Jewish Conversations with our Teens 2.0


Teen leadership development cannot be just about replacing the current Jewish Community leadership. The upgrade required here is giving them the sense and tools to reshape the Jewish world.

[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 Arie Levy

“Every single person is obliged to say: The world was created for my sake”
Mishna, Sanhedrin chpt 4, 5

Each generation has the tendency of describing the next one as being so every different and challenging. However, today’s teens are truly facing unprecedented challenges related to globalization, technology, identity, etc. These issues, of course, amplify the already demanding grappling with such heavy subjects as Jewishness, Jewish Identity and the connection to Am Yisrael (my simple reference to Peoplehood). This is why, so many local, regional or international Jewish educational organizations focusing on the content of teen programming, need to refine and upgrade the level of discussion and dialogue we carry on with our next generation. The Diller Teen Fellows is a platform solidly positioned to further pursue such upgrades in the Jewish conversations.

Here are a couple of practical points I suggest exploring, based mostly on my experience in interacting with teens and their educators.

The few vs. the many. We expect the utmost from our teens from a leadership perspective. This is an age of “the many” and less of “the few” which means that if in previous generations, we could expect clear outcomes investing in select group of leaders, today, we need to be mindful that we live in the era of “crowdism”: crowd wisdom, crowd funding, crowd networking, etc. Hence, our Peoplehood approach cannot be elitist. The circles need to be broadened and our teens in the leadership programs must take an active role in making this happen. Thus, a successful “impact” or follow up program, is one in which the teen leaders focus on engaging their peers into the learning, debate and action around Jewish Identity, Israel and Jewish Peoplehood, in original and creative ways.

Parve” vs. Opinioned. Too many of the teens participating in our programs, end up without an opinion on much. I call it the Parve phenomenon – not meat, nor dairy. We cannot expect teen involvement without the passion of taking a position or of being critical and the development of a clearer opinion on general or Jewish matters. While they should definitely continue to be respectful of all opinions, teens need to take risks. They need to deepen their knowledge on matters that caught their interest, while allowing for the possibility that their opinions may change some day. Educators need to infuse in them the drive to decide what they believe in and what they stand for – not just learn how to walk on the fence.

Peoplehood vs. Zionism

We run programs that speak the language of Peoplehood that celebrates all forms of Judaism, in all countries. Sometimes, we forget that it does create a tension with the centrality of Israel and Zionism. In some cases, the word Zionism has even disappeared from written curricula. Let us open the discussion, rather than serve them microwavable “tv-dinner” answers. They need to know that it has only been a couple of decades since the majority of Jews live in freedom, that this situation is all new to us, and that we need to be patient before jumping to conclusions about our global destiny. The tension between religion, nationhood and multiple-identities will emerge and we need to be prepared to address it.

Universalism and particularism

While Tikun Olam seems to be included in the current curriculum of our leadership development programs, we need to be mindful that the concept will not be diluted to express any act of goodwill to such an extent that it will lose all meaning. On the other hand, it is clear that we cannot just limit ourselves anymore to the walls of our own “clan.” Our educators can encourage finding the right balance between the universal and particular calling of our youth, while being mindful of the Jewish tradition of reaching out to the needs of your own city before the one’s of another town’s.

Pluralism vs. Unity

Pluralism, in our programs, limits itself many times to our own comfort zone. We spend too much time learning on what divides us instead on focusing on what unites this people. Usually the divides are around old and irrelevant categories or Jewish boxes that served well those movements that created them. Identities today are multi-dimensional and teens will adopt several layers of definitions. We cannot however only limit ourselves to exposing them to denominational panels and expect them to have exhausted the richness of Jewish Mosaic.

In conclusion, teen leadership development cannot be just about replacing the current Jewish Community leadership. The upgrade required here is giving them the sense and tools to reshape the Jewish world (no less!). Our programs need to contribute to connecting the teens to global Jewish issues, to developing collective responsibility and to plugging them into the “Jewish electrical current” (aka as Jewish Neshama). This has to be done by focusing more attention to widening the circles, helping them position themselves on these issues, deepening the understanding of the Israel-Diaspora dynamics, deciding on our role as a People in the family of Nations, and exposing them to a richer sense of identity.

Arie Levy is Director of Israel and Overseas of Federation CJA Montreal with JFC-UIA. He has held many positions in Jewish Communal life in Montreal and Israel, including work in informal Jewish education. He recently finished his M.A in Non Profit Management at Ben Gurion University. Arie lives in Metar, next to Beer Sheva with his wife Ruth and 5 daughters.