Citizenship and Peoplehood in the Lives of Jewish Teens

Photo courtesy Moving Traditions

Photo courtesy Moving Traditions

Our challenge is to give Jewish teens both the practical skills to build community and alternatives to a culture defined by competition – to give teens authentic and meaningful experiences of belonging that connect them to themselves, their peers, and the Jewish community.

[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 Deborah Meyer

Today’s teens are coming of age in an era of intense competition. To get into ever-more selective colleges, they supplement AP courses with tutoring, push their bodies with professional athletic coaches, and take on staggering loads of extracurricular activities.

These formerly extraordinary efforts to stand out increasingly have become the norm for many in the Jewish community, bringing new levels of financial and emotional stress for teens and their parents.

In this high-pressure context, it is understandable that many programs for Jewish teens have embraced society’s focus on leadership. And such programs are essential to the cultivation of future Jewish leadership.

At the same time, we must ask an important question: Unless we help teens understand what it takes to build and participate as members of a Jewish community, and unless we give teens a reason to belong, will there be robust communities for these leaders to lead?

Moving Traditions’ research and our years of program experience, along with a wealth of scholarly research and testimony from teens, all point to the fact that Jewish teens lack opportunities to explore what it means to grow into responsible, resilient Jewish adults in community with their Jewish peers.

Our challenge is to give Jewish teens both the practical skills to build community and alternatives to a culture defined by competition – to give teens authentic and meaningful experiences of belonging that connect them to themselves, their peers, and the Jewish community.

Moving Traditions’ has worked to leverage its field-tested programs Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing! and Shevet Achim: The Brotherhood to do just this for more than 15,000 teens across the country. By fostering the creation of minyanim, groups of ten teenage girls or boys in the same grade that meet regularly over time with trained adult mentors, Moving Traditions helps teens learn the value of meaningful participation in Jewish community, navigating human relationships within a group of peers.

Central to Moving Traditions’ educational model is the creation of a safe space for teens to openly explore with their peers fundamental questions of identity and society. Mentors guide the teens in connecting enduring Jewish values to the issues they care about most, including friendship, sexuality, academic pressure, competition, and stress.

David, a Shevet Achim leader in New York, wrote in his group’s third year, “Our discussions have been intense. For example, two of the guys were at a party where they saw a sexual assault perpetrated by an intoxicated 15-year-old boy. The police were involved. After they spoke about what happened, we discussed personal boundaries, respect, and sexual consent. We also talked about alcohol and drugs. This wasn’t ‘just say no’, but a talk about the reality that people in high school drink and smoke and how important it is to put checks on yourself so that you don’t harm yourself or others.

“In all of our conversations, we stress how Judaism teaches us to be balanced – to be honest about our deepest human desires and, at the same time, to control our impulses.

How do you walk the line between what you want to do and what is sensitive to others? Asking that is a core Jewish value that we address in Shevet Achim.”

For more than a decade, Moving Traditions has continually worked to sharpen and focus this model of Jewish teen education, with 1,400 groups of girls meeting under the auspices of more than 300 institutional partners. A recent independent evaluation by Drs. Pearl Beck and Tobin Belzer, looking at girls who participated in 2008-2010, demonstrates that Moving Traditions’ Rosh Hodesh program helps teen girls value personal connection to their peers and to Jewish life. The study, combining qualitative and quantitative research, revealed that through their participation in Rosh Hodesh girls are achieving four key outcomes:

  1. Building greater self-esteem.
  2. Believing that they can take action on behalf of themselves, other women, and their Jewish and secular communities.
  3. Deepening their peer-to-peer relationships with other Jewish girls.
  4. Cultivating deeper Jewish connections throughout high school, into college, and beyond.

Because Moving Traditions’ programs serve as training grounds for teens to build meaningful Jewish community, as a result, more Jewish teens are growing into adulthood with confidence, compassion, and a lifelong commitment to Jewish community. We therefore expect to hear more teens say about their Jewish experiences, as one young woman told the researchers, “Rosh Hodesh taught me to see myself as a part of a community.” And if more young Jews see themselves as integrally connected, they will be much more likely to participate as leaders and members, building the Jewish community of the future.

Deborah Meyer is the Founder and Executive Director of Moving Traditions, whose award-winning programs, Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing! and Shevet Achim: The Brotherhood empower thousands of Jewish teen girls and boys to question gender restrictions and make meaning in Jewish community.