Producing the Jewish Future

by Deborah S. Meyer

We are stepping into the new year at a time of great transition, with a collective unease about the world we live in. The question, “What will become of us?” weighs on us as we look at the state of the global economy and at Jewish life in both Israel and the United States.

Even with efforts to promote change, in the American Jewish community our educational model is failing to produce a generation of young adults with basic Jewish literacy and a strong sense of connection to the Jewish community. We invest time, love, and millions of dollars in preparing boys and girls for their bar or bat mitzvah, and then watch as a majority drop out of Jewish life, many never to return. What will happen to the Jewish future, which by definition is the future of our youth?

While a small percent will return to Jewish life as adults, it is during the coming-of-age experience of this generation that the vast majority of Jewish boys and girls will decide if Judaism is relevant to their lives. For this reason, effectively reaching teens and connecting them to an authentic experience of Jewish community will be the central factor in determining what Judaism looks like 10, 20, and even 100 years from now. So how do we facilitate such an experience?

In our role as a collaborative partner of the second annual Jewish Futures Conference (being held on November 7th at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in Denver), Moving Traditions has done some critical thinking around the subject of the “Jewish future.” The conference’s theme, The Jewish Prosumer: The Move from Consumer to Producer in Jewish Life and Learning, is an effort to “chart a course for the future of Jewish learning and education into the 21st century and examine social, economic, technological and community forces and trends.”

In our analysis of these trends, one prevailing fact presents itself: Today, 80% of teens in America have a bar or bat mitzvah. The percentage of teens who have some sort of bar or bat mitzvah has steadily climbed over the past 30 years. As a result, many of today’s teens feel good about being Jewish. Unfortunately, they also have a strong dislike of the options presented to them for doing Jewish. So how do we help them to do Jewish?

Moving Traditions’ research has shown that unless we work with teen girls and boys to address the personal issues that they care about most we will not successfully connect them to doing Jewish and feeling part of a Jewish community. In our single-gender programs, Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing! and Shevet Achim: The Brotherhood we have repeatedly found that when we train mentors to help teens explore the questions, “What does it mean to be a woman?” and “What does it mean to be a man?” teens develop powerful connections to Jewish wisdom, ritual, and ethics. Exploring these questions  over time, with an ongoing group of peers and a well-trained adult mentor leads teens to ask themselves “What does it mean to be a mentsch? What does it mean to be true to who I want to be?” in a way that strengthens them internally, helps them to think critically, and leads to life-long Jewish commitment.

A high school senior from Denver I’ll call Emma described how she became more connected to Jewish life as her Rosh Hodesh group helped her deal with a boyfriend who threatened to commit suicide if she broke up with him. An 8th grade guy from New York I’ll call Adam was ready to drop out of Jewish life when he decided to participate in Shevet Achim. “There is a fight every week at school. In the group, we talked about Reb Zusya. It was about how what it means to be Jewish is connected to what it means to be true to yourself. It doesn’t sound cool, but it actually was.”

Our goal is to help teens curate their lives. By giving teens sophisticated Jewish ideas about character development and ethics and a solid critique of the prevailing culture’s gender codes, we help teens filter the barrage of messages that greet them each day so that they in turn can figure out for themselves what it means to be a Jewish man or woman.

To inspire teens to stay connected to Jewish life, Moving Traditions hope to engage the leaders of the Jewish community in a conversation about the following four recommendations:

  1. Focus on coming of age. A bar or bat mitzvah is about taking on the responsibilities of an adult man or woman, yet the b’nai mitzvah is rarely linked to the most important question to teens, “What does it mean to be a man, a woman, or to be transgendered?” Skilled educators should combine the wealth of Jewish teachings with a nuanced understanding of gender and culture to focus on the most personal challenges of teens’ lives. Moving Traditions and our partners find that teen boys and girls are deeply drawn to this kind of Jewish experience.
  2. Train Jewish educators to mentor teens. Research shows that teens thrive when they connect to adults who care about, challenge, and encourage them to take on responsibility. The teens who participate in our programs report that their group leaders are key to their connection to Jewish life. Sadly, too few Jewish educators or volunteer mentors are trained to work with teens. If we care about the Jewish future we must find the funds to provide training and on-going coaching to Jewish teen educators.
  3. Create small Jewish communities for teens. The minyan, a group of 10 Jewish adults, is the essential building block of Jewish life. By organizing small, single-gender groups, we provide teen girls and boys with the safety, intimacy, and friendship they need to parse the world around them.
  4. Teach teens to bring the issues central to them into their own, authentic Jewish communities. Good mentors help teens to take leadership of their own micro communities. By listening to our teens, and allowing them to express the issues at the core of their emotional and spiritual lives, we teach them a lifelong approach to building relevant Jewish community.

We look forward to exploring these ideas and others with thought-leaders and practitioners at the Jewish Futures Conference. As educators and change-makers, we feel obliged to keep at the task of creating the future even as we struggle to determine what lies ahead.

We do this for the sake of the Jewish future, as well as for today’s 13-year old girls and boys who need our help understanding the world around them that changes as rapidly as their maturing bodies. If we can provide teen girls and boys today with Jewish community that meets their needs as young women and men, they will in turn produce the Jewish future.

Deborah S. Meyer is Founder and Executive Director of Moving Traditions.