Putting the “Spiritual” Back into Jewish Teen Programming

Photo credit REL Productions
Photo credit REL Productions

By Rabbi Donny Schwartz

We are just days away from the holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai to the Jewish People. There is great benefit in such moments to reflect on what the Torah and its traditions mean to us today, and especially to our teens who represent the future.

In the recently released groundbreaking study, “Generation Now: Understanding and Engaging Jewish Teens Today,” commissioned by the Jim Joseph Foundation and others, researchers set forth 14 outcomes that they believe organizations should measure themselves against to determine if they are “moving the needle” in their offerings to Jewish teens. Among them is what they term “Bein Adam L’Makomo/a, the Spiritual Dimension,” and specifically helping Jewish teens develop the skills that allow their spiritual selves to flourish.

The researchers created this outcome after finding that while most Jewish teens are “frequently searching for a connection with a force more powerful than humankind,” they were unable to express their sense of spirituality in Jewish terms.

How can we help Jewish teens connect to Jewish spirituality? The answer lies within Shavuot itself: By making the Torah and its traditions real – and meaningful – to today’s teens, regardless of what level of observance they are at.

At Midwest NCSY, we have found that when you give teens the opportunity to experience traditional Jewish spirituality, even if they have little or no knowledge of Judaism, they are more open to it than one might expect.

A case in point: This past March, Midwest NCSY took 25 Minneapolis teens who attend Jewish Student Union (JSU) clubs on public school campuses, on an immersive, 4-day experience to Florida. The experience included fun activities such as visits to Universal Studios and downtown Disney, as well as a Jewish component, including celebration of a traditional Shabbat.

A survey with open-ended questions, distributed to the teens at the end of the trip, proved to be enlightening. When asked, “What was your favorite part of the trip?” the vast majority wrote “Kabbalat Shabbat” or “dancing at Kabbalat Shabbat.” Disney didn’t get a single vote.

And when asked, “What on the trip most surprised you?” the responses were once again very similar. The teens either wrote how they were surprised by how relaxed the atmosphere was at a traditional Shabbat – which many of them had never celebrated before – or how compelling the Jewish learning had been.

Finally, when posed with a true/false question, “I am likely to attend another such Shabbaton in the future,” every single teen responded in the affirmative. One can infer from this that “a good time was had by all” – and it wasn’t just because a group of Jewish teens got to hang out together in Florida. Rather, it was because they also had a Jewish “spiritual” experience, in which things like Jewish prayer and study were inspiring – and real.

We’re finding that the same holds true in Kansas, another chapter in our region. There, a growing number of JSU public schools teens have begun attending our Shabbat Shabangs, traditional Friday night dinners that give them the opportunity to experience Shabbat without committing to a weekend immersive experience. In collecting anecdotal evidence about the impact of the Shabbat Shabangs, we found that while many public schools teens say they attend JSU clubs so they can make Jewish friends and have a sense of Jewish community, Shabbat Shabangs gives them a hands-on way to experience Judaism’s spiritual side.

“My family never celebrates a holiday in the Jewish faith, so going to Shabbat was a super significant experience for me,” said one senior who attends Shawnee Mission South.

A fellow participant, a junior at Blue Valley West, said he likewise enjoys Shabbat Shabangs because, “you also get to talk about Jewish stuff that we don’t get to learn about during the regular school week.”

NCSY, and many other youth groups and organizations, dedicate much time, effort and resources to creating meaningful Jewish leadership programs and social action experiences. While these programs are successful, we as Jewish youth group leaders know that there is still much work to be done.

Perhaps the time has come – as the “Generation Now” study suggests – to find more ways to put the “spiritual” back in our Jewish programming. We need to celebrate the fact that we as Jews have the treasure that is the Torah not just on Shavuot, but throughout the year. And we need to bring the beauty of Torah and its traditions to all teens, so that they have the chance to connect to something higher and greater than themselves, and ultimately maintain that connection not just for themselves, but also for future generations.

Rabbi Donny Schwartz, M.Ed., known fondly as “Rabbi Donny” to thousands of teens across the Midwest, is the regional director of Midwest NCSY, the international youth movement of the Orthodox Union.