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.