Instead of Trying to Keep Teens Jewish, Let’s Work to Keep Them Healthy
By Deborah Meyer
What if, instead of trying to keep teens Jewish, we started with the idea of keeping teens healthy?
When Jewish education promotes self-discovery, challenges traditional gender roles, and celebrates a diversity of voices, it has the power to help Jewish teens grow into adulthood with confidence, compassion and a lifelong commitment to Jewish community.
Moving Traditions has just received “proof of concept” on this model of Jewish teen education that we have been honing for more than a decade with 1,400 small groups of girls meeting through the auspices of 388 institutional partners.
In 2002, out of dedication to the next generation of Jewish women, a group women and men took a risk and launched Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing! We wanted to offer a new teen-girl-centric model of Jewish education, one that meets their authentic needs and desires rather than our preconceived notions.
The building blocks of this new model? A trained adult mentor. A supportive peer group of about 10 girls from the same grade, from middle to high school. The safety to openly explore fundamental questions of identity and society. And most important of all, relevant, adolescent-girl-focused content connected to enduring Jewish values and wisdom.
The results? The evidence, researched by respected independent evaluators Dr. Pearl Beck and Dr. Tobin Belzer, shows that Moving Traditions has developed a model that in fact does keep girls healthy, confident, and connected to Jewish life.
As one young woman who participated noted, “We went to Jewish school to learn Jewish facts and we went to Rosh Hodesh to use them.”
According to the study, which included both qualitative and quantitative research and was funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Covenant Foundation, Rosh Hodesh is successfully achieving results in four key areas of development:
- Helping Jewish girls build greater self-esteem. Research indicates that, as a result of the program, girls gain a greater sense of self-worth and confidence.
- Empowering Jewish girls. Research shows that the open discussion of gender and women’s issues empowers girls to believe that they can take action for themselves, other women, and their communities.
- Fostering positive peer-to-peer relationships. Research indicates that the experience delivered through Rosh Hodesh enables girls to develop honest and supportive relationships with other Jewish girls.
- Cultivating deeper Jewish connections. Research shows that the program engages girls through relevant, meaningful, and dynamic Jewish experiences, and encourages them to stay connected to Jewish life and practice.
These findings inspire us to redouble our efforts to reach more teen girls – and boys, and gender non-conforming youth – with Moving Traditions’ programs. We are committed to building new programs, training more adults as mentors, and exporting the effective building blocks of our model to other Jewish organizations.
We already have evidence that this model can been integrated into another successful Jewish teen program.
After researching the needs, challenges, and desires of Jewish teen boys, in 2011 Moving Traditions launched Shevet Achim: The Brotherhood, which uses the same building blocks as Rosh Hodesh, substituting relevant, adolescent-boy-focused content connected to enduring Jewish values. Four years later, 120 Jewish institutions are finding that teen boys love the program, especially when it is led by an effective adult mentor.
The implications for Jewish teen education and engagement are clear. Moving Traditions’ evaluation research underscores the importance of a mentor-led approach in working with teens. To make a deep impact, we have learned that it is critical to:
- Identify dedicated adult mentors who relate well to teens.
- Train mentors and provide them with a field-tested curriculum.
- Prepare mentors to guide an intimate peer group.
- Coach mentors to form strong and enduring bonds with the teens in their group.
I would add another important component: When Jewish organizations research and field-test their programs, drawing on the insights and experiences of their intended audiences – as we have done for Jewish teen girls and boys – we are more likely to get it right.
And a final essential note: Moving Traditions could not do our work without the partnership of many effective thought-partners and providers, including congregations of all affiliations across the United States.
With our partners and the guidance of Moving Traditions, more Jewish teens are growing into adulthood with confidence, compassion, and a lifelong commitment to Jewish community. To read the key findings of the evaluation report or to learn more about how you can help move Jewish teens, communities, and Judaism forward, please visit www.movingtraditions.org.
With your help, we’ll hear more teens say about their Jewish experiences, as they said to Drs. Beck and Belzer about Rosh Hodesh:
“I learned a lot about myself and I learned what it means to be a strong individual, woman, and Jew.”
Deborah Meyer is Founder and Executive Director of Moving Traditions.