Engaging Jewish Teens

by Leonard Saxe

Over the last two decades a host of commissions and task forces have assessed how the Jewish community can reach out to post-bnai mitzvah teens. The Reform movement, in their just concluded Biennial meeting, declared “Youth Engagement” as their number one priority. They, along with other non-Orthodox movements, recognize that the bar and bat mitzvah ceremony is an inflection point in the lives of American Jews. The question that has bedeviled adults has been how to engage teens once they step off the bimah at age 12 or 13.

In a new report, commissioned by UJA-Federation of New York and The Jewish Education Project, Amy Sales and colleagues at Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies studied New York-area parents, teenagers, and youth workers. They tried to understand how teenagers think about their Jewish lives and how their views jibe, or not, with the views of their parents and professionals. The focus was on the most engaged teenagers – those who are connected with a synagogue. If we cannot figure out how to engage this group, the larger puzzle of how to engage the less connected is unlikely to be solved.

The graphic drawn from the report summarizes what’s important to teens in comparison to what their parents want for them. The evidence is clear-cut: Almost universally, teens want to have good friends, they want to do well academically, and they want to get into a good college. Having a strong Jewish identity, being involved in the Jewish community, and leading a religiously observant life are low on their priority list. Teens and parents mostly agree on the secular priorities. They disagree, however, on the importance of Jewish identity and engagement: Teens see Jewish connections as far less important than do their parents.

Sales concludes that the time for commissions has passed – we need to be more activist and we need “big ideas” that can be implemented and evaluated. We need ideas that can be translated into projects that will become as dominant as the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony and have the reach of a mega-program such as Taglit-Birthright Israel. The data suggest that we abandon any assumptions about engaging teens in Jewish life simply by creating a teen-focused adult system. Our adolescents are telling us that they want to be involved in the secular world. They are social networkers and they seek universalism, not particularism.

As the next step in adolescents’ Jewish journey after bar/bat mitzvah, I propose creating a Jewish service corps – that culminates in a meaningful experience of service learning. The goal is to provide a Jewish context to engage high school students with the “real world.” The program would have universalistic elements and, for example, teach study and leadership skills, but it would also immerse participants in Jewish thought. Service corps members would participate in a series of short intensive programs that would culminate in a 2 to12 month experience at the end of high school.

Creating a Jewish service corps as a normative expectation of late adolescence would make clear that Jewish values obligate each of us to work as a community to make the world a better place. As Albert Einstein said, commitment to “the democratic ideal of social justice” is a bond that has “united Jews for thousands of years.” Adolescents, as they transition to adulthood, need experiences that allow them develop skills to succeed in the world-at-large in a value- based context.

Although preparation for the service corps would take place throughout high school, its culmination would be an experience that enables teens to function with high independence and to participate in a socially useful project. My preference is that this be a year-long experience and serve as a post-high school gap year program. Most high school graduates, no matter how intellectually prepared, lack the worldly knowledge and maturity to take full advantage of college opportunities.

Ideally, the culminating program would include travel and study components and link Jewish youth from communities across the North America with those in Israel and elsewhere. The goal is to make it a major inflection point in the lives of adolescents, as significant as the bar and bat mitzvah ceremony. To prepare for the service corps, religious-based youth groups and secular youth movements would take on the role of recruitment and training centers.

To succeed, the service corps has to be so exciting, engaging, and universalistic in its focus that every Jewish teenager and parent of a teen will see participation as a necessity. The service corps will need to provide them with the skills and experience that increase their attractiveness to colleges, while immersing them in study of Judaism’s rich tradition of ethical and practical thought.

The project is larger than any one existing institution and will need to leverage existing programs as well as spawn new ones. Funding will also be required, in particular to stimulate the development of programs. Potential sponsors include the denominational movements, federations and private philanthropies. It is an opportunity for the adult Jewish community to apply itself to confronting one of the most daunting communal issues and for our religious, communal and philanthropic organizations to work in concert.

Despite stereotypical descriptions of adolescence as a time of turmoil, estrangement from parents, and rebellion, contemporary Jewish teens – exemplified by those who Sales studied – are high achievers and have good parental relationships. But even those teens from the most committed Jewish homes are, for the most part, engaged on a journey for success. It’s a trek often disconnected from Jewish life.

We are obligated to teach our children both the moral and practical skills to be fully developed adults. Learning is a life-long task and does not end when our children step off the bimah as a bar or bat mitzvah. Finding new ways to make Jewish learning and engagement relevant for teens needs to be a priority if the community is to have a vibrant future.

Leonard Saxe is director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University.

chart: What’s Important to Teens versus What Their Parents Want for Them (% very much or extremely)
From Sales, Samuel and Zablotsky, Engaging Jewish Teens: A Study of New York Teens, Parents and Practitioners. Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, Brandeis University, November 2011.

An earlier version of this article appeared in The Jewish Week.

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  1. Mike says

    This has been an eternal issue and one that has poked at the question of remaining connected for generations since the holocaust. However it seems like the educators of the Jewish world are more focused on a solution then the parents of the same children. The Jewish educators are faced on a daily basis with seeing that the students are arriving to Hebrew schools with less and less basic knowledge every year. Hence it seems to take longer to bring these young people to a common level of knowledge as has been needed in the past. What has however remained the same is the obligation that many parents have imposed on their children, which is a need to be involved until such time as they have had their Bnai Mitzvah, what ever that may mean.
    It has also been said for years that you can not demand of a child what he or she is not exposed to in the home. By that I mean, a child raised in a home with no manners will in most cases not have manners outside his/her home as well. A child that is not exposed to proper hygiene may not display good hygiene outside his/her home. A family that does not practice any Jewishness in the home, and expects that 5 hours a week at a Hebrew school is going to fix this may be surprised to find that they may not succeed in breathing Jewish ethics and rituals or customs into their children. Especially when these parents never ask their children what they learned during those 5 hours a week, in fear that they may not know themselves what their children are referring to.
    It is as if we would bring our children to a doctor to only deal with an illness and no one ever taking the time to understand what caused the decease. We continue to turn to the child to find out how to fix the problem when they are the result of the problem, and not speaking to the parents, who are the cause of the issue.
    The survey above seems a bit immature. A question of having good friends, hmm what normal parent or child would not share this response? Perhaps a question should be:
    Parents, with your current daily work load how many hours per week are you willing to commit to sharing Jewish education, culture with your child . Or how many hours a week are you willing to be together with your child learning about your history or culture.
    In my opinion we need to stop asking our young how to increase their connection and spend more time with the parents asking what it will take to have the commitment to be participants in the learning/teaching process with their children. When my youngest daughter was in Hebrew school she came home and said that the class she has to take in preparation for her Bat Mitzvah requires at least one of the parents participate. I remember asking myself how I can get out of this. After the second class I looked forward every week to participating! Bravo Hebrew school for teaching me that I have a role in showing my children the importance of being involved, and allowing my child to see my enthusiasm in sharing time to learn together.
    I have been a parent adviser for both the reform (NFTY) and conservative (USY) youth movements. In doing so I have always found it my role to speak with parents of the participants, many of whom say that they are actively involved with their children’s participation. That means that they drive them, when required, to events. They are very involved with the tikun olum projects, which means they give them 5 dollars and a can of food for the food bank, but when I asked what the money is going towards or to what needy organization the food is going to they have no idea, and quite frankly, don’t care to know.

    I think your idea of a Jewish service corps is wonderful. But why wait until after Bar Mitzvah? Why cant the process begin before, with the parents, rather than as a way to show independence from their parents and family. Perhaps the growth process as a family can lead to a great year of further independence on a gap year program. Birthright unquestionably has brought an amazing opportunity for young Jewish people to have a lifetime experience in just ten days. Having been involved in other Israel programs, I sometimes ask myself, Is birthright so successful because it is free, or because it is a trip for first time travelers to Israel? If the program would cost, within reason, the same as any other program, would it have the same success? This would be about $1000 per week plus airfare, so lets say $2500 per participant. If others were offered the same $2500 to go to Israel on any educational program not only from the ages of 18 to 26, but rather 15 to 26 would that increase the number of young people coming to Israel? Or start the education of being a Jew sooner? Lets just hope that for now the money never runs out!
    Even more interesting, what would happen if there was a birthright group created for young Jewish married couples, that neither of the couple had ever been to Israel, and that part of their visit to Israel would be to learn of the importance of creating a family environment where Jewish culture and tradition can be practiced, regardless of reform, conservative…. Perhaps that would help give young families the tools to breath these things into their children from birth. Later on the 5 hours of Hebrew school a week can enrich the knowledge from the home and help to further cultivate a young independent thinker and role model for the future of the Jewish world, while participating in a “secular”, “universalistic” world that also thrives on the beauty and diversity of the different cultures and religions of all its participants.

  2. Ellen says

    I agree with Mike’s comment that parents need to “be participants in the learning/teaching process with their children” who are preparing to become bar/bat mitzvah. The Jewish Women’s Archive has just developed a way to do this that is fun and satisfying for both parents and bat-mitzvah-age girls. MyBatMitzvahStory.org is a new website with interactive features, a Family History Tool Kit, and profiles of “cool” Jewish women to enrich and personalize a Jewish girl’s coming of age. The site offers tips for parents to use it (as well as clergy and educators to use it in off-line, mixed-gender settings.)

  3. Len Saxe says

    I appreciate Mike and Ellen’s comments and concur that parents are important role models. It is one reason that the Cohen Center study interviewed parents, along with their teens. Finding ways to involve parents in Jewish education, alongside their adolescents, would be very useful. At the same time, the task of adolescence is to learn independence. Finding ways to make Jewish values and learning more relevant inevitably will involve programs that are solely focused on teens.

    Regarding Taglit-Birthright Israel, which I’ve studied for more than a decade, a key reason for its success is that decisions to participate are made by the young adults themselves. In the vernacular, it gives them a sense of “ownership.” The implications are powerful.

    Len Saxe

  4. Mike says

    Thanks for the comment back, I am always impressed by an author of an article that takes the time to see what people are responding, and responding in kind. I am compelled to add one more comment about Taglit-Birthright. I am a very big fan of its results and the “wow” moment that almost every participant has during some time in the ten days that they are in Israel. In fact my daughter, who is a combat soldier in the IDF, will be joining a group in the upcoming days, and I am sure that the results will be mutually beneficial for the group as well as for my daughter.
    Having worked for other Israel programs that are tailored for teens, many young people are forced to wait until they are of Birthright age because their parents, or guardians, either cannot afford to send them during their teen years, or are simply not interested in Israel and would not fund a trip of this kind. I can tell you from experience as, I have sat with a multitude of families that the parents simply say, “wait until you are 18 and go for free with Birthright.” I concur with your statement that developing independence at an early age is important. Hence making the Birthright “stipend” for High school age students as well may be even more significant as they can better be exposed to the finding of independence sooner, and with direction from proper educational programs can help to enrich their community involvement as soon as they return from the program.
    Again, I am a very big fan of Birthright, so much so,that if offered to work for the providers I would do so without hesitation. So please do not read my comment as a criticism. But rather a proposed reality check in asking the question….Now that we know the impact of a program for young Jewish people from the ages of 18 to 26, how do we find a way to increase involvement at even a younger age, that will impact our children while they are still at home rather than have to wait to be college age? The sense of “ownership” that you describe is also felt by the high school age student, when having a positive “life changing experience”, which is what a first time trip to Israel is for most young people when done correctly. Whether it be Birthright, NFTY, USY, AMHSI, to name a few.

  5. says

    There is so much to respond to in the posts and comments! I’ll just make these points
    Though tempting to do so, I don’t think there is a ‘one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of getting post b’nei mitzvah students engaged in Jewish education. A study by Sharon Ravitch almost a decade ago found that students were not signing up for education past this age not because of the choices available, but because after Hebrew school, they wanted to be DONE. So, there needs to be an entirely different way of marketing to these teens that will convince them the experiences they can have will be NEW and unlike what they’ve known.
    There are so many viable options for teens but communities can not fund or support all on their own. The top interests of the teens you studied were being with friends, doing well academically, and getting into college. Programs will need to meet these interests, provide tangible benefits, yet offer a uniquely Jewish experience. This can be done!
    The choices can range from
    ,taking college level classes for credit (this already occurs at The Jewish Community High School of Gratz College)
    .a service learning corps (as you mentioned)
    .career mentorship programs
    .college readiness and prepartory programs (envision learning about colleges, campus life, Jewish life on campus, independent living, budgeting, …..the list is endless!)
    .professional Judaic arts programs with pr=ortfolio readiness as part of the offerings
    .serious Hebrew Language programs for high school and college credit
    .internship programs
    .Israel trips (Most teen educators would agree with Mike’s sentiments here)
    .skill based leadership training programs…. and MORE. Viable choices, with real content can engage teens in a meaningful and productive way.