a graduation cap and tassel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday was our commencement ceremony. I looked out in the packed auditorium at over 100 happy, smiling faces waiting to get their credentials certifying that they had spent the last 2 – 5 years in a voluntary educational program that connected them to their heritage and traditions.

Their parents and family members were beaming with pride.

Student received certificates in Hebrew Language, Jewish Studies, Youth Leadership, Teaching  (for Reform and Community supplementary schools), and some were even inducted into the Shalem Honor Society.

Awards were given for Leadership, Acts of Kindness, Service to the school, and more. This kind of commitment doesn’t get mentioned often enough in the many studies about Jewish teens.

We tend to focus on what we’re doing wrong.

Yet, yesterday, over 100 bright, young, committed and dedicated Jewish youth received their “official’ notice that they are ready to make an impact on their college and home communities.

We can ‘kevtch’ all we want about what doesn’t work, because we are always trying to do better…and better usually gets us best.

In this case though, it just makes us blind to the successes we see right in front of us.


Hiring Jewish teen aides? Five things to know

I guess the title of this post already lets you know there’s some advice coming.

But I’d rather start with asking you to give advice, to a pretend student named Rachel.

Rachel absolutely loves working with kids, and has done so for the past several summers at a Jewish camp. The kids love her, she has a lot of patience, and everyone has said 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.

Fortunately for her, college finances are not a problem.  She is undecided about college however, because 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.

Besides, she wouldn’t get to work in a real classroom until her junior or senior year in college and she could save money for college to show her parents that she is willing to help.

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 see where I’m going with this. Please continue reading because you know I have to ask you: what is your advice for Rachel?).

So, right about now, you might be thinking that this is a no-brainer. I even find it challenging to think that anyone would 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.

Well, this is a bit of a stretch when it comes to Jewish education, but I’m all about stretching and pulling on those boundaries.

Why are our expectations for the education of our teens so low?

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 it is not a good idea to hire our teens as aides:

#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 making a statement 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 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? 

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).

Yes, it’s difficult to find good teachers, but that’s a bigger issue and this doesn’t solve it. I doubt that you’ll be able to convince me that we’re not failing our youth with this practice.


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