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.

 


Why do buildings substitute for substance for Jewish teens?

List of Jews in literature and journalism

It used to be Culture vs Content. Now is it Building vs Substance?

 

 

 

 

 

 

I call this the IMBY* Phenomenon: In My Back Yard.

It’s the reason that often holds synagogue communities back from collaborating. It’s the pull of the building.

And often, programs that would offer more substance are foregone in favor of holding programs right where everyone wants them to be, in their own backyard.

I remember years ago, a beloved teacher (who has since moved to Israel) used to mourn the sad state of Jewish education when she grimly noted that parents were interested in “Polaroid Judaism”, meaning that as long as their kids were ‘exposed’ to Jewish culture they’d stay connected.

So, if they attended a Jewish film, ate some Jewish food, and speckled their language with a few Jewish words, that would suffice to strengthen their tenuous ties to Judaism.

Well, this is one step further than that.

This is a quote I heard recently when a parent was discussing her son’s involvement in synagogue:

” Well, at least he walks into the building (one night a month). I’m happy he does that.” 

It seems like it’s enough for some parents that their kids connect with Judaism just by walking in the synagogue.

As if one can believe in a building.  Or that kids can ‘get’ Judaism by osmosis.

Sometimes, against all financial odds and educational common sense, the powers that be want the programs at their particular location precisely because they want kids to be in the building.

Do we have so much invested in the membership/mortgage structure that we’re happy just when the building is used?

There’s a well-told story about a Rabbi who asks a camper (who participated in a camp’s weekly havdallah ceremony by the lake) if she was continuing the practice at home.

“I can’t”, she replied.

“Why not, don’t you remember the service?”

“Yes, of course. But I can’t.”

“Why then?”

“Because there’s no lake.”

Let’s make sure our programs are created and continue for all the right reasons not  just because they’re in the building.

We all know that buildings don’t substitute for substance.

What are your thoughts? Have you experienced this phenomenon in your area?

 

*The original term NIMBY is an acronym for Not In My Back Yard, which became shorthand for the attitude that people did not want anything that might be construed as unsavory located in their neighborhoods.

Photo credit: Wikipedia


Let’s hope Jewish parents are smarter than this

Are we just being stupid or stubborn?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


From Jewish Camp to Synagogue: Five No-brainers

Stanford Sailing Summer Camp in session in Red...

The more things change, the more …..well, you can fill in the blank here. This is on my mind as we approach the summer and thousands of Jewish teens anxiously await the beginning of Jewish camp.

I thought that by now there would be some changes in the synagogue world.  I’m not even talking about broad, sweeping, systemic change.  Or the changes suggested by some 15 teens a few months ago. Incredibly, I have been hoping for one small specific change ever since I was about 10 years old and attended a Jewish summer camp (which I did for 6 years after that and for 9 more in assorted roles from teacher to Assistant Director).

That change is maximizing campers’ experiences when they arrive home to their synagogue communities.  Specifically, at services (I so dislike that name for what we’re looking to experience during that time of prayer).  The disconnect I experienced then still holds true in most synagogues now. Jewish teens have described it to me.

Summer camp is exhilarating for our Jewish teens. For most, living Judaism 24/7 and not as an ‘add-on’ like Hebrew school, is a powerful new experience for them.  Their weeks have the rhythm of Shabbat in camp that usually doesn’t occur at home. They’re also socializing in a “Jewish bubble” surrounded by staff and friends who are all Jewish and who are making a commitment to be together for several weeks.

That’s why many Jewish Federations around the country and the Foundation for Jewish camping are trying to get our kids to go there through incentive scholarships.

Okay, let’s get back to focusing on the one thing: services.  At camp? Not boring at all. Sure, they’re tired in the morning, can barely keep their eyes open, but their peers are usually in front of the room leading the group, and this already makes things rather interesting. Plus, there’s a lot of interactivity and singing.  Do you have this mental picture?  Good.

Let’s switch now, to what they experience at their home synagogue. If it’s hard for you to keep a connection to services comprised of ‘readings’ interspersed with cantorial singing, how might they feel after just experiencing what they did for weeks in the summer?

It might not be too harsh to say that experiencing ‘services’ at their home synagogue amounts to listening to someone else chant—-like in a production where you buy tickets and wait for the entertainment.

If guests go up to the bimah (raised platform), it’s usually to offer a reading. Yawn.  But what about synagogues that hold a camp Shabbat honoring those teens who attend Jewish summer camps? Oh that? Yes, that’s when most often, campers are invited to lead prayers but not asked to bring their style of prayer to the “Jews in the Pews”. Usually the reason given is that people like to sing/read/chant what they already know….it’s comfortable. (I’m not making this up, I’ve been told this very thing).

It’s frightfully a sad state when there are no links, bridges, and supports from one experience to the other. There may be programs working on this, but I haven’t encountered any.

So, here we have Jewish teens who spend the summer being energized about a Judaism that is alive, pulsing, vibrant, and changeable, coming back home to experience a sterile, cold, inflexible environment. And again, I’m just talking about services. What should we do about it? Here are some suggestions for using the talents of our teens:

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

#2.  Put one or more Jewish teens on your ritual committee to infuse it with some new ideas and approaches that they’ve learned at camp.

#3.  Give the teens a goal to incorporate one new and different thing from camp into synagogue programming for your youth.

#4.  Feature these Jewish summer camp experts as part of a panel that explores the ways in which the synagogue community can learn and be enriched by their experience.

#5.  Get these teens in front of your younger students to share their experiences and keep the legacy of Jewish camping a presence at your synagogue.

I bet you’ll notice a change. Even if it’s a really small specific one.

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Photo credit: Wikipedia


Hiring Jewish teen aides? Five things to know

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

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

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

And naturally, she’s thinking of majoring in elementary education.

If she went to college, in four years, she would earn a teaching degree, and may even decide to go for an advanced degree.

Fortunately for her, college finances are not a problem.  She is undecided about college however, because just last week she was offered  a job as a classroom aide at an after-school program.

For her, it would mean a real job and money. Now.

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

The after-school program really thinks that Rachel will be an excellent role model for the younger students, and taking the job would mean that she could make an impact on those children now.

What should Rachel do—work as an aide now or continue her education?

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

So, right about now, you might be thinking that this is a no-brainer. I even find it challenging to think that anyone would recommend that she forego her own education in favor of the immediate: earning some money even though she’d be using her talents and skills.

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

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

In many synagogues around the country, on a weekly basis, students get paid to work in Hebrew schools at the very age when they should be furthering their own education. Sure, their choice is not necessarily to go off to college to earn a Jewish studies degree, but why is their own education sacrificed in order to hire them as classroom aides? I’m specifically talking about the many students I hear about each year who say that they can’t go further in their Jewish education because they’re working as an aide at a Hebrew school and would be too busy.

Here’s FIVE reasons why it is not a good idea to hire our teens as aides:

#1. Why shortchange a Jewish teens’ education at this important time in their lives when they’re ready to intellectually grapple with Jewish ideas?

#2. Hiring teens creates ‘instant role models’ at your synagogue, but you’re also making a statement that really, continuing Jewish education isn’t nearly as good as getting a paycheck.

#3. Hiring teens makes the statement that there isn’t much to a professional Jewish educator, after all, someone who has just completed a bar/bat mitzvah is perfectly suited to help out in the classroom.

#4. Students working in these classroom rarely receive the additional support or training to deal with the many issues that come up or the questions they have.

#5. Instead of learning to change paradigms, and thinking creatively about Hebrew school options, students cycle through the very ineffective system that they experienced.

A recent study regarding the placement and retention of close to 3,000 public school teachers found that when they were student teachers, they should have been considered students, and not teachers in order to get the support they needed. How much more so would this hold true for our Jewish teens placed in classrooms? 

So, what is a Hebrew school to do?

Well, for starters, tell the aides that in order to work in your school they must be enrolled in further Jewish education (online, adult study, Hebrew high school—- something).

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


Yizkor and Memorial Day: An American Jewish Experience

northwestjewishartists.org

I don’t remember experiencing the juxtaposition that occurred today: there were so many strong emotions swirling through my head related to being a Jewish American praying in synagogue on Shavuot.

On Memorial Day.

No mall shopping. No barbecues either hosted or attending.  No parade watching or flag waving. No trips to the shore to inaugurate the summer’s sun.

But I did memorialize on this day–my parents z”l of blessed memory.

 

I said Kaddish for my father who earned a bronze star and purple heart in WWII as a new immigrant soldier–for my mother who came to this country for refuge after losing her parents and nine brothers and sisters in the holocaust — for the millions who perished in the Shoah, and for our valiant soldiers who risk their lives so I can have mine living in freedom.

These emotions were in the context of a holiday that celebrates the gift of Torah to the Jewish people.

On Memorial Day and at Yizkor, we remembered loved ones who died for a cause, and those who died for no cause.  And we hope and pray that through the message of Torah, the world will be a better place.


‘Wow, You’re Soooo Jewish!”

What image comes to mind when you read the headline?

Is it the consummate Jewish nebbish, portrayed here by Woody Allen?

The words “You’re soooo0 Jewish”, said in that tone of voice, from one Jewish teenager to another, is not meant as a compliment.

So, what does it mean?

Really, take a minute.

What would it mean to you?

 

To this teenager, it meant that his Jewish friend was taking Judaism seriously, too seriously.

Not only was he Jewish, he was acting Jewish.

Forget that being ‘so Jewish’ is a little like being a human. You either are or you’re not.

But that’s not the point.

The comment was meant as a put-down, a derogatory statement about identity.

Clearly, there is no ‘cool’ factor when it comes to Jewish education for these students.

Okay, you’re wondering, what is it that this student is doing that makes his peers say he’s so Jewish?

He attends a supplementary high school program two days a week.

He’s in 8th grade, and says that he wants to graduate the program in 12th.

He belongs to a youth group.

He sometimes attends synagogue on Shabbat. And he sometimes studies with a Rabbi.

Okay, by now you’re probably convinced that his Jewish involvement is unusual, and you might be shaking your head.

Years ago, this student would not have been labeled ‘SuperJew‘.

On the contrary, that’s what thousands of teens were doing. Then.

Before their lives got so busy, complicated, college-focused and pressured. Now, based on today’s new realities and priorities, our expectations have changed. So, is the student I described s00000 Jewish, or have we bought into diminished standards?

What Jewish involvements are too much? Too little?

How do you feel about the term s0000o Jewish?

What I will say, is that the one thing, the Jewish identification thing, that will help Jewish teens be more grounded before they run off to college is the thing that tends to get low priority.

Unless of course, you’re “SuperJew” and one of the kids who is “sooooo Jewish.”


Why some teens ‘get it’ but their parents don’t

I just came back from visiting a synagogue with an enviable number of teens in their Confirmation Program.

What number, you ask, counts as being worthy of envy? About FORTY.

I was talking to them about continuing their Jewish education and framing it in the context of choices they make.

For example, I asked and the majority answered, that they play sports or a musical instrument.

I asked them if faced with a choice about whether to practice scales, do drills, or go to the movies, what they would choose.

Most chose the movies. No surprise there.   I then asked which activity they thought was the most important.

The answers were very rich and textured.

They mostly all opted for the drilling and practicing. They talked about those activities as building character, teamwork, responsibility, and doing something for their future.  The felt it was time well spent.

Interesting no?

I then facilitated a conversation with them about how being involved in continuing education might be a little like that.  Like it would build character and identity. Things that would make them better people, but that take some time.

They GOT IT.

Do you think their parents get it?  When thinking about how or what these teens might say to parents about what we just talked about–continuing their Jewish education—-I wonder how many parents will say:

“Wow, that makes a lot of sense” or what I often hear instead: “How can you possibly do one more thing, you’re already overbooked!”

What do you think the parents you know would say?


Jewish Teens Need Us to Work as a Team

English: Students cheer their team on Sports DayI have resisted writing about the following for some time. But I can always tell when I’ve reached my own ‘tipping point’: it’s usually when I get tired of hearing myself repeat the same thing over and over to different people.

Secretly, I hope they’ll do something about what I’m telling them, but that hasn’t happened yet.  So, here I am, blogging to you. At least you can listen and perhaps share my frustration, and who knows? Maybe things will change.

First, we need to cooperate more. We are not working as a team on behalf of our teens.  I’ll define a teen team player as anyone or any organization that has the teen’s best interest at heart for involvement in Jewish life. Period.

That team, the teen team, has a shortage of players which is why we’re losing the Jewish identity game.  Here are some reasons:

  • There is little to no list-sharing among providers of Jewish educational experiences, both formal and informal.  What about privacy you ask? Well, how many groups even ask if their teens might want to have their names shared with other teen non-profit groups (non-profit stressed due to obvious reasons). How many teens do you know that would not want to be with as many other Jewish teens as possible?
  • Since groups wish to maintain their “members” and teens’ time is limited, there is little collaboration among groups, fearing that teens might ‘defect’ if exposed to the other group. (I could have said ‘leave’ but I’m making a point here). This plays out among synagogues, youth groups, interest groups, educational providers, and camps. Yes, there are joint programs out there, but often they partner with  ‘their own’ of the same denomination. I have experienced too many anecdotes about this that would curl your ears, if your ears could, in fact curl.
  • So, the takeaway for teens, though not intended, is that “membership” dictates who is in your community. How’s that for teaching teens that the Jewish community is a fluid, open-networked concept?
  • The above mentioned groups feel no guilt about deciding destiny. So, for example, if a teen belongs to a movement-affiliated synagogue, the chances of finding out about other options are pretty limited. If a synagogue is affiliated with a movement, only that youth group and camp are promoted.
  • Synagogues often want their teens ‘on-site’ as if keeping them physically in one place assures commitment (it doesn’t). Those teens may end up defining Judaism very narrowly. In fact, they do just that when they get to college. How can Judaism be more relevant to them if their experience of it is primarily synagogue-based? I am not referring to those teens who seem to straddle multiple worlds, and who are natural networkers. And I’m also not saying that synagogue/youth group/movement camps are not a good thing, we know they are. I’m specifically talking about those teens, for whatever reasons, are the minimally engaged to begin with and not making those choices. What are the options for other Jewish connections that we’re giving them?
  • The above does not apply to broad-based efforts, like the Foundation for Jewish Camping, that make a point of going beyond those limitations in awarding grants by saying in effect: “we don’t care which camp or where, just pick one!” We should all be taking that cue regarding Jewish youth involvement: we don’t care which program or where, just do something!
  • How about other open groups you ask? What about groups like teen philanthropy, teen fellowships, gender-based groups? Those are defining Judaism more broadly, but are there bridges to other programs which could increase identity building? Many times, those connections are left for each teenager to figure out. The connections must work both ways: to and from other organizations and synagogues.
  • How are we doing those teens a favor? Shouldn’t we be giving them a better sense of Jewish communal collaboration before they get to college? How can we, as a Jewish community, talk about pluralism and Klal Yisrael when we don’t really act that way ourselves. Could it be that we are modeling the very behavior they can’t relate to? Is this close-mindedness a contributing cause for the fact that most college students see no need to affiliate denominationally in college? I’m not saying that youth movements don’t work as leadership preparation for the future. I’m saying that we need to rethink our strategies and behave in ways that model collaboration or cooperation. We can’t be on the teen team if our organizations are based on a scarcity model.  

We have to decide if we are playing on an organization’s team or the teen’s team. If we’re on the same team, then we need a shared mission of youth leadership.

We’re in need of players for the teen team if we want to win this.  It’s like we’re in the 9th inning, with no runners on base. Will you step up?

I’d love to hear about collaborative models that defy these descriptions. I’ll post and share your responses so we can learn from each other.

Image via Wikipedia


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