mc-teens-outside-2By Miriam Chilton and Liz Hirsch

The recent election cycle has been a reminder of the important work we do in helping the next generation navigate a complex world. In times of rapid change, our youth need more than traditional learning to truly thrive. So, what does it take?

Tiffany Shlain, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, created a documentary in 2015 titled “The Adaptable Mind,” where she asks: “What is a great example of a 21st century mind in action?” In the film, Tiffany tells the story of a Los Angeles-based professor, who, while listening to coverage of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, realized how isolating it must feel for patients to only interact with hazmat suits, and thought of the idea of putting pictures of their faces on the front of their suits. If we can’t learn from a woman who put herself in the shoes of those suffering an epidemic over 7,000 miles away from her – and could successfully make a difference for them – who would we learn from?

In her film, Tiffany defines five skills we should teach and embrace most in the 21st century: curiosity, creativity, initiative, multi-disciplinary thinking, and empathy. As we presented this knowledge to our teens at the Dana Gershon and Rabbi Jonah Pesner Northeast Leadership Summit last month, it dawned on us that while it couldn’t be more timely, it is far from new. We are reiterating what Judaism has offered us long ago – knowledge we are privileged to look to, no matter what our modern times may offer. Each of these five teachings exist in the Torah, Talmud, Midrash, and our liturgy. It is our role to convey them in meaningful ways:

  1. Curiosity – Torah is the gateway to infinite learning and discovery. Learning independently, as well as with, and from, others is considered essential. The word chaver, meaning friend, comes from the same root as chavruta, which is a study and thought partner, as taught in the Talmud. Through our work, we expose young people to current issues, encouraging them to seek more knowledge, often in group discussion.
  2. CreativityHiddur Mitzvah, meaning “beautification of the commandment” stems from the idea that one can perform a commandment as simply that. However, if we employ creativity, we can make it more meaningful. Similarly, approaching a problem with creativity and intent can help create sustainable change. This also empowers us to think of longstanding traditions and making them new and applicable today. It supports our own – and our Reform youth’s – progressive and joyous ways of worship.
  3. Multi-disciplinary thinking – the Torah was prescient in teaching how strength, beauty and meaning can be achieved through crowdsourcing multiple talents and viewpoints. The Mishkan, which is the sacred location where God’s presence dwelt with the people, was created by a wide range of ancient artisans. Like the building of the Mishkan, we need the builder, the artist, the thinker, the scholar, and others who can contribute from the heart to equip the needs of the whole person that is each teen. This is taught, modeled and celebrated in each of our programs.
  4. Empathy – we learn the concept of B’tzelem Elohim, teaching us that humanity is created in the image of God. Since we are urged to see ourselves in every person we meet, we are taught to be empathetic to others. This is also why one of the URJ’s core values is Audacious Hospitality. Our programs foster inclusion and urge us to embrace youth and their families as they are.
  5. Initiative – as the Jewish people, our initiative and courage are much of what has helped us survive: Moses overcoming his mumbles to lead the Israelites out of Egypt; Esther approaching her husband in an era of patriarchy and standing up for her people; and Abraham leaving everything he had ever known to journey to the land of Canaan. We encourage youth to self-direct, build relationships, and become resilient individuals.

Torah is our spark and our beginning. It is up to us to show our teens that what they do in the secular world isn’t divorced from their Judaism. This is more than making Judaism relevant, it is showing them that Judaism can help achieve what they yearn for. We have great power in our hands, and our programs are immense tools to prepare our youth for the future.

Miriam Chilton is the Union for Reform Judaism’s vice president of youth; prior to this, she served as director of strategy, operations and finance, for URJ Youth, Camp and Israel Programs.

Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch is an Assistant Director, and alumna, of URJ Eisner Camp. MA.

Cross-posted on URJ’s Inside Leadership Blog

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