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.

About Ruth Schapira

I am a Jewish Educator of teens, interested in changing paradigms of Jewish high school education, incorporating strategic and creative initiatives and collaboration with like-minded organizations. Interested in creating new educational opportunities for Jewish teens using best practices and networking tools. View all posts by Ruth Schapira

2 responses to “How We Are Shortchanging Jewish Teens

  • Eitan Gutin

    It would help me understand your complaint if you would give some concrete examples of territorial synagogues you have encountered that do not, in your opinion, have meaningful teen offerings in house.

    I ask because, at least in my shul, I feel like we do not match the situation you are describing.

    I am the Ed Director for Tifereth Israel Congregation in DC. We have a Jr. High (7th/8th) and Hebrew High (9th/10th) in-house program that will eventually be expanded to include 11th and 12th grades as well. On top of that we have a growing USY chapter that currently reaches about 30% of our teens (this after only two years of work on the program) and places a heavy priority on Tzedakkah and Hessed experiences, we are about to begin a good leadership development program in the form of Madrichim, and are working on ways to get more post Bnai Mitzvah leading davening and reading Torah in shul.

    There is also a high quality pluralistic Hebrew High School in our area called Shoresh. While we do not actively market the Shoresh program I often bring it up as an option with parents when we are discussing what comes next after graduating either our Vav class or the local K-6 day school. When the Shoresh Director was in shul for a recent Bar Mitzvah I made sure she was welcomed from the Bimah and, on the same Shabbat, honored one of her graduates in front of the Congregation as we honored our own confirmands.

    I would also point out that one reason Ed Directors may hold on so tight is budgetary. I am expected to bring in x amount of $$ each year. While there is a bit of fundraising, and I charge for some programs, about 90% of the Lifelong Learning income in my shul comes in the form of tuition in our K-10th grade schools. Every time I register fewer kids than I expect I have to find another way to make up the funds.

    I am lucky compared to many of my colleagues – I do not have to cover all of our Lifelong Learning expenses with tuition, only a percentage. Many shuls these days expect their school programs to break even which makes every paid tuition or (in the case of youth group) dues paying teen even more important to the financial stability of the program.

    • Ruth Schapira

      Eitan, thanks for commenting, and I appreciate the time you took to explain all that your shul offers, and the very real financial expectations you face. The picture you describe is a unique one, in that there are many paths for teens to take leadership roles…and more importantly, those programs seem to work in tandem. That is not the case elsewhere, which has been written about in so many places. In addition, you mention that you connect students, where appropriate, to outside resources that might be a better fit for your students…also a rare occurrence (not impossible, just rare). Plus, from what I know of you (I remember you as a leader way back when) and your family’s commitment to Jewish education, you bring all of that community spirit to your work,helping to make all the programming more successful. My blog was more about tightly controlled organizations, where there is little fluidity and cross pollination. I’m glad to hear that Tifereth Israel is taking another path. Kol HaKavod!

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