Judaism is Resting on Your Shoulders. No Pressure…

By Jessica Downey

This weekend thousands of teenagers will pour into Atlanta from across the country both to B’nai Brith Youth Organization (BBYO) International and the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) conventions (BBYO here and NFTY here). They will arrive at hotels and throw themselves into arms belonging to people they know from camp, conclaves, Israel tours and social justice trips. They will laugh, sing, pray, flirt, learn, socialize and skip programs together. They will be told that they are the future leaders of their movements. They may even be told that they are the future of Judaism. No pressure, right?

As the director of a supplementary school, I get calls from different parents that generally say the same thing: “Susie Student can’t come to Hebrew school today because she has [insert activity here].” We’re all familiar with these calls. I smile into the phone, tell the parent I completely understand, let him/her know that the teacher will be sorry not to see Susie, but we are excited that Susie is doing well in said activity.

For the most part, I am happy for these students. The students who play sports religiously are embodying shmirat haguf, protecting one’s body and caring for its health. The students who need additional time for homework are demonstrating Middah Mityashev Libo B’Talmudo, concentrating on one’s studies. Pirkei Avot (1:17) reminds us that action is essential even more than the study of Torah, so the student making a commitment to 100 hours of community service for his secular school truly is personifying the “Ethics of our Fathers.”

Then there are the laundry list calls: “Susie Student can’t come to Hebrew school because she has soccer practice, rehearsal for her school play, singing tryouts and then at least four hours of homework ahead of her. She has to get straight A’s because if she doesn’t make the honors society she’ll be just devastated and Hebrew school simply doesn’t fit into her plans today.”

These calls do not make me smile.

I cringe at the parents whose teens are overworked to the point of exhaustion. I can’t stand hearing about the increasing levels of competition both in and out of the classroom. I see backpacks that look ready to explode, and parents who tell me in the carpool lane that their child has to go to physical therapy because he trained too hard on the tennis court.

When students are pushed to achieve perfection, the walls of our synagogue are no longer a safe space to convene with friends. Instead, they become a burden on the path to achieving academic and athletic flawlessness. Students must plan for the future, and every activity they engage in now is a step along that path.

I’m not the only one cringing. Dr. David Elkind’s The Hurried Child warns parents and teachers of the physical, social and intellectual dangers of such overwhelming pressures in which impossible expectations are set. Our students are drowning in homework and extra-curricular activities, all with the promise of securing the perfect future.

As educators, we often quote Janusz Korczak when he referenced children and their futures: “Children are not the people of tomorrow, but the people of today … They should be allowed to grow into whoever they were meant to be.” We quote him, but fail to back it up.

We are angered at the inordinate amounts of pressures our kids are faced with every day. But then we turn around and tell them they are not only the future of Jewish leadership, but of Judaism itself. We say that our synagogues, camps and community organizations should be safe spaces for them to just be, but then overload them with talk of how they need to rise to the occasion because Judaism needs their help.

We have to do better for our teens.

We cannot expect them to stay healthy and endeavor to be leaders in our movements if we weigh them down with the same pressures they face outside the synagogue. We have to show them that Judaism cares about who they are, not simply who they can be for Judaism.

It’s time to come up with a better way to plan for the future.

Jessica Downey is the Director of Jewish Education at University Synagogue in Los Angeles, CA.