Category Archives: Synagogue

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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Betrayal, Abandonment, and Jewish Teen Education

education

This past Sunday I met with a group of parents interested in checking out options for their teens’ Jewish education. They were committed to their children’s education and wanted the best for them.  Currently, their 7th grade teens were in a synagogue school, but were unsure that staying there would meet their children’s needs. One parent found the time to attend this orientation meeting even though her daughter’s Bat Mitzvah was the very next week!  

I am always impressed when parents become ‘smart shoppers’, critically evaluating which program will offer the best environment for their child’s Jewish education.  For sure, not every program works for every teen, but parents will be in a better position to support their teens’ attendance if they feel committed to the program’s goals.  And if it’s a good fit. 

The consumer attitude that we often disparage, can be flipped toward the positive. The desire to find the best possible option from those available, is a good thing and definitely trickles down. Teens will get it; they’ll understand that spending time ‘shopping’ around for the best fit–whether done by parents, teens or both–means that there is no less importance placed on Jewish education than any other choice one would make. It’s an important lesson.

At this point in the orientation, I’m enjoying hearing from these parents what they want for their kids: to be challenged, be with a lot of other teens who are like them, to have many choices of subject matter, be exposed to a large staff of teachers, etc. 

I guess at one point, the conversation shifted. It may have been prompted by thoughts about the reality of enrolling their son/daughter in a different program than the one the synagogue was offering.

I was surprised to hear the words they used next:  “Betrayal, Abandonment, Rejection” were words different parents said that expressed their discomfort with this eventuality. I heard this not just from one parent, but from many.

They felt they were ‘abandoning’ a course that had been set out for them.  They didn’t want to disappoint the Rabbi.  Or the Education Director. Or the Education Committee that had worked on the curriculum. Some felt that by seeking out other options they would be perceived as deserting the rest of the parents who were staying.  Some felt that that making this new commitment would add a layer of difficulty to their lives (arranging different carpools, rescheduling things) and they weren’t sure that it would be ‘worth the change’. Most felt guilty about the decision they were close to making in one way or another.  You could see it in their earnest expressions. They clearly wanted to do the right thing, but were so conflicted.

I appreciated their sensitivity, but had no answers.

I stand on the side of advocating for choice every time.

But this is not so effective unless everyone in the Jewish community agrees to encourage choices. That means making people/members aware of what’s out there, and giving up some influence and control over the information that would contribute to their ‘buying decision’.

This unfortunately, seems a long way off.

Instead of complaining about the consumer mentality, we have to embrace it. That attitude makes us all work a little harder. And yes, there are consequences. However, I believe that we have to be fearless.   


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.


“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.


Three Jewish Teens: Tons of Time? Not

What clock do these teens use?

What clock do these teens use?

I’ll paint the picture. Last night I chatted with a group of three 9th grade teenage boys, hanging out in the synagogue lobby, waiting for a ride home after attending a community pluralistic supplementary Jewish high school program in suburbia.

What I didn’t know, is that right in front of me, was such a rich representation of Jewish teen life.

Typical teens. Phones in hand, either texting or waiting for one. Yet they were so willing to answer my questions after I introduced myself.

“So, how are you guys doing?”

“Great!”

“How’s your time here been?”

“Cool, we like it.”

“Glad to hear it! So, do you “do” anything else ‘Jewish’?”

“Yea.”

“Like what?”

The three of them proceeded to tell me what they do.

They’re active (hold positions on committees) in the synagogue’s youth group, USY. There’s more.

They also attend a Jewish summer camp sponsored by HaBonim Dror (not affiliated with the synagogue/youth group). There’s more.

They also participate in a once a month boys-only group sponsored by Moving Traditions.

They also just started high school.

How do these boys have the time?

Do they get more hours in a day than the average teen? Are they more organized? Less social? Less academic?

No. No. No. and No.

You can figure it out. It ‘s what sets some families apart from others. We know who they are.

They’re the ones who know that for teens, multiple connection points to the Jewish community is proven to be a good thing—for character, and all those other intangibles I’ve written about previously.

That’s what the studies haven’t been able to quantify.

Who are those parents? What drives them to make the decisions they do? How can we support them? Find more of them?


Does the Jewish Community Connect Teens to a Jewish Network?

Judaism

Are we reaching high enough?

I doubt that anyone would say that mentoring teens during the coming-of-age years is not a good thing. It’s also doubtful that based on the data we have today, anyone would disagree that we need to connect Jewish teens to the community more, not less.

Doing so helps create a sense of community while building connections, awareness, responsibility, self-esteem, problem-solving skills, and gobs more of all the good stuff. So why don’t we do it more?

Relationship building needs to be at the core of any effort to connect teens with Judaism, and though many programs meet those goals, few consistently deliver over a period of time on communal connections beyond the program itself.

Let me give a few examples.

There are many discrete programs, some gender-based, some philanthropically oriented, some at camps, some in synagogues, some not….that connect Jewish teens to each other and their individual mentor/educator/volunteer but don’t build lasting bridges to the larger Jewish community.

Those programs, successful as they are, often function as “Jewish island experiences” (my term) that are wonderful options while teens are there, but don’t build enough bridges for teens to get off the island.  There seems to be little integration between the groups and the greater Jewish community, either in formal or informal ways.

I remember when I was at summer camp, there was a special program in the last week titled “How to Take Camp Home.” That, in itself, was a great idea and a start to help bind the two experiences. The trouble was, no one in my home community had a similar program called “How to Create Camp Here.”

Recently, I accompanied a group of Jewish teens to local college campuses, specifically to check out Hillel and Jewish life.  The students were so appreciative that this world was opened up to them before they had to make decisions about college. Yet, this trip was clearly a one-way effort.  It was in the best interest of these teen’s Jewish education to have them tour Jewish life on campus, but there is no outreach the other way, from campus to community.

Many programs are like that: one-way avenues to Jewish identity.

We need to make sure that the content we’re offering our teens is not limited to Jewish island experiences but instead function as experiences which connect, web-like to other Jewish organizations and future Jewish activities.

Why not encourage the teens in our programs to further their Jewish education into areas that are not explored in the curriculum that go way beyond the specific setting? Information is available on so many topics, in so many venues, that we really have no excuse for not constructing those bridges when students are in our programs or when they’re getting ready to leave.

In order to build Jewish community in an organic and authentic way, as leaders we need to think beyond our own programs and build-in fundamental ways of integrating those experiences into a larger framework. Building programmatic scaffolds to connect and weave the experiences so they don’t stand alone would be an important step to secure Jewish continuity. In addition we would, as leaders, model the very behavior we want our teens to develop.

(Photo credit: Jrwooley6)


Are we reaching middle school students?

Introducing hands-on computing in secondary ed...

When did things get so serious for middle-schoolers?

A new Gallup poll studied factors related to student engagement, optimism, and well-being revealed that students scored relatively high on all these factors.

Except when you examine the findings for middle school students: (italics mine)

“Many adults are apt to blame hormonal and other life changes for the drop in student engagement at the middle school level, but that is not how students tend to explain it, he added. Instead, students are more likely to say that they are “not known, not valued, not recognized” at the secondary level, as they were in elementary school. They also indicate that their school days are stripped of “play” in middle school.

So, turn that reality into goal statements and we should have a very clear idea of the work we need to do.

Public school teachers have their challenges for sure. On top of handling large class sizes, coping with intense student tracking and detailed record-keeping, managing curricular pressures, there needs to be a focus on emotional and social learning.

They would think our work in these areas with students is a piece of pie.

As Jewish educators, we have the luxury of working with teens on an emotional and spiritual level.

For the most part, we have small classes, little curricular pressure, less record keeping.

We should be aceing this challenge and making such a difference with students in this age group.

Instead, students face the middle school reality, along with the intensity of the 7th grade (Bar/Bat Mitzvah) year.

How playful is that?

Not very.

So, how can we make it more so? Mentoring? Trope contests? D’var Torah write-ins?

We can not continue with the ‘business as usual’ paradigm.

So, I know, Gallup’s results aren’t directed at Jewish educators.

And, there is no call to action in the article detailing Gallup’s results.

But we know that we’re not succeeding with this age group.

And yet, again, we need to step it up, quickly.

Photo credit: License, Free-use,  creative commons.

 


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