By Susan Holzman Wachsstock & Andi Meiseles, Ed.D.
When thinking about the Jewish community’s classic approach to engaging teens, there are traditionally three questions we focus on: “How can we make you more Jewish?” How can we make this Jewish institution stronger?” (i.e. get you to join.) and “How can we make the Jewish people stronger?” (i.e. make more Jews.) These are not bad questions. They simply miss the mark.
The teen years are, by definition, focused on teens’ personal growth and development as they move from attachment to their families to more independence and agency in the world. If this is the case, our guiding question needs to be “How can we help teens answer the existential question of ‘Who am I?’”
The field already has started to pivot to answer this question. We need to do even more.
Many of us in the Jewish educational sector, alongside key funders in the Jewish philanthropic sector, in particular the Jim Joseph Foundation, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, are increasingly committed to a new purpose for teen engagement. We believe our work should seek to cultivate thriving young adults; fostering young adults who can be the best versions of themselves.
This is not easy work. It requires skill and passion. And, for it to be globally successful, it requires a sense of shared purpose and approach among senior leaders in the field. With support from the Jim Joseph Foundation, The Jewish Education Project has launched the Generation Now Fellowship.
This fellowship is building on the prior research on teens as reported in “Generation Now: Understanding and Engaging Jewish Teens Today.” This research clearly demonstrated that teens do not see a connection between their Jewish education and their day to day lives.
“When probed further, teens explained what they learned in Jewish frameworks often had no connection to their current stage of life.” Yet, these same teens could speak volumes about what they learned on the soccer field because soccer taught them, for instance, teamwork and resilience. Soccer taught them skills that helped them in life.
Shouldn’t our Jewish experiences do this too? Shouldn’t our teens be at the center of our educational outcomes, and by extension the experiences we create for them? What if we expected our teen professionals to help teens answer existential questions that they ask themselves as they negotiate their place in their community and in the world:
“Who am I?”
“To whom and what am I connected?”
“For whom am I responsible?”
“How can I make a difference in this world?”
When training teen professionals, we need to be fully immersed in Jewish traditional values and wisdom, while remaining deeply sensitive to the reality that teens are starting on a journey to define themselves, Jewishly and otherwise. Teen-centered approaches to engagement require a radical shift, not only in our thinking but in how we prepare and invest in the professionals responsible for this work. Designing educational content and experiences to address the above questions requires maturity of both personnel and the approach to experiential content.
The Generation Now Fellowship is intended for those with extensive professional experience. The inaugural cohort will select 20 senior professionals from around the country who, by virtue of their roles, are well positioned to influence the practice of other teen professionals, and the field of teen engagement as a whole. Over a period of two years, they will learn together, and independently, to consider their practice toward helping individual teens to thrive as Jews and in the world today and tomorrow. They will learn from the best-of the-best within and outside the Jewish world. Together they will form the foundation for the next era of Jewish teen engagement.
If we are to truly embrace the idea that our teen programming needs to build life skills, including emotional resilience, and to provide a Jewish moral foundation to answering life’s questions, we must also commit to supporting the professionals who will lead this charge.
So, if you are an ambitious and experienced professional who is deeply committed to Jewish teen education and engagement and are in a position to influence educational change and innovation in the teen landscape, apply now to become a Generation Now Fellow. Our teens need you.
Andi Meiseles is Director of the Generation Now Fellowship, now accepting applications until February 5th; Susan Holzman Wachsstock is Managing Director of Teen Engagement at The Jewish Education Project.