Jewish Life Made Me Feel Visible: The Purpose of Our Work Engaging Jewish Youth

Courtesy Jewish Teen Funder Collaborative

By Mark S. Young

Earlier this month, the musical Dear Evan Hansen and its superstar (and Jewish summer camp alum) Ben Platt, swept the Tony Awards. Their wins come at the start of the Jewish camp and youth group trip season, which has caused me to reflect on my youth experiences. In my reflection I consider this musical’s message, and I’ve come to realize the true potential impact of Jewish life for our youth.

Certainly, both empirical and anecdotal evidence show that participation in and/or staffing quality Jewish experiences build a youth’s confidence, help them discover their authentic selves, and nurture critical skills for entering today’s workforce. Yet, after considering this musical about teens feeling alone, anxious, and afraid, we must note that youth today, especially adolescents, have an extraordinarily difficult task of finding a trusted group of peers where they feel like they belong, all-the-while striving to discover who they really are, and all during a stage of life exceptionally fraught with emotional and social pot-holes.

Reflecting on my own youth, I recall often being afraid or occasionally falling into the pot-holes of loneliness, isolation, and sadness. Overall I had a positive childhood with many happy experiences and a loving family that built my positive self-worth. But public school for me was often challenging. I’d feel left out of the in-crowd and jealous at times of those considered the “nerds” and “popular kids,” because they both got attention. Though I hated being teased either for my weight or higher flamboyantly pitched voice at the time, I liked being noticed, though, I always wished it would be for what I really wanted to be noticed for, which took time for me to figure out what that was. Put another way, I would at times feel, whether at school, or at home, or elsewhere, a bit, invisible. I’d bet many of us in our youth at times did as well, and I’d bet that a significant portion of our Jewish youth today at times feel this way too.

But never in the spaces of my Jewish life did I feel invisible. At my synagogue, Jewish camp, youth group, and Israel experience, I felt seen and heard. I felt as if I mattered. When I was seen it was not as the slightly overweight kid (people don’t believe me but my baby-weight kept with me until my last adolescent growth spurt), or the kid who couldn’t effectively return insults, or the kid who wasn’t that athletic. I became the kid who could write creatively that impressed people, and the teen that found a voice writing lyrics and melody with a piano or guitar and, feeling supported in my Jewish spaces, had the confidence to share one of those songs one day with a friend and, in so doing, my life changed.

My Jewish camp (Camp Wise, Chardon, Ohio), Jewish youth group (Central Region USY), Israel experience (USY Eastern Europe Israel pilgrimage, group 12 ’98), and synagogue (Bnai’ Jeshurun Congregation, Pepper Pike, Ohio), not only gave me confidence, helped me find my authentic self and built the skill-sets for adult work. Each provided the friends, guides, and mentors who saw me for me. Each provided the platform to take risks. Each modeled kindness, silliness and maturity, and give me permission to love our faith that most Jewish peers in my public school appeared to care less about then I did. Jewish life made me feel visible, not only for others to see me for what I authentically have to offer but visibility for me to see myself for what I can offer.

How does Jewish life accomplish this? I argue that its primarily through harnessing the values we hold so dear. We are all created in the image of a being bigger then ourselves. We are all creatures in service to a world and not looking at the world as in service to us. We are all commanded to supporting each other’s path to self-sufficiency and perhaps also self-actualization. We don’t always bring up these value statements when we play capture the flag or attempt the zip-line on the ropes course or during a late night song-session or climbing Masada or preparing for b’nai mitzvah or confirmation. It’s all there though, and it’s really special.

If we as Jewish educators, professionals, and leaders do our jobs well, we not only enable all of our youth, (and can equally for our emerging adults and adults as well) to love and embrace Judaism, we create the avenue that the title character in the musical, Evan Hansen, so desperately needed and only achieved through dastardly means (I won’t spoil the show for you, but go see it!): the path to becoming visible. We offer a promise that is the title from the closing song of act one, “You Will Be Found.”

I share here my own story. Each of you reading has your own. What is yours? What in the path of your Jewish life experiences paved the way to becoming and feeling visible, becoming “found?”

Perhaps this is a “north-star” all of us responsible for leading in Jewish education and Jewish life should follow. Let’s measure beyond demonstration of one’s Jewish knowledge or whether we change attitudes and behaviors towards Judaism to show evidence of success for our educational institutions. Perhaps we should focus more simply on: did we help as much of our youth and teens as possible find their way? When they do, they’ll know, in time, it was because of their Jewish experiences. As a result, they’ll stay close to the fold. I’ve seen it too many times to be convinced otherwise.

There was at least one day in public school I recall that I really felt visible. My friend Brad and I performed “All For You” by Sister Hazel at our annual Thanksgiving Assembly my junior year (this was the late 1990’s). We were a hit. The whole school loved us. It was one day I felt “cool in school “or “found,” because I put myself out there and was my most authentic self. It was one day, but, in my explicitly Jewish experiences, I felt visible all the time. People paid attention to me and modeled that it was cool to actively engage in Jewish learning and ritual. I felt awesome and collectively these experiences inspired me to write and perform my own songs. I’ve written many, the first of which was the song I had the courage to share with my friend at one youth group convention my senior year. It’s called, “Time Stops (When I Think of You).” On the surface it’s about love and loss but, more deeply, it’s about how, when we are “found,” feeling truly visible and loving every millisecond of it, it is as if “time stops.” Or, in essence, we wish in these moments time would stop, so we could always be feeling and experiencing these ideal episodes of our lives. Now that is a recipe and a north star for Jewish education that I can believe in: help our learners become visible and get to these moments. That is why today I dedicate my career to being a Jewish professional and, in my role, training and nurturing the current and future generation of Jewish educators and leaders.

Dear Evan Hansen is a story for all of us to reflect upon as we search for ourselves, perhaps a bit less dramatically for us then for Evan. It also offers us a lesson on the true purpose of our work engaging Jewish youth. Give them an opportunity to feel and be visible, to be found, so they can experience many many moments when “time stops.”

Mark S. Young is the managing director of the Leadership Commons at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at JTS. Mark is also local-groups chair on the board of JPRO Network, and a not so long ago Jewish camp song leader.