[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 16 – Developing Teen Leadership with a Peoplehood Orientation – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]
By David Bryfman
Taken straight from the headlines:
Website Offers Virtual Seder
Dancing Bar Mitzvah Boy Donated his $36,000 gift money to Charity
Virtual Judaism: Finding Second Life in Online Community
Should Auschwitz be a Site for Selfies?
When you read these headlines are you confused? Concerned? Angered? Or are you Curious? Hopeful? Inspired? If you were one of those people who read these and came away shaking your head in disdain, wondering where our young people’s values have gone, or imagining your deceased relatives rolling in their graves, then I have a headline for you – Like it or Hate it – Generation Me is here to Stay!
Many have declared that today’s generation of teenagers and young adults (somewhere between Generation Y and Millenials) are the most narcissistic, self-indulgent and selfish generation to ever walk the planet – hence the title Generation Me. Given this description it’s no wonder that our Jewish youth, who in most ways resemble their non-Jewish counterparts, are spending thousands of hours online pretending to be someone else, dancing on YouTube, and yes, even taking photos of themselves smiling in front of death camps.
But on the other hand there is ample evidence that shows that youth today, including, an often overly represented Jewish population, are the most politically active, socially conscious and positive action-oriented the world has ever seen. Those children of the sixties who want to claim this title often say that you can’t compare an online petition to a protest rally – and they may be right. But the point here is not to claim one generation’s superiority over another, but to remind ourselves that today’s youth are capable of being both narcissists and altruists – and often at the same time.
It is essential for us not to dismiss their humanitarianism as a by-product of their access to technology. Yes it is the case that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat open up access to literally millions of people quicker and faster than any technology we have seen before. But it is also a mistake to posit that the desire of our teens to make the world a better place is because of this technology. Quite simply if they chose to spend their time doing other things they could, and they would, and they do.
For our Jewish teens there is an additional element that plays into what may have first appear to feed into our initial dichotomous understanding of the narcissistic self and the collectively minded individual. Jewish teens by and large feel very much integrated into the western societies in which they live. In most ways they look like, behave like, and have the same values as their non-Jewish counterparts. Simultaneously these Jewish youth are also proud members of the Jewish tribe. Jewish teens often feel a strong sense of belonging to their fellow Jews, much as other teens in America have their own affinity groups – whether it be by religion, ethnicity, race, gender or sexual–orientation. Newer conceptions of identity understand that these teens can have multiple identities, hybrids of these identities and fluidly move between these identities. A Jewish teen can be as American as they want to be and as Jewish as they want to be, at the same time or at different times, depending on the context that they find themselves in.
And the really good news for the Jewish people is that Jewish teens want those Jewish moments in their lives. Right now, especially in the western world, it’s cool to be Jewish. And who could argue that with such positive and openly Jewish role models out there for them to aspire to – including Sacha Baron Cohen, Sara Silverman, Seth Rogen, Idina Menzel, Jon Stewart, Mayim Bialik, and Drake.
To be a Jewish teen today is to be able to determine for oneself when being Jewish is most important and salient – and often this is done in the context of community, both local and global. To understand Jewish education today is to understand when to raise the Jewish self of our learners and also when to harness their other selves – to ensure that we are indeed educating human beings and not just certain parts of the whole.
So you’re a Jewish educator or communal professional and you want to know how to make sense of all of this the next time you encounter a Jewish teen:
Hint #1: When a teen approaches you all excited and wants to talk to you about their baseball game, their fragile mental state, or their love interests, don’t dismiss these issues because we don’t talk about them in “Jewish space and time.” These are exactly the issues that we should be talking about with our teens, because that is what is most important to them.
Hint #2: If you want Jewish teens to come to activities that you think are important, be attentive to what’s important to them. We should respect our teens enough to go to their recitals and sign petitions that they feel passionately about, because respect is a two-way street.
Hint #3: the next time you feel the urge to ask them about their Jewish identity of Jewish journey – pause. Ask them about their whole selves and who they are as a full human being. I’m sure after a few probes the Jewish stuff will come out but make it clear that that’s not the only part of them that you are really interested in.
I don’t want to pretend to know any of the youth involved in the above headlines. But I also don’t want to judge them harshly. Instead I want to avail myself to the possibility that in their own way each was in some way connecting to the Jewish people. The young person who finds spiritual meaning with fellow Jews at an online Passover seder, the boy who becomes an Internet sensation and donates his Bar Mitzvah gifts to the Israelis who found themselves in Sderot’s bomb shelters, the youth who find connection and kinship among fellow Jewish avatars in a virtual world, and yes, even the youth who find that showing a photograph of themselves at Auschwitz was significant enough to share with their Facebook friends as a mark of defiance and celebration over evil. As uncomfortable as it might make us feel, these are the some of the many faces of Jewish peoplehood today and in the years to come – and that is a good thing!
 By and large,the understanding of Jewish teens in this way refers to non-Orthodox Jewis hteens, who constitute the vast majority of Jewish teens in the world today.
Dr. David Bryfman is the Chief innovation Officer at The Jewish Education Project. He has worked in formal and informal Jewish education in Australia, Israel and North America and has recently edited a book, “Experience and Jewish Education.”