Developing Teen Leadership with a Peoplehood Orientation: What Does It Take and Where Do We Start?

PP 16Introduction to Peoplehood Papers, vol.16
By Liat Cohen-Raviv
and Adam Weisberg

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 16 – Developing Teen Leadership with a Peoplehood Orientation published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

In the following essays our selected contributors dig into and tease out a variety of issues critical to interpreting, unpacking, understanding, and responding to just how teens, leadership, and peoplehood go together. More than that, they provide insight into how we can most meaningfully and authentically engage teens in an exploration of where and how Jewish life and community becomes meaningful for them and how they want to contribute to its flourishing.

For all of us at Diller Teen Fellows program, this conversation goes to the root of our mission and the essence of our work. Our success is predicated on our willingness to meet teens where they are at, and to accompany them on their journey to meaningful Jewish engagement and leadership. We are excited to learn from our contributors’ perspectives, and to thinking more about how we can inspire teen commitment to Jewish Peoplehood in action.

Several of our authors, including Arie Levy, David Bryfman, and Ginette Searle remind us not to take for granted teens’ embrace of existing conceptions of peoplehood, or of the value and importance of Jewish engagement at all. They make clear that the historical and social context in which teens are coming of age, coming into their own, and coming to understand Judaism, Jewishness, and Jewish community, are unique and, if not uncharted, then at least being regularly charted anew. They don’t bemoan this reality, but they remind us to be attentive to it.

Deborah Meyer, crystalizes this critical point when she reminds us, “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?” Josh Miller reinforces this insight when he reminds us, “Having a meaningful influence on teens in any context starts by taking a genuine interest in what matters most to them.” Our first and foremost agenda has to be meeting Jewish teens where they are, and only then attempting to provide them with meaningful experiences and reasons to identify with and invest their time and energy in exploring and embracing Jewish community.

Josh Miller and David Rittberg focus on a salient point other contributors also note that Jewish teens today are actively looking for answers to several core questions. The questions, as enumerated by Simon Klarfeld include, “Who am I? What is my purpose? Where do I fit in?” Simon goes on to remind us that, “These are fundamental questions for teens as they transition from childhood to adulthood. And these, particularly the third, are questions that the concept of Peoplehood addresses.”

So we are confronted with a question, not a new one, but a critical one for our times and our work: how do we meaningfully engage teens in the work and world of Jewish peoplehood. While the range of answers may be vast, the authors of two of our articles give us a good starting place. Max Rochman and Aliza Caplan give us a window into the moment in which their sense of Jewish Peoplehood first emerged. Leah Maas and Keren Dicastro point out in their article that while they were encouraged as teens to believe they were part of something bigger than themselves, they were also, “both… given the space to take these feelings, to question and wrestle with them, and were then empowered to do something with them! Each of us, in our own homes, in our own time, was given the platforms to explore how these feelings affected and inspired us.” This perspective is echoed by nearly all our authors, and is given particular attention by Rebecca Voorwinde and Michael Zion. They remind us that ultimately our role is to expose young Jews to compelling and challenging ideas about the Jewish past, present, and future – about Jewish flourishing – and then giving them space to wrestle with these ideas and their meaning.

Ezra Kopelowitz, who has done significant research on the topic of Jewish teen leadership and Peoplehood sums up our goal, our grail, succinctly when he asks himself and us, “How do we make sure that Jewish teens embrace both a passion for the Jewish collective enterprise as well as a responsibility for its future?” While there may not be a singular answer to Ezra’s question, the essays that follow provide a well-articulated launch point for our continued search and refinement of our questions.

Liat Cohen Raviv is the Diller Teen Fellows Senior Director and Adam Weisberg is the Diller Teen Initiatives Director.