Essential Lessons for Educating Jewish Teens

Teens on a log; photo courtesy Jim Joseph Foundation.
Teens on a log; photo courtesy Jim Joseph Foundation.

Jewish adults who seek to educate teens need to first set aside their adult Jewish agendas and constructs.

[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 Josh Miller

Over the past several years the Jim Joseph Foundation has invested significant time and resources into deepening our understanding of how the Jewish community can better engage teens in effective, compelling Jewish learning experiences. Two essential lessons we have learned are that:

  1. Having a meaningful influence on teens in any context starts by taking a genuine interest in what matters most to them.
  2. The role of adults is to work with teens, in partnership, to help them to create Jewish learning experiences they seek.

The adolescent years represent an important stage in the development of one’s identity. It is an intense time of discovery and experimentation. For many teens, this stage of life also is stressful and complicated, as they navigate increasing pressures from parents, peers and their communities about what they must do, believe and achieve.

When at its best, the Jewish community has much to offer to help teens face these challenges – supportive community, adult role models, guidance on ways to strive towards a life of meaning, purpose and fulfillment. Conversely, the Jewish community also has much to learn from teens; they offer a unique perspective on how Judaism is relevant today, and they are a window into how future generations will continue to shape it.

But, for teen education and engagement to be a positive experience, Jewish adults must listen carefully and maintain an open mind.

This guiding principle means that Jewish adults who seek to educate teens need to first set aside their adult Jewish agendas and constructs – whether in politics, ideology, or desired attitudes and behaviors. If we have specific lessons to impart to teens, our challenge is to set them aside and begin by earning their trust. Then we can guide our teens towards experiences where we invite them to come to their own conclusions about Jewish topics that we believe are important. The best Jewish educators I have met accomplish this by asking good questions, listening, being their authentic selves, modeling their beliefs and values through their actions, and integrating Jewish content that is meaningful and relevant, all while letting teens lead the way.

When asked about what matters to them, different teens I have met have provided different answers. But some interests and desires that have consistently been referenced include: gaining the core skills and experiences they need to navigate life as a teen; helping prepare for college and a career; learning how to stay healthy, both physically and mentally; having relationships with adults who are willing to listen to them; expressing their creative selves; feeling connected to something bigger than themselves; making a difference in the world.

What can we, as a Jewish community, do to support these teens?

  • Encourage our best and brightest to devote their professional and/or volunteer talents towards working with teens. Provide these adults with high quality training in Jewish experiential education and adolescent development. Offer appropriate incentives to ensure that adults who work with teens receive the respect and compensation they deserve.
  • Provide many more experiences for teens to step into leadership roles in the Jewish community. This applies not only to programs for teens specifically, but across all of our organizations. Invite teens to have internships, take on board positions, attend and speak at conferences, contribute their voice to writing projects, and help plan and lead new initiatives.
  • Support our teen leaders by ensuring that they have adults who are ready to work in partnership with them to help them succeed in their leadership roles. We must remember to see these teens not as ‘leaders of the future’ but rather as ‘leaders of today.’
  • Help teens cultivate their own sense of why Judaism matters to them by allowing them to know and understand our own relationships to Judaism. If Judaism is going to be relevant to them as teens, we have to model how and why it is relevant to us as adults.

For any Jewish adults who are apprehensive about this proposed approach, test it out. In my experience, the most enriching part of developing the Jim Joseph Foundation’s teen education and engagement strategy has been the opportunities to learn directly from Jewish teens. They have been some of my greatest teachers. Certainly, these teens have helped me develop a better appreciation for how the Jewish community can best support them and their peers. Beyond that, they have provided my Foundation colleagues and me with new insights about how we can be better Jewish leaders, learners, creators, and supporters of meaningful Jewish life.

Josh Miller is a Senior Program Officer for the Jim Joseph Foundation, which seeks to foster compelling, effective Jewish learning experiences for young Jews in the United States.