Category Archives: Jewish Educators

“Lesson-Plan” Your Passover Seder: Ways to Involve Teens

Lesson Plan your Seder!

Lesson Plan your Seder!

 

The Passover Seder is considered by many to be the consummate family education event.

This inter-generational experience can create indelible memories, savored for years, long past the momentary taste of yummy matzo balls floating assertively on top of your soup bowl.

So, why are so many seders…um….boring?

Try table reading at this Seder!

No shortage of readers here. (An historic seder with new immigrants at an Israeli Kibbutz, might have been the opposite of boring!)

 

Don’t settle for the all too common reading-around-the-table routine, a time- honored tradition where those around the table take turns reading from the Haggadah.

That technique might remind you of your junior high history class:  “Good morning class, open your books to page 129. Susan, please read the paragraph at the top of the page, and then we’ll go around the room and everyone will take a turn reading….”

This can be compared to the fun one might experience while watching water boil. Seriously, reading aloud in turn is a slow process with an extremely high degree of predictability–at some tired point you do get to the end.

Let’s not sell the Seder short by using educational techniques that are outdated.

The Passover Seder is the consummate educational program, so why not plan for it the way one might plan a lesson?

What might that look like? Well, think about set induction, varied activities, opportunities to engage participants using multiple sensory experiences, asking deep questions of meaning….and you’ll be on the right track.

A sample of ways to engage Jewish teens might be:

“Let My People Go” is a powerful statement in the Torah.

Why is this not recounted in the Haggadah?

What does this say about Leadership? Can one stand without the other?  

In a sense, this idea of obtaining a people’s freedom spurred on a revolution, which has had ripple effects even today (think of how many people are demanding self-determination).

How might you communicate that concept today in a way that people would respond? Think of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. What #Hashtag would you use? What would be your update? What would your 140 character message be? 

What other powerful sayings have rallied individuals behind a cause?

Think of “If you will it, it is no dream”, ‘I Have a Dream”, “Give me Liberty or Give me Death” , and not to be too trite, but even “Think Different” (apple’s tagline from its early days). 

You get the idea….forget the predictability and go for the unknown.

Isn’t that what the Seder is truly about? Our ability to tell stories and pass them on through the generations is what brought us as a people to this point in time.

For sure, those themes are what teens can relate to: safety versus risk, predictability versus self-determination….just think about the rich conversations that could be going around your table!

Chag Kasher v’Sameach!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


What many Jewish adults regret—do you?

Do you want a 'do-over'?

Do you want a ‘do-over’?

On a weekly basis, I interact with members of a cohort that have been recently featured in a rash of reports: Jewish teens.

This sudden interest in teens is a good thing, because as little as two years ago (when I started this blog), a Google search of Jewish teens turned up barely any recent research at all 

Try searching now, and this is what you’d get. Progress? Definitely.

Although as Jewish educators we are pleased that these new studies have contributed to the conversation about how to engage Jewish teens, no research center or foundation will know what I know, from the stories I hear.

The stories are not from the teens I work with now, but the ones I’ve worked with and known for the past decade. Now, they are young adults…out of college and into their busy lives.

What they share with me is not the stuff of research: not from surveys, phone polling, focus groups, or market research.

My undocumented data is gleaned from speaking with thousands of young adults about their Jewish education over many, many years.

I listen very closely to what they say, and have had conversations with young adults in multiple settings: camps, youth groups, schools, and even around a kitchen table.

The one comment I’ve never heard is that anyone ever, I mean ever, regretted obtaining more Jewish education.

In fact, when their friends (who usually have had significantly less Jewish education than they did) have been part of these conversations, they regret not continuing, and say things like:

“I wish my parents forced me to go to Confirmation/Hebrew High after my Bar/Bat Mitzvah”

“I found out that I know so little about Judaism….I wish I paid more attention and continued my education when I could” (“there’s no deadline for that”, I usually chime in….).

Sometimes the teens themselves are able to recognize the value of continuing beyond the dreaded drop-off of a young 13.  I just read online about a Jewish teen who extolled the virtues of his continued education .

The sad fact is that many parents have said the same thing. They regret not having more education. This is such a pervasive feeling that we can not deny it, even when tempted to defer to data, statistics, surveys and charts.

Photo: courtesy of http://www.flickr.com Alyssa L. Miller


Four Simple Steps Teachers Need to Engage with Jewish Teens

See on Scoop.itJudaism, Jewish Teens, and Today’s World

This is for teachers in supplementary schools, particularly those who work with Jewish teens.  I’ve been invited to observe classes where teachers really feel that they’re doing a great job.

They feel that students are attentive, absorbing material, and advancing their learning.  I’ve seen some of the best, yet….there are so many that just seem to miss the mark.

How do I know?

They’re talking, and often teens are texting (under the desk or in pockets or defiantly, right out there).

There’s no excitement or signs of life in the class, save for the teacher talking, talking, talking in front of the room; center stage.

Their students’ faces belie boredom (why don’t the teachers see this?)

Here are four simple steps to take that I believe have the power to transform how you work with students.

1. Back off. Yes, sounds a bit harsh I know, but I need to make the point. Try ‘retreating’ from the space in front of the room. There’s no podium in the front of the class, so no need to stand there.

Test yourself. See what happens when you move around and view things from the back of the room—from their perspective.

Even more important, make sure that you’re listening for a greater percentage time than when you’re talking. That will do wonders by itself.   Get rid of the frontal dynamic by making sure students work in groups.

2. Ask questions. Good ones. Ones that don’t need a yes or no answer. If you haven’t mastered the art of inquiry, read up. There are tons of materials out there. Make sure you’re not just asking to ask…really pay attention to the responses and respond back. Every student needs to feel valued.

3. Get familiar with social/emotional learning and reaching students down deep. It makes for more impactful lessons. Focusing on making that emotional connection will help you make sure that you’re reaching all students, not just the ones who are either the most vocal or the most problematic.

4. This is so obvious, it’s embarrassing to say. But here goes. Know every single student by name. This is an absolute must and tells your students how important they are to you.  If you have a bad memory, ask them to make name placards and bring them with you. No excuse. Every student needs to be valued in this way.


“There Is Only One Way to Change the World, and That Is By Education” Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks

stainedglassstar

 

What would you say about how to change the world?

Why does Judaism value education so much?

How are educational values embedded in our tradition?

It’s not possible to improve on the eloquent words of a master writer and teacher, the Former Chief Rabbi of the U.K.

Rabbi Sacks writes a series of articles on the Torah portion of the week entitled “Covenant & Conversation”.

I encourage you to get acquainted with his writings; they will stir you. 

When I read something written so beautifully, that exquisitely states Judaism’s mission of perpetuation through education, all I can hope for is that others like you will read it too.

Education has been the key to our survival, and that notion is at risk.

We’ve often gone for the glitz and forgot the substance.

I’m not bemoaning the loss of old ideas, worn out ways of doing things, or suggesting that we return to unsuccessful models.

But I am saying that whatever we do, we must do it in the name of education.

In today’s world, ‘content is king’.

How fitting for us at this time. We have permission to offer our teens real substantive content.

astrostar

If we focus on this, we will guarantee a healthy future.

This must be our unified message.

“The Mesopotamians built ziggurats. The Egyptians built pyramids. The Greeks built the Parthenon. The Romans built the Coliseum. Jews built schools.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks continues: …..”that is why they alone, of all the civilizations of the ancient world are still alive and strong, still continuing their ancestors’ vocation, their heritage intact and undiminished.”

Click, Read, Learn….may your efforts continue our tradition.


One comment I never hear as a Jewish educator

There's data, and then there's what I know

There’s data, and then there’s what I know

I’m lucky.

I regularly interact with a cohort of individuals that others write reports about these days.

I learn so much from the young adults I speak with about their Jewish education.

No research center or foundation will be interested in this data, because it’s anecdotal.

The information I’ve gotten is not from the stuff of research: not from surveys, phone polling, focus groups, or market research.

It’s gleaned from speaking with thousands of young adults about their Jewish education over many, many years.

I listen very closely to what they say, and have had conversations with young adults in multiple settings: camps, youth groups, schools, and even around a kitchen table.

The one comment I’ve never heard is that anyone ever, I mean ever, regretted obtaining more Jewish education.

So, what will we do with that information?


Why Should Our Teens be Jewish?

Being Jewish? Too easy!

Being Jewish? Too easy!

The image above came up in a Google Image advanced search (free to use or share) for “Why be Jewish?”.

The image speaks to the casual nature of being Jewish, and some might think that it actually pokes fun a bit…after all, how many Mountain Jews do you know?

The fact that we might just accept this image without even thinking twice, kind of makes my point.

Answering the difficult question “Why Should Our Teens be Jewish”  is an extreme challenge for parents and Jewish educators.

It’s a basic question that we will need to grapple with for several reasons:

1.     In today’s open society, Jewish values resemble good old-fashioned American humanistic values.

Kindness to animals? Check.

Respect for the elderly? Check.

Caring for the environment? Check.

Social and humanitarian causes? Check.

Well, you get the idea. Our teens are so much a part of the American (Judeo-Christian) value system, that selling them on Jewish values is tough.

Not only that,

2.     Jewish teens don’t perceive themselves as different from their friends, nor do they want to be different.

Religion is pretty much a non-issue among friends. In high school, most kids aren’t staying up into the midnight hours talking theology.

Chem? Yes.

Advanced Physics? Totally.

God? Don’t think so.

3.     Jewish teens aren’t so much interested in doing things that are devoid of personal meaning, and many rituals connected with Judaism have not passed                that test for them. What’s been missing is context.

Ritual without it is pretty empty, since there isn’t the automatic compulsion to follow ritual for halachic  (Jewish legal) reasons.

You can try this. Just ask them how important it is for them to….say Kiddush. Motzi.

Thought so.  (We’re talking about most Jewish teens here, not those for whom a context has been provided).

4.      Back to the God thing. In high school, Reason is King. They haven’t delved far enough into the sciences to really, really comprehend the mystery of it all, which when they do, (later, in college perhaps) can be an awesome and spiritual experience.

Yes, they’ll talk string theory, and quantum physics, but won’t really be able to absorb all of its implications. (Check out my earlier post: Thinking about Religious Truths and Scientific Lies, ). In short, they’re not there yet.

So, we have a job to do. Far more than even worrying about Bar and Bat Mitzvah drop-off.

We have to get them to want to be Jewish.  They need to Love Being Jewish. 

The very first step, is letting them see how much we love it. 

Photo credit: Deviantart.com “MountainJew” by grenadah


Patchwork Fixes Don’t Work for Roads or the Jewish Community

English: A large pot hole on Second Avenue in ...

The Pot-Hole Problem

We’re already past pot-hole fixing season, so I can reflect on it with some degree of dispassion.

Disclaimer: I know not a thing about road-fixing, pot-holes, construction workers, unions. What I do know is that the cycle of pot-hole making and fixing has no end in sight.

Years ago, after driving over one particularly large one, I must have ranted about it, not knowing that my very young son, in the back seat, was particularly paying attention. He pointed his finger in the air and loudly exclaimed in a royal voice (obviously pretending to be some sort of king): “I declare, there shall be no more potholes on the byways and the highways.”

This became a family joke, since, really, if he had all that power, would pot-hole fixing be such a priority?

Well, now that I think about it, maybe.

Gaps in services in the Jewish community are what we all can agree on, but the short-term fixes are just temporary. Unless I missed something somewhere, where are the long-term fixes?

We’re all too familiar with the band of orange-clad road workers, guiding you past their work area (most likely in rush hour), with the knowledge that they’ll most probably be there again, in seemingly just a few short months,doing the very same thing.

Why, when it is perfectly obvious that pot-holes occur in the same spot every year, are we trapped into that model of crack, repair, crack, repair.

I can think of several reasons, all of which can apply to the Jewish community, just substitute ‘pot-hole fixing’ for ‘(teen) leadership development':

  1. No one wants to invest in pot-hole fixing, it’s just not a campaign grabber or an interesting-sounding project
  2. Even though everyone agrees that it is a recurring problem, the money to fix the small problem is much more manageable than to fix the problem for the long-term
  3. It’s easier to redirect traffic in the short-run, than to try to convince everyone to get behind another method
  4. In some areas, different methods have worked, but wouldn’t necessarily apply to another (weather, traffic, road conditions, etc.)
  5. There is no overarching state agency that has the funds, to invest in the long-term solutions
  6. There are not many local organizations that would have the infrastructure to manage the above, since they’ve been designed for the short-term fix

A Command Center Approach 

We need a command system approach

Someone is needed at the helm

More disclaimers: There are wonderful programs that build teen leadership. But, we lack connectors from these programs to other programs. Missing are the follow-up programs and the links to the larger Jewish community.

Where are the natural bridges linking the teen years, the college experience, and mentoring from Jewish communal professionals?

Movements have talked about teen engagement, but for sure, it doesn’t seem that they’re talking to each other.

Birthright, agreeably one of the most successful programs to launch a young adult on the Jewish identity path, has no pathways from the teen years—although everyone seems to agree that reaching teens is crucial regarding Israel education and identification. Instead, what has happened, is that many youth-sponsored Israel trips have suffered because potential participants end up ‘waiting for the free trip’ in college.

Crack, repair, crack.

Let’s begin to think big. Long-term Investment.  You might call it the “Warren Buffet* approach” to pot-hole repair.

We need large, systemic changes. We need a “Department of Transportation” that truly cares about the road ahead. These changes are possible. We’re living in a connected world. We can pave a smoother road ahead.

(Warren Buffet is known for his preference for investments that pay off in the long-term).

Photo credits: Wikipedia


How to Make Jewish School Cool for Jewish Teens

English: Self-made Star of David in Adobe Illu...

Judaism: Where’s the cool?

Over 70 seniors recently graduated from a supplementary Jewish community high school. Why was attending cool for them, and not for their friends? Why are they, who have continued this far in an educational program past the age of Confirmation cut-off, in the minority? I know, it seems everyone is on this question now.

They made this choice, and they’re not odd, nerdy, or weird…so, what’s the deal here? We’ll get to that issue later.

In thinking about how to attract more of these dedicated and amazing teens, a good place to begin is with a report on recent research sponsored by the Jim Joseph Foundation: “Effective Strategies for Educating and Engaging  Jewish Teens” . The report offers very concrete steps to take for a program to have sustainability, and many creative programs are listed, although not representational of an academic environment.

In addition to the dead-on recipe list generated by that report for programs to be successful (cool is not mentioned by implied), there are some suggestions I’d add, specifically related to an educational experience with curricular goals.  Here they are:

  1. Make sure the program holds students accountable. Somehow, we’ve been led to believe that less is better (teens are so busy, how can they possibly have time for a weekly program?). This has not been true in my experience (I think teens elsewhere are not so dissimilar), as demonstrated by the large numbers of teens who show up every single week, despite mid-terms, finals, and scores of extra-curricular activities. Programs that count attendance and record grades are not ‘old school’. Teens have said that in their ‘regular’ world, earning a  grade counts, so why shouldn’t this standard apply elsewhere in an academic setting? However, it is important to give them the choice, since not everyone is motivated similarly, and putting students in charge of how they’re assessed is an important distinction to make here. Most students are academically motivated and respond to programs that stretch their minds and challenge their intellect. When attendance and participation matter, it sends a message that their efforts matter.
  2. Offer well-crafted and executed experiences. Whether in the classroom, on a bus, in a museum, on the floor, in an auditorium…..make sure the program is memorable and worth the time.
  3. Get the parents on board. It helps if the parents have attended a similar program after Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Parents definitely ‘get it’ once they’ve experienced similar programs with substance. The social aspect, and why it’s important to have teenagers be with lots of other teens, is part of their own memories. If they were lucky, they also remember learning something too. However, it’s a hard upward climb for parents who have no reference point as to what the gains of such a program might be.  Holding parent orientations, open houses, educational sessions for parents, and engaging parent advocates are some ways to mobilize parents who might help (but don’t expect them to come in droves, their kids pressure them not to be involved; ‘nerd’ factor at work).
  4. Hire phenomenal teachers, and continually offer professional development opportunities. The best teachers offer a deep knowledge of the subject area, plus a facility for informal, experiential activities. Classrooms need to feel like camp communities. Open sharing, unconditional acceptance, loyalty to each other, and regular contact all help set the tone. However, even the best teachers need guidance and opportunities for reflective practice.
  5. Get your teens to talk to other teens.  This is probably the most difficult challenge of all. Plus, there is a disconnect I  mentioned at the beginning of this post. While graduates talk about how much they’ve gotten out of the program, they don’t understand why others don’t attend. However, the tough truth is that teens don’t like to talk about the fact that they’ve chosen to attend an additional educational program besides their ‘regular school’.  Can you imagine the following conversation?

Cool Student: ” I heard you go to another school besides this one….dude, is that right?”
Jewish Teen: ” Are you kidding? Me, take more classes? Are you nuts?”

Based on the dialogue above, there goes the recruitment opportunity, right out the window marked “nerd”.

So, numbers 1,2, 3, and maybe even 4 are totally doable. The fifth is a real challenge.

We’ve asked our students, who rate satisfaction levels above 80%, why they don’t tell their friends about it, and a version of the above is the response, peppered with comments like: “C’mon, this is on a Sunday morning, you think I’d tell any of my friends that I wake up early to come here?” “Unless there were chocolate cookies coming down from the ceiling, I wouldn’t tell my friends to come with me on a Sunday.” “Oh, there’s no way they’d be interested in this. This is too Jewish for them.”

We understand the difficulty. The question is, what are some ways to deal with this? Please, feel free to comment!.

Photo credit: Wikipedia


Jewish Teens Should Know: Artists Get Flack for Performing in Israel

Alicia Keys is getting pressure to cancel her performance in Tel-Aviv Israel. Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters announced this past March that he would not be performing in Israel, as originally scheduled.  He wrote Alicia Keys a letter stating

Please, Alicia, do not lend your name to give legitimacy to the Israeli government policies of illegal, apartheid, occupation of the homelands of the indigenous people of Palestine.

Others may try to persuade you that by playing in Israel you may magically effect some change; we know that this is not true, appeasement didn’t work with South Africa and it has not worked in Israel. ” 

I’ve decided not to go into all the reasons here why it is so obvious that Israel is not an apartheid state. Please refer to the many, many articles available on the web about that.

However, just based on all of the activity centered around boycotting, I was curious what would come up when googling this topic. When searching for “Boycotts of Israel” it produced “about 26,800,000 results in 0.32 seconds that were headed by a wikipedia listing.  Say what you will about wikipedia, it’s an influential gauge of cultural information.  This is from that page:

“Boycotts of Israel are economic and political cultural campaigns or actions that seek a selective or total cutting of ties with the State of Israel, Israelis or Israeli corporations.”

So, in fairness to wikipedia and the intelligence of the international community, (and of course Roger Waters), I decided to search for another country, one that would be ‘worthy’ of boycotting due to horrible, despicable acts.

Acts such as murder (even of children and women), decapitation, dismemberment, rape, fetal killings, etc. I tried searching “Boycotts of Syria”.

There was no wikipedia page listed on the first page of results, nor is there a listing at all. This is the response I received:

The page “Boycotts of Syria” does not exist. You can ask for it to be created, but consider checking the search results below to see whether the topic is already covered. For search help, please visit Help:Searching.

When I went back to Google, there were articles connecting the word boycott to Syria. Here’s what one of the several on that page were about:  “Syria’s main Western-backed opposition group says it will not take part in the upcoming US-Russian-sponsored conference aimed at finding a solution to the ongoing crisis in Syria.”

This came to my Inbox, via the Israeli Consulate, and I thought it might prompt some action on the part of Jewish teens, and others who want to applaud Alicia’s decision:

“I want to let you know what YOU can do to help support Alicia Keys’ visit to Israel. While Alicia Keys has made it clear that she is not going to give in to the BDS propaganda and will perform in Israel, we think it’s important to show her just how enthusiastic we all are about her trip to Israel.

Comment on her posts on her Facebook page, Facebook.com/aliciakeys, tell her what her music and visit mean to the Israeli people

Tweet @aliciakeys 

This isn’t about polls or petitions alone, but about sending a message that shows Alicia that her fans in Israel love her music as much as anyone else, and that no artist should be bullied out of  performing in front of their fans.” 


“But I’ve already been to the museum!”

Negotiating with teens when they say "been there, done that!"

Negotiating with teens when they say “been there, done that!”

The entire school was taking a trip to the relatively new National Museum of American Jewish History, located in Philadelphia. The museum, with thousands of historic treasures, interactive exhibits, and multi-media presentations, has caused many people to say that they could spend days there and not see everything.

Yet, we heard that one student, when he learned about the trip, went home and confidently told his mother: “I don’t want to go. I’ve already been to the museum once.” 

The comment above is not specific to the museum. It is a catch phrase for all things that kids think they’ve already done, if they’ve done it once.

I remember working with a student on his course selections for the coming year. I suggested a class that I thought he’d find really interesting, based on his background. He didn’t ask me any clarifying questions, and without missing a quarter-note, told me assertively: “I don’t need to take that class, I’ve already taken Talmud!”

Put in whatever word works for you here, so that the comment would be equally humorous:

“I don’t need to take that class, I’ve already taken engineering.” (architecture, medicine, fine arts, or any area of study that could be endlessly interesting if someone had the interest).

So, how as parents and educators do we get past the “been there, done that” syndrome?

With patience, explanations, and the confidence that we know better. 

We should never assume because someone is in school, that there is a deep understanding of the process of learning.

We need the confidence to communicate that when it comes to learning anything, revisits are important and necessary. Gaining depth of a subject matter, seeing things again from a new perspective, is a good thing.

Let’s think about that, and let that very thought bring sweet smiles to our faces when we meet at our Seder tables and hear “But we did this last year!”


Doing a 360 on Attendance in a Part-Time School

Cover of "Class Clown"

Class Clowns: Not That Funny

Recently, I participated in a webinar, sponsored by JESNA, on issues related to complementary (supplementary, part-time) schools.

This was an unusual experience. I was asked to facilitate a group of about ten online participants and discuss the topic of declining attendance. Aside from one familiar name, I didn’t know any one. We examined the issue from the point of view of these stakeholders; Education Director, Parent, and Teacher, and we brainstormed a list of issues surrounding the topic.

It was interesting that this online group of educators and school directors, representing schools from all over the country, mentioned a familiar list: conflicting activities, less parental engagement, too few class expectations, too much school homework, class management issues, social pressures, plus other reasons that were sound and thoughtful.

I’m sure many of us approached this issue of declining attendance in a variety of contexts and perhaps came up with similar but expanded lists of reasons and issues. So, what’s the news here?

I’m not sure what anyone else took away from this online discussion, but for me, there was a particular enlightening moment.

When I suggested we view this issue from the vantage point of the student, I was literally overwhelmed with all of the emotional baggage that our students have to deal with when they attend erratically.

To be clear, these are not going to be things that haven’t come up in conversations before.

It’s just that listed all together, I felt such compassion for that poor kid having to attend any program in this way.

Would any adult be able to handle such a thing? “Kind of” attending a program? Participating “now and then”?

Really, just think about this for a minute. How comfortable would you be in this situation? Think about the social and academic implications.

Now, think of how you might experience this as an adolescent:

You are lost most of the time. Most likely, you haven’t kept up with the work. You don’t really know everything the teacher is referencing, but you pretend because you don’t want to ask questions or ‘stick out’. You may be out of things socially. You may cover up this inadequacy with acting out behavior. You need some sort of role in the class, and class academic is out. So the other roles available that unconsciously suit you may be class clown, troublemaker, blocker, etc. Other kids may resent the fact that you’re not there regularly, as they are. You  haven’t really formed a connection with the teacher.

Though you’ve been absent often, it actually becomes harder to attend.  So you think of reasons not to go. Like complaining a lot. Finding excuses to do other things. Begging your parents not to send you to that ‘awful’ place.

No surprise then, that declining attendance begets a further attendance drop.

I was totally overwhelmed with what students like this experience when they don’t attend Jewish education programs on a regular basis and the challenges they probably face as a result.

How can we use this information?

I know that as a teacher, I’ve often expressed frustration/guilt when my students did not attend regularly. It’s not that I was ever harsh, I just wanted them to know that I missed them and wanted them to be part of the class.

I’d change that now and say something a little different.

I’d make a real effort to show much more compassion for what they’re coping with, maybe privately even get a reference check about the unique challenges they must feel, and help ease their transition into the classroom world any way I could.

They’re dealing with enough.


Catching Catfish: Real and Unreal Life for Jewish Teens

trust

Just when you think you can keep pace with the bizarre events of the everyday, you find yourself having a discussion with Jewish teens that blows the dust off your brain just a bit.

This is necessary.

It keeps the distance between the generations and confirms for teens why they’re glad they’re not as old as you are.

Last week I sat with a group of teens taking a Current Events class.

After chatting about the Israeli Knesset and the elections, the conversation veered way weird when they got to talking about the Manti Te’o business.

That was not news. What was news to me was the term Catfish, the MTV show “Catfish”  and the verb “catfishing.” I was fascinated, but in a sad way. Just listening to these teens talk about the real, the fake, and the in-between relationships they have to negotiate between real life and online personas, I was overwhelmed with the amount of distrust they experience on a daily basis.

How do they begin to navigate through these murky waters? When shows like “Catfish” keep their interest (most watch the show), how do we counter the values of the day with Jewish values that build character, strong identities, and a commitment to honesty?

There is now, more than ever, a compelling reason for instilling in our teens a strong sense of self.  A way to know who they are and what they stand for.

Plus, we have to always be current. Always on the look-out for the next challenge.–so we aren’t caught acting like a catfish, slinking along on the bottom of the river.


“After My Bar Mitzvah, My Dad Decided to Convert. Is He Still Considered Jewish?”

Some labels might be useful. Others, not so much.

Some labels might be useful. Others, not so much.

I wasn’t prepared for such a troubling question by this slight yet earnest 8th grader. He had been so patient; holding his hand up until the discussion left an opening.

This evening, the teens were very talkative once they got going about the topic: Intermarried Families. His question arose during a workshop on sensitizing Jewish high school students to the many issues intermarried families face.

They had personal experiences about the issue, since about one-third of them were from intermarried families themselves.  The conversation had relevance for them and  they shared personal stories peppered with jokes, hurt feelings, and sometimes defiance.

The program was specifically designed for teens and consisted of film clips to trigger conversation and raise awareness.

His question came after I shared an experience I had when I was a teenager myself, while attending a large suburban Conservative synagogue in my town. I have a very clear memory of asking a congregant who someone was. He pointed to him and then lightly said: “Oh, this is Mr. So and So, who converted to Judaism….” I couldn’t figure out why I needed to know that. This man was forever labeled in my mind as ‘the one who converted.’

I’ve experienced this practice even as an adult. Why must we use labels?

Let’s come back to the boy sitting in front of me. He was obviously very concerned and wanted an answer. Yet, in the format of the program, with a full agenda and little time, I could not engage him in a full discussion of all the questions I wanted to ask him.

For example, why does he feel a need to ask this question? Does this first question represent other, more pressing questions about the choices his father made? What does he think about how the Jewish community responded to his father? Is it what he expected? Did he feel his Dad was welcomed? Rejected? Did he sense a total acceptance of the choice by his father’s family? Is he still wondering about his father’s reasons for conversion? Was it only for the ceremony or was there some deeper reason that his father made the choice he did? What impact did the father’s conversion have on him? Did it make him doubt his own choices going forward or feel more secure in them?

How would you respond to this student when there is so much more to discuss?

What I said next created some comedy, but my intention was to offer a really concrete example for this student: “Here’s how I see it. You know when someone gets his/her nose fixed? Or some cosmetic work done? Once it’s done, we no longer say, “You know, this is Ms. So and So…she recently got a nose job. We accept that the person has a new nose, and we move on. No need to reference it. We don’t need to go back to past history and label that person any differently than anyone else. Similarly, Your father’s Jewish. He’ll always be considered Jewish.”

He seemed to be reassured and we continued on with the discussion.

The students had a lot to say, and more questions to ask as the evening progressed.

The question above demonstrates just how much work we have to do to create more understanding among all of us about those who ‘choose Jewish’. Here are some tips to consider when a family member converts:

  1. Have a family discussion about the decision. Teens are at the stage when they are actively questioning many things. Especially about religion, the meaning of life, their place among their peers, and more. They will appreciate knowing your reasons for the decision, and being included in some thoughts you’ve had.
  2. This is an opportunity to connect with your teen about spiritual journeys. We often reserve conversations with our kids to the mundane. These conversations about religion and faith are of an entirely different level. Personal yes, but it opens so many doors.
  3. You might schedule a meeting with the family and the Rabbi together, so all parties are aware of any new roles and  responsibilities.

Photo credit: BazzaDaRambler, flickr. Creative commons license.


Writings about Jewish Teens: 2012 in review

The WordPress.com team sends me a summary e-mail at the end of the year (complete with fireworks!) that lets me know my progress (I’ve been blogging for two years) and more about what you, the readers of this blog, find interesting to read about Jewish teens.

There is a list of the most viewed blogs–can you think of a better motivator?  Even in my very, very small niche world, this list gets compared (ready?) to the number of climbers of Mount Everest! See below.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 6,900 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 12 years to get that many views.

See what I mean? Here’s the list:

A Few Top Posts from 2012

1. From Jewish Camp to Synagogue: Five No Brainers

This post talks about the chasm experienced by many campers when they return home after a summer injection of Judaism, and what synagogues can do to bridge the gap.

2. Judging Jewish Education by Fun

What are the trade-offs between programs that offer fun and those that offer content?

3. Five Things Parents Should Know

I know what you may be thinking. People seem to like the number five. (See number 1.) Interesting, no? These are things that parents should know about Jewish education for their teens.

4. Hiring Teen Aides? (Full disclosure: this title had the number five in it too, but on my end, it’s just how many tips I wrote at the time).

Synagogues use/hire teen aides in the classroom for all sorts of reasons. Here are some reasons to think about the intentions of these efforts.

5. One minute, three reasons why Jewish education helps teens focus on what’s important.

The title pretty much says it.

6.”Please feel free to contact me….”Advice for #Jteens and others

I wrote this in response to an e-mail I received from a job applicant, and found the comment an ironic one from a person wanting to make a favorable impression.

7. “Wow, You’re Soooo Jewish!”

I wrote this post after hearing a student tell this to another student in a Jewish values class. It’s interesting to see the students’ take on just how “Jewish” things are.

One more thing, a 2011 post made the list, and you can read that here:

What I learned about marketing from working at a Jewish community high school 

You might have missed some of the ones above, or want to read more about Jewish teens. Hit the subscribe button, and you won’t miss a thing!


Israeli teens use cell phones in class: What we can learn

Various cell phones displayed at a shop.

Cell phones: not an opt-out tool for most teeens

According to a recent University of Haifa poll, over 94% of Israeli High School students use social networks in class (via cell phones). Mostly, they’re not checking facts, but Facebook profiles.

This came to my inbox today, a day after I wrote a blog from a cell phone’s point of view.

In that blog, I mentioned that Jewish teens may not be aware of the rich Jewish resources available for the taking from such a small device.  I also referred to the fact that teachers sometimes take away cell phones all together.

I was once a proponent of this.

I thought that (much like the practice at summer camps of instituting a ‘cell phone fast’ for campers to increase the ‘here and now’ opportunities) keeping phones out of the class increased class connections between students and teacher.

I don’t think in those black and white terms any more.

What I believe now, is that like any good educational tool, media needs to be mediated.

In this light, it’s particularly interesting to examine the findings of the poll, which states that the more permissive a teacher is, the less that cell phones will be used in class.

Interesting, no?

Conversely, the study results also showed that the more authoritarian the teacher–those with a more rigid approach, the more students will use cell phones in class.

So, what are the boundaries that teachers should put in place? What are the school’s policies that should not be broken, but bent to advance the curriculum? These are things that need to be thought through before the school year. From a student’s point of view.

So, this what I learned, none of which strikes me as so illuminating, but for me, the benefits were a game changer:

1. It is very difficult to separate teens from their phones, as some teens see it as their lifeline.

2. Teachers need to figure out ways of using the phones as tools, to expand teen’s horizons about the subject area.

3. The way in which this is handled, can be crucial when building community in the class, and respect from students.

Photo credit: wikipedia

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