by David Bryfman
Research about teenagers not only informs our understanding of the youth population at a given point in time, but can also give us a good indication where a society may be heading. Although my study is first and foremost about the identity of Jewish teenagers today I also discovered that it offers an insight into the future directions of North American Jewry. (1) Whether I am right or wrong, only time will tell. Either way, the ten claims that I will make in relation to the Jewish youth today, are derived from the voices of Jewish teenagers, and describe a reality and perhaps a future very different to the world that preceded them.
1. They Care. This generation of youth has often been categorized as narcissistic, self-absorbed and largely dis-interested in their collective being. While this may be true for some, it must be juxtaposed with the deep feeling categorizing adolescence – the need to discover who they are, where they belong, and how they fit into this world. Most Jewish teenagers care about being Jewish, because their history, people, religions and culture help define who they are and how they fit into this world.
2. Multiple Selves. As much as being Jewish is important, it is only one piece of who these teenagers are – in many cases no more or less important than any other of their identities. Their gender, sexuality, their social standing in school cliques, and their relationship with music could all be examples of different identities they possess. What makes this generation different is the ease with which they can move between their various identities depending on the context and who they surround themselves with. For many Jewish teenagers being Jewish is only as important as the context allows it to be and very rarely will be at the expense of other identities.
3. We’re Here. Unlike previous generations who have struggled with their Jewishness, the Jewish youth of today do not perceive a need to assert themselves as Jews in order to survive and thrive. Many Jewish teenagers are so at ease with their place as Jews in society – to the extent that many are even able to make fun of themselves as Jews. Perhaps this is one instance where geography really makes a difference but nevertheless it is important to mention as salient to many members of this generation.
4. Safe and Secure. Not only are they proud Jews, but many of these teenagers feel safe and secure as Jews in America today. Despite what their parents or grandparents might tell them, Jewish teenagers today in the whole do not feel any existential threat to the survival of the Jewish people. For them, the Holocaust is an important episode in history, the State of Israel has always and will always be there, and threats from Iran or media reports of anti-Semitism in France are just that – media reports among the many in a continuous 24-7 news cycle. This should not be interpreted as naïve or ignorant. For this generation of teenagers, 9-11 is still their single biggest point of reference in terms of a geo-political understanding of the world – but it is seen as a threat to a western, American way of life and not specifically directed towards Jews.
5. Labels Don’t Matter. Perhaps surprisingly, for a generation that throws around terms such as geek, jock, cool, emo, etc. when it comes to being Jewish – labels simply don’t matter. Being Jewish is a self-ascribed term – and who are they to question or judge how someone cares to define themselves? As a direct consequence denominations hold little relevance (except for the Orthodox and some Conservative teens). So too is inter-marriage accepted as a fact of life – even a source of pride for some because “halvsies” are seen as lucky to get to know about more than just one culture.
6. Creative Generation. Whether they are more or less creative is immaterial because what is important is that today’s youth have the capacity to express themselves and share their talents with more people than ever before. In a Web 2.0 world, best symbolized by Wikipedia, all information has value, and anyone delivering that information is a resource (especially if it is constructed by the masses). Today’s youth have grown up in this reality and so they expect and demand to be fully involved in both the creation and implementation of anything that is important to them. A Jewish text and a traditional authority are valuable only once their respect has been earned – something that can only be established when teens are given the opportunity to develop a personal relationship with either the text or the authority figure. Likewise rituals are only as meaningful as the sovereign selves who help construct and develop them. This rejection of tradition has been interpreted by some as disrespectful – but instead needs to be re-framed within the passion and dedication of those many young Jews who strive to be creators and interpreters and not merely recipients of a tradition.
7. Universal Judaism. Whereas once being Jewish was seen as important because it was “good for the Jews,” for teenagers today being Jewish is only seen as important in so much as it can affect the world. The trend towards Jewish social action and tikkun olam is not a fad, but it is representative of a belief that enables Jewish teenagers to contribute to making the world a better place through a Jewish lens. This also means that one can be positively Jewish in a non-Jewish framework and with non-Jewish contemporaries – facts that mainstream Jewish organizations are reluctant to accept.
8. Challenging Jews. On the whole Jewish teenagers are intelligent and must be treated that way at every level of interaction. In all spheres of life, teenagers today are taught to question and be critical – and Jewish life, and specifically Jewish education, must adapt accordingly. And this means that nothing is off limits – including some of the sacred cows of Jewish life. The best example of this is in our youth’s relationship with Israel. Teenagers who have been given room to question and critique Israel are overwhelmingly more supportive of the Jewish State (even with all of their concerns), in comparison to those teens who were never given a choice except to accept the party line.
9. Not My Children. At every point of my research there were parents, rabbis, teachers and other teenagers willing to dismiss my findings. “My children would never…,” “never in my (insert school, camp, youth group),” “you selected specific teenagers” or, “you only included the juicy stuff” were some of the many comments I received along my research journey. Perhaps thou doth protest too much I tell them – for these must be someone’s children and there is every bit as good a chance that they are reflective of your own.
10. Today’s Jews. Jewish teenagers are not the Jews of tomorrow – they are the Jews of today. Even though they give us a glimpse into the Jewish world of tomorrow – they are not the future, they are not the next generation – they are indeed the Jews of today – and must be treated accordingly.
Children are not the people of tomorrow, but are people of today. They have a right to be taken seriously, and to be treated with tenderness and respect. They should be allowed to grow into whoever they were meant to be. ‘The unknown person’ inside each of them is our hope for the future. (2)
For Jewish educators and communal professionals, these ten claims are more than just statements about teen identity and future patterns that may emerge (if they haven’t already) in American Jewry. They also tell us that if we, as a Jewish community, want to engage Jewish teenagers in ongoing, meaningful Jewish activities then the paradigms we use and the structures that we are currently offering them are largely outdated and irrelevant.
In many ways discussions about technology have clouded the real conversations that need to take place. The issue is not how Facebook and Twitter have changed teenagers today – but how these technological realities have dramatically altered our understanding of key dimensions of both individual and collective identity including community, affiliation, membership, friendship, belonging, belief systems, rituals, knowledge and authority.
While the scope of this article does not venture into the realm of practical implications it does tell us that the Jewish world of teen engagement tomorrow can and must look very different than it does today.
(1) This article is based on my Ph.D. research that focused on the development of identity among Jewish teenagers in North America. I want to draw attention to the fact that my study included Jewish teenagers from the broad spectrum of Jewish life, mainly in the northeast region of the United States – except for the Orthodox population who for methodological reasons were not included in my study.
(2) Janusz Korczak in Lifton, B. J. (1997). The King of Children: The Life and Death of Janusz Korczak. New York: Macmillan, p. 62.
David Bryfman, Ph.D is the Director of the New Center for Collaborative leadership at BJENY-SAJES. This article originally appeared in the Union for Reform’s Judaism Torah at the Center publication, Reach High Reflections: Retaining Teens and Young Adults edition, which can be downloaded in full.