Category Archives: Jewish Education

Three Jewish Teens: Lives Lived and Lost

yahrzeit

 

 

 

We lost three teenagers today, Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel…Baruch Dayan HaEmet…Blessed is the Righteous Judge…

In the tremendous tragedy of the loss of such young teenage lives, I am left wondering if many of our Jewish teenagers in America are truly aware of what happened. Or care.

This is truly a painful question to ask.

Yehi zichronam baruch—May their memories be for a blessing…our hearts go out to their families and friends for the pain that must feel like it will never, ever end.

For some of us, this loss is felt quite deeply, as if our own family was torn apart.

But what of our teenagers here in America? Is there a similar feeling among our teens that their peers are feeling in Israel?

We don’t want our children to ever experience pain, but Israel’s similar wishes for their teenagers already passed that point.

There’s loss woven into the entire fabric of the country.

Do American Jewish teens have a special feeling for the collective Jewish family?

Do they feel connected in any way with other Jews around the world?

I fear that they don’t.

Why not?

The world is made smaller via internet, so we should be more connected, not less.

But I know that this is not true.

This was not an active topic on social media, where our teens tend to live.

In fact, the absence of sharing about the loss of these three teens on twitter was gaping. Likewise elsewhere.

Why is it so different for our teens today? How can we work on making them feel more connected to the Jewish family as a whole?

Do we need to wait for birthright and Pilgrimage trips for this to happen?

This tragedy occurred when our teens are busy with their own lives. They are not in our weekly programs when we can discuss this with them, debrief our communal pain, and talk about the sense and senselessness in life.

For teens who are by now at Jewish camps, they will have a collective community in which to share their grief.

For other Jewish American teens who are not so connected, they hopefully will have conversations in their homes and synagogues.

But I also know that the reverse may happen…that this tragedy will be lost amidst the shuffle of every day life.

The question worth repeating here is how can we help our Jewish teens feel more part of K’lal Yisrael, part of the Jewish family?

If we first stop to ask this question of ourselves, our efforts will be more meaningful for the future.

Let’s work toward this goal.

 


what parents of Jewish teens told me

parentmeeting

 

I recently had the privilege of meeting with parents who attended informal meetings designed especially for them in locations across Philadelphia.

All the parents I met with are parents of teens who attend a weekly post Bar/Bat Mitzvah supplementary high school program, and the discussions were held over a period of several months–on Sunday mornings or evenings, or weeknights.

A few months ago, we asked parents to complete an anonymous online survey (survey monkey), and the response rate was extremely high at 30% . Where relevant, I’ll include those results as part of this post.

What I learned might surprise you…..or not.

Parents shared a lot in these informal discussions, but it was also interesting what I learned by inference from those parents who did not attend.

What I learned from Parents

 

#1. Parents of these teens are really, really tired and really, really busy.

Or really, really not interested in coming out for a meeting to discuss a Jewish education program where their teen attends. I can tell because we had a very low response to these meetings. However, parents did not seem to mind filling out the satisfaction surveys and wrote in plenty of comments to ponder.

For the most part, the parents who attended the meetings seemed just as busy as those who didn’t—-and even they were puzzled as to why more parents did not show up.

I was less surprised, as over 30% of parents responded that they weren’t interested in additional programming that we might offer them.  Others opted for parenting workshops (13.8%),  Adult education classes (23%), or Social programs (26%).  The largest percentage of parents  (43.7%)  were interested in College Readiness Programs, which brings me to point #2.

#2. The pressure is on. Parents of students in middle school were curious about college credit options in the program. This no longer shocks me. It did shock me 10 years ago. I’m sure the teens are feeling it either directly, or by proxy so to speak. Their teens are stressed and overworked, and it’s a question as to who is picking up on the stress from whom. That would make for an interesting  and valuable Parenting/Teen workshop.

#3. Parents appreciate the space their kids have in our program to talk about ethical and moral choices: they are pleased that they’re learning “Judaism’s view on_________________ ” (insert trending topic). They feel that there just isn’t time in a school setting to delve into the issues, let alone offering a Jewish context for those choices.

#4. Parents who attended are vocal about the reasons why sending their teen is important, although a large percentage seem very hesitant to make this a ‘have to’ if their child, for any reason, was not happy.

#5. Back to #4, Happiness seems to trump everything. Very few parents were willing to force the issue if his/her teenager did not want to continue.

#6. Parents want their kids to have a wide social network, and are concerned when their teens are not connecting socially with others in the program. For some teens, this is their sole Jewish connection in a neutral and casual setting. It is essential therefore, that we build social support systems into our program, to ensure that teens feel part of the community. This means more mentoring programs, linking students with each other beyond the usual ice-breakers,  and seeing that we continue to provide a safe space for all.

#7.  Some of the parents who send their teens to us are still in the “Hebrew School Drop Off Mode”….meaning that our program is just one more activity to which they are shuttling their kids.

In all, it will take some effort to create the partnerships we are aiming for, but I believe we are up for the challenge.

Photo courtesy: sha3teely.com


Jewish Teen Education by the Hour

How Much Time to Spend on Jewish Education?

How Much Time Should Jewish Teens Spend Learning About Their Identity?

 

How many hours does it take to become knowledgeable about something?

I know, it’s a very broad question….but try to humor me. Your task is to become more learned about Judaism…..to become literate.

How many hours would you need to spend?

Okay, got it?

For comparison’s sake, students spend on average, 181 days per year in a K – 12 school environment, which translates into approximately 900 or so hours per year.

Many people don’t even think this is enough, especially when compared with the more rigorous school schedules of other countries. (And we know the U.S. is continuing to lose ground in the education of our youth).

Hourly disputes aside, no one would say that at the end of high school, one’s education is complete if mastery of a subject area is the goal.

Yet, (you know where I’m going with this), at the end of just  few short years in Hebrew school, at what amounts to a paltry number of hours, parents and students are calling it quits. (This post is not directed at teens enrolled in a Jewish day school).

Think about it…..if you’ve been to college and are reading this….how many “credit” hours did it take as an undergrad to major in something?  And if you added all the studying to those credit hours, what number would be your total?

More importantly, as a result, if you had to rate your knowledge about the subject, what score would you give yourself on a scale of 1 to 10?

(I’d love to read your comments on this).

When I googled the topic online, wiki answers provided me with this clarification of my question: “How many hours in your major do you need to graduate from college?” and generalized (though varying from institution to institution) that between 30 and 40 credit hours suffice for a major, with general agreement that each credit hour represents at least 15 hours of class time (exclusive of studying time).

So, back to Jewish teens and post B’nai Mitzvah education.

How many hours do you think teens should devote to learning about their heritage, language, culture, history?

Remember, these are the years when critical thinking kicks in…and teens can begin to wrestle with beliefs, tradition and change.

So, how much time in total per year? 

How about in aggregate, from between ages 13 – 18?

So, in all, how much time on the clock does the average Jewish teen spend on learning about Judaism?

I think the answer would astound you…..it shocks me.

In the best case scenario, where teens attend a Jewish educational program at least once a week, the time they spend watching TV is more than twice the amount of time spent learning about Judaism.

That’s the best case–and kudos to the parents and teens who are at least making that choice.

What does this say about the teens who are in monthly programs? Or those who are not participating in any learning during the academic year?

Malcolm Gladwell aside, we don’t need to create 10,000-hour experts, but teens wouldn’t even rate in any bare minimum category with the limited hours that are devoted to Jewish learning.

Years ago, a teacher I worked with said that parents were only interested in (this will sound dated) “Kodak Judaism”. When I looked puzzled she said “They’re only interested in exposure…as long as their teens are exposed to Judaism, that seems to be enough for them.”

Right about now, you might be thinking that immersive experiences offer the perfect answer…after all teens are living Judaism non-stop for hours on end in a Jewish summer camp.

The problem is, our teens are Jewish all year-long, not just in summer. Otherwise we’re perpetuating our own pathetic version of the well-worn campaign “What happens in Jewish summer camp, stays in Jewish summer camp”.

Somewhere, between exposure and 10,000 lies a reachable goal. We need to get there.

Related Posts:

Judging Jewish Education by Fun

One Comment I Never Hear as a Jewish Educator

Jewish Parents: Choose your teen’s activities wisely

 


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.


Five Reasons Not to Substitute Convenience for Expertise with #Jteens

It pays not to compromise with sushi

Ever have bad sushi? Don’t compromise with sushi or Jewish education

A Hat Tip to Seth Godin, marketing guru, for this post’s idea–my take on his  “Never eat sushi at the airport”.

Seth tends to cut through the chaff to get to the kernel, which is why he writes: “Don’t ask a cab driver for theater tips, Never buy bread from the supermarket bakery…Proximity is not a stand in for expertise.”

So, with a nod to Seth, here are things never to do:

1. Never accept an inferior product when it comes to something like education.

2. Don’t rely solely on what other parents are doing when it comes to seeking out the best experience for your child. 

3. If it takes a little longer to get somewhere where there’s a better program for teens, go for it.  That message, that you’re literally ‘going the distance’ speaks louder than most.

4. Belonging to a youth group is a very good thing for Jteens to do, but it doesn’t substitute for a Jewish education. The goals just aren’t the same.

5. Don’t use the same criteria for choosing a Jewish education experience that you use for an “after-school activity”.


One odd recommendation to help #Jteens reduce the academic pressure they feel

Enlightened teen  education

Enlightened teen education

What I’m about to write is counter-intuitive, fair warning given.

The phenomenon I’m about to describe has interested me for over a decade.

It’s the one big thing that I’ve seen make a difference in teens’ lives, often enabling them to cope with the stress of being at public or private schools during the day.

It’s attending more school –though of a different kind entirely.

They attend this school in the evening, or on Sunday mornings. Surprising, no?

It’s mostly a laid back school—a supplementary high school for Jewish teenagers.

Hundreds of Jewish teens attend a weekly educational program and absolutely unwind when they arrive. They rarely miss attending–despite upcoming mid-terms, papers, and after school obligations.

What do the teens mostly do?

They visibly relax, smile, laugh, and spend some down time with each other before, during, and after class.

They listen to each other, discuss interesting topics with skilled teachers who want to hear what they have to say.

It’s powerful.  

In what they feel is their own space, teens get to network with each other about strategies to cope with school, how to deal with upcoming tests, which study guides are best….and countless other tips shared with each other in a relaxed and supportive environment.

More school? Who would have thought…. 

Related Posts:

Do Jewish Teens Need an Ethical Tune-Up?

One Comment I Never Hear as a Jewish educator


“What if I don’t believe in God—am I still Jewish?”

what are we teaching teens about belief?

what are we teaching teens about belief?

A confident, tall, yet boyish 11th grade teenager asked this question of Rabbis who were participating in a panel called “Ask the Rabbi Anything”.

The teen who asked the question wasn’t just any boy–he is already different from most other Jewish teens his age.

He’s attending a supplementary school program one day a week and working as a Hebrew school teacher’s aide a second day.

His plan is to earn a Teaching Certificate at the end of a two-year program.

Yet, he had a concern about whether or not the community considered him Jewish simply because he has doubts about God.

The good news?

He received warm and thoughtful responses by all Rabbis that I’m sure allayed any concerns he had, plus gave him plenty of things to grapple with and think about.

There were about 45 other teens in the room that seemed really interested in hearing the answers….so we can assume that the question resonated with them as well.

So, what can we learn about from this very important and urgent question? 

We need to create the space for teens to share their feelings of doubt.

How well have we taught our teens that asking questions is the beginning of a journey? 

How many of the teens we work with feel discomfort about faith? God? The bible?

How many teens might turn away from Judaism believing that they don’t quite measure up to some arbitrary definition of what a Jew is?

Judging from the thoughtful questions the teens asked and the depth of their comments, it was apparent that they experienced a wide open and accepting space to begin to figure things out, and for me–I was happy to share that space with them. 


Do Jewish Teens Need an Ethical Tune-Up?

cheating

How ethical are today’s teens?

When given the chance to cheat, what would the teenagers you know do?

A recent New York Times article on the subject of Ethics in Life and Business explored the difficulty adults have in making the right choice.

The author says: “The problem, research shows, is that how we think we’re going to act when faced with a moral decision and how we really do act are often vastly different.”

How much more challenging is this for teens growing up in a confusing world of right and wrong?

Months ago, I was surprised to learn how teens defined cheating while defending their behavior.

Since the scandals of the 80’s, businesses and researchers were propelled to give ethics serious consideration and there is now a website devoted to the matter.

As the article states, the difficulty in teaching ethics is that there is a difference between the ‘should’ self (what should be done in a given situation) and the ‘want’ self (wanting to be liked, accepted).

I imagine that with teens, that ‘want’ self is really strong in the adolescent years.

Social media hasn’t made things any easier for them, where there is even more of a pull to be one of the crowd.

Academic pressure hasn’t helped either, with the resultant urge to cheat becoming ever stronger.

Based on everything we know, there is a real benefit to training teens in this area while giving them real skills to succeed in the world of business,

So, how to we hope to teach ethics to teens?

By practice. Repetition. Role-plays. Scenarios where teenagers get to act out their choices.

High schools rarely offer ethics as a subject area.

Monthly programs for teens can not begin to instill these skills, there’s just not enough time to make anything ‘stick’.

Jewish educators who meet with teens weekly have an exceptional opportunity to give them a much-needed tune-up.


Dealing with Anti-Semitism on the College Campus: What Jewish Teens Think

An event taking place on many college campuses

An event taking place on many college campuses

The post title refers to Anti-Semitism, while the poster above references anti-Israel propaganda.

There are plenty of debates back and forth about which is which, including examples of Anti-Zionism in the mix.

This purpose of this post is to enlighten us about how Jewish teens react to a scenario they might encounter on the college campus. We know that the college campus, usually a place that is open to the marketplace of ideas, does not always live up to that reputation. An annual review of Anti-Israel activity on college campuses around the United States, produced by the ADL will educate you.

The situation below was given to Jewish high school students by the Anti-Defamation League recently, and they discussed options in small groups and recorded their responses on large poster paper pasted around the room.   

“Josh is a friend of yours from high school and a Jewish student activist on his college campus. He encounters a professor in one of his Middle East courses, who has a very strong opinion regarding what he describes as the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank. Josh has his own opinion of the situation and finds that he is the only person outwardly disagreeing with the professor. Josh’s term paper, worth 30% of his grade, is due next week.  Josh is afraid to represent his opposing ideologies in his paper and possibly risk his grade. He asks for your opinion and advice. What do you tell him? 

How do you think the teens you know will answer?

Assertively? Passively? Defiantly?

Here’s one response that I’d definitely place on the unassertive continuum, as it really skirts the issue entirely:

“If the professor grades Josh harshly because of his opinions, then the professor is being unprofessional.”

How would you evaluate the comment above?      What would your recommendation be to this student?

If you’re curious as to how others responded, read on: 

“Agree with the professor, but keep your own beliefs to yourself because you need to pass the class.”

“Do not be afraid of your own beliefs. Speak to your department head if it’s that big of an issue.”

“Notify the dean of students. See what they (would) grade you and what the professor (would) grades (sic) you. If it is worse due to the opposing side/idea, tell the head of the department.”

“Write your own beliefs and see what the professor does and take it up with someone higher.”

“Don’t do the paper if you don’t believe in it.”

The good news, is that some students were very comfortable asserting their rights–outside of class.

Inside class, is another story entirely…and according to what I’ve read about college campus behavior, these student responses mimics what actually does happen when students encounter professors with differences of opinion. The stakes are high for these students beginning in high school and continuing on to college. Openly disagreeing with a professor’s opinions is really tough to do.

I clearly remember one student who felt such a sense of accomplishment after being able to argue successfully with his history teacher, that he called it a ‘life-changing’ experience. Yet another student told us how she wished she paid better attention in her Israel class so that she could debate more effectively with students at her campus who were members of Students for Justice in Palestine.

We can use our time with our students to prepare them a bit more to talk through these situations and help them decide the right course for them, depending upon their priorities. 

Denying that they will encounter either Anti-Semitism or Anti-Zionism does not serve them well.


Some important questions you need to answer about Jewish teens

Wandering Jew

Wandering Jew (Photo credit: pellaea).             I’m a wondering Jew

A while ago, I reached some kind of milestone. I’ve been writing incessantly about a niche group within a niche group.

I’ve written over 100 posts on the topic of Jewish teens.

Posts about parenting, marketing, college readiness, Jewish identity, school aides, cheating, allowed me to share observations and frustrations.

I am so lucky to have the opportunity to write about what matters to me in Jewish education.

When I started writing, there were virtually no relevant results for Jewish teens on my Google search.

Thankfully, that has changed, but many things haven’t.

The most important question we need to ask ourselves, especially in light of the Pew study, is “are we doing enough for our Jewish teens?”

Do we have answers for the following?

1. Day schools continue to be the darling of funders, who fail to realize that the largest percentage of Jewish teens are not going to day schools, despite scholarship incentives.  Yet, students with at least seven years of supplementary Jewish education fare very well when compared to day school students.  Why?

2. Serious (yes, I did just say that word) supplementary high school programs work, yet get no recognition for the leaders we send to college campuses, year after year. Why?

3. Research confirms that students are less likely to attend high school programs when they have negative experiences in elementary supplemental education, yet communal incentives are rare for encouraging teens to ‘try out’ programs.  Why? (The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia is taking a lead in this concept).

4. Hillels around the country don’t connect with Jewish supplementary high schools to help teens transition to their new environment. Why is there this incredible missed opportunity?

5. Turf issues continue to pervade many communities, even though some programs offer teens little choices for social and/or academic experiences. (Philadelphia, through an initiative called Jteenphilly is breaking ground in this area).

6. Teen aides in supplementary schools are generally not being served by that experience.  Keeping teens in the building doesn’t mean that their needs are being met.

7. Studies have confirmed that once on the college campus, teens tend not to care about Jewish denominational lines, yet their pre-collegiate youth group experiences are most often confined to movement-related programming. Why?

I don’t get many responses to these posts, which for most, would be a red flag to do something different.

Somehow, I’m content to do what I’m doing, and hope that some things will eventually ‘stick’.

Plus, I know you’re out there (the stats confirm this).

I appreciate you–you’re that very special reader who cares enough to read about Jewish teens.

Thank you!


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?


Jewish Parents Who “Get It” and Why: Generational Gifting of a Jewish Education

Image

Why do some parents understand that continuing their teen’s Jewish education after Bar/Bat Mitzvah is essential, while others don’t make the same choice?

All teens are busy. Many are taking AP classes, active in extra-curriculars, and involved in volunteering. Many parents are busy as well, juggling work and home schedules, carpooling, and giving back to the community.

Why is this an automatic, affirming choice for some parents, yet clearly a very difficult decision for others?

In the past two weeks, I’ve met parents and students at several orientation sessions, and as a result, I’ve gotten a glimpse into the dynamics of this process of choosing. It’s been a unique opportunity for me, as I always wonder why, in a program that boasts over a 90% success rate, more parents are not sending their teenagers.

By the way, the teens in attendance were not unhappy that their parents chose this route for them. They were excited to be at a new stage in their lives, when thinking critically and analytically about big life issues is the core of the curriculum.

What follows is obviously not the product of a formal research study, but a casual sharing of my observations.

Parents who have had post Bar/Bat Mitzvah education themselves, understand very clearly what the benefits are.

They’ve appreciated the decision their own parents made on their behalf.  They want to do the same for their children and pass along the gift of a Jewish education. 

For those who left Hebrew school after 13, it’s a much harder sell.

They don’t have a clue as to what they’ve missed so there’s no reference point or context for making this choice for their teen now. They also may need to rationalize the fact that their path, in the end, ‘worked out for them’.

It’s clear that passing on the tradition of Jewish education is highly important to the parents who do decide to send their teens to a high school program. Some were so adamant about the reasons for their choice that they were beyond baffled as to why others would ever opt out.

Those that were the products of their own parent’s extended Jewish education felt that Jewish education is a generational gift that keeps on giving. Isn’t that what our tradition says is at the core of parenting?

Curious, I asked these parents about circumstances at their synagogues, and whether or not these dedicated parents were offered any formalized opportunities to discuss their decisions with other parents. That would seem to be a highly interesting and enlightening program in and of itself, with plenty of opportunities to bring in relevant Jewish texts.

Negative.

There were no parent sessions on Post B’nai Mitzvah education and how it differs from the goals of an elementary supplementary school curriculum.

Nor were there chances for the teens themselves to get in front of younger students to talk about their choices.

All were missed opportunities. All are low-cost, low tech, low risk activities. All would have created connections among the parents which might have opened up some new ways of thinking.

So, why aren’t we creating better modeling opportunities?

Why aren’t we connecting the generational dots?

 


“You’re Not Invited”: Teen Victims of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Years and What To Do About It

Mazel tov hats at a bat mitzvah

Party time (for some)

We know that many Bar/Bat Mitzvah Celebrations have gotten way out of hand. Thousands have seen Rabbi Wolpe’s Washington Post article “Have we forgotten what Bar Mitzvahs are about?” although fewer may have read the Rabbi’s apology for what some have said was an angry tone.

Beyond the materialistic approach that some of these affairs take and the message it sends, there is another consequence of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah years, regardless of how ‘over the top’ and excessive the extravagance is.

That is the social rejection experienced by those that are left out, not invited—not considered ‘worthy’ of sharing the celebration.oii

The ones who aren’t ‘cool’ enough to be invited or who aren’t in the ‘in’ group.

The ones who get a sick, stinging feeling when finding out they’re one of the few kids who won’t be going to what should be a communal celebration of a life cycle event.

It is a Jewish experience within a Jewish context that leaves scars. This awful irony does not escape them.

During the Bar/Bat Mitzvah years, we would want them to feel wanted, accepted, and comfortable and instead they experience an extreme version of the already intense adolescent social pressures.

One parent told me that his son told him he was ‘never going back to that place’ referring to the synagogue that he felt failed him by allowing such obvious exclusionary behavior.

Here they are, ostensibly learning Jewish values, (B’tzelem Elokim, Kavod HaBriut, Tzniut, and many others) with a huge chasm between learning these values and what they’re actually experiencing in their lives…within the community of a synagogue no less.

How sad. We certainly make a lot of effort to make other environments fair (no scores in Little League?).

Can’t we figure this one out? Although the scenario above does not happen in every single synagogue, I know that you know it happens often enough for us not to ignore it.

Understandably, making rules and not allowing free choice in this area is extremely tough, but in not choosing to set policies, we are choosing and allowing our highly impressionable teens to be victims of this socially isolating experience.

And it’s just a shame that some teen’s experience of a Jewish religious rite becomes a place where popularity plays out.

With some effort, these issues might be solved in some creative ways. Our teens, at least in a Jewish environment, deserve a safe haven from some of the most painful social experiences of adolescence.

Quick, let’s think of some alternatives:

1. We go back to the ‘old-fashioned’ ways, and truly make this opportunity a communal experience.…held in the synagogue with the entire synagogue community plus friends and family included. Expensive? Not when done without the glitz and glamour.

2. Have all the families agree to invite everyone, no matter what type of celebration.

3. Discuss the social implications of this event with the teens, making it part of the supplementary school curriculum.

4. Families celebrating in that year agree to donate monies into a joint fund, and hold a celebration for everyone in the class at an agreed-upon time.

5. Raise awareness of this issue at parent education opportunities.

Do you have creative ways of dealing with this issue? I’d love to hear what some synagogues have worked out, I’m sure so many parents and Jewish educators would love to have some options. Please respond and share.

Photo credit: Wikipedia


Seven Things to Do When Teens Come Home from Jewish Summer Camp

How to Bring Camp Home

How to Bring Camp Home

Soon, thousands of Jewish teens will arrive to their home communities, having spent an amazing immersive experience in a Jewish summer camp. These teens, armed with new enthusiasm for Jewish life, should be able to transition successfully into their Jewish life at home, sharing their experiences with peers, their families, the synagogue, and maybe even the Jewish community as a whole.

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 experience for them.  For example, Shabbat at camp is a communal affair, with everyone in the camp community living on the same page. Each week has the rhythm of Shabbat, with the pace at week’s end picking up in a flurry of activity; frenzied preparations of personal and communal cleaning that peak before sundown on Friday night. Daily schedules then ease into a newly relaxed pace of free time and socializing that ends on Saturday night. This arc of Friday to Saturday night is a palpably different feeling than the rest of the week.

A Jewish Bubble That is Alive and Vibrant

At camp, teens are socializing in a Jewish world surrounded by staff and friends who are all Jewish and who are making a commitment to be together, living Judaism, for several weeks. The passion for living a Jewish life can’t be duplicated—there are just too many factors that make that impossible (that’s why many Jewish Federations around the country and the Foundation for Jewish camping are trying to get our kids to go there).

So, Jewish teens spend the summer being energized about a Judaism that is alive, pulsing, vibrant, and changeable and at summer’s end have a decidedly different experience.  At home, the pace of the weekly arc is gone for the most part, unless campers live in a Shabbat-observant home. They may or may not miss any restrictions they’ve had (electronic fasts in some places) but they will miss the natural rhythm that the week holds.  Their home friends won’t have a clue what they’ve experienced, and neither will you, as parents, if you haven’t experienced it. They no longer live in a community of like-minded teens.

Why should we make teens wait all year long to experience these same feelings again?

When Teens Return Home

Most teens returning to ‘normal’ life after camp don’t experience a transition between these two worlds. Instead, there is a disturbing disconnect as they see huge differences between the summer months and practices at home and the synagogue during the year, which is like going from one entirely different cultural experience to another.

We can look at ways to maximize their experiences and make sure that the energy is captured, and create more of a seamless transition.  There may be programs working on this, like youth groups that connect campers during the year, but not all groups function in that way or are successful in that effort.

Links between Camp, Home, and Synagogue

We need to create better links, bridges, and supports from one experience to the other for our Jewish teens. So, how can we maximize campers’ experiences when they arrive home?  What I’m suggesting won’t be broad or sweeping systemic change but are definitely do-able. There are activities that can be tweaked for home, synagogue and even youth groups. Below are just some suggestions for optimizing Jewish teens’ experiences at camp and using their creative talents, no matter the level of your observance:

#1.  Make Friday night (at least) different from the rest of the week by getting the teens involved in trying to create a different Shabbat experience at home. It doesn’t much matter how—a tablecloth, cold cuts on Saturday, a change of clothing, challah, candles—can set the tone, even over a pizza dinner. Too much? Choose one small change, but try to commit to it every week. Ask them for ideas, and don’t accept the usual “but this won’t work here” response.  Start slowly, perhaps building on ideas month to month. For example, try an electronic fast, for at least a few hours either Friday or Saturday, or both, every week. Your teenager is already used to it, so making the change won’t be difficult.

#2.  Mentor a group to begin a ‘camp style’ minyan at your synagogue, even once a month for starters.  Or ask them to duplicate a service one Shabbat evening or morning.

#3.  Ask your camp to connect you with other campers/parents in your area to keep the camp spirit going.  Many camps are forming parent groups just for this purpose. You might want to get together with other camp parents to create a different Shabbat experience. This might already be happening at your synagogue through a new program called “Guess Who’s Coming to Shabbas”. Find more about that here:  https://www.facebook.com/GuessWhosComingToShabbas.

#4.  Make sure that your teens are connected to Jewish learning experiences during the year, hopefully in addition to a youth group. Many programs are conducted on a weekly basis–offering teens a ‘camp reunion’ opportunity—and some courses are even online. They are specifically geared toward teens’ interests and expectations. These programs offer expertise in bridging the camp- to- home experiences.

#5.  Feature these Jewish summer camp experts as part of a panel that explores the ways in which the synagogue and home communities can learn and be enriched by their experience. Also, make sure there are ways to put these teens in front of younger students to share their experiences and keep the legacy of Jewish camping a presence at your synagogue.

#7 Put one or more Jewish teens on the synagogue’s ritual committee to infuse it with some new ideas and approaches that they’ve learned at camp. Give the teens a goal to incorporate one new and different thing from camp into synagogue programming for your youth

This issue has been on my mind for quite some time.   I was one of those campers, at ten years old, filled with a spark of Judaism from summer camp that didn’t get replenished until the next summer. The youth group in my area was purely social, and didn’t offer me enough of the “Jewish infusion” that I had at camp.

We can make a difference in how our teenagers experience Judaism during the year. Even implementing one suggestion from the list can send a strong message that as a community, we’re all working together on their behalf.

Photo credit: wikipedia.org

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