Re-Imagining the Coming of Age Journey

by Lisa Gersten

What if the bar or bat mitzvah signaled a teen’s entry into an ongoing gathering of Jewish peers led by an inspiring mentor who helped them discuss the very real challenges they face in their everyday lives?

What if a teen’s bar or bat mitzvah signified the moment when he or she formed a Jewish community of his or her own, a place where confidences were held and members actually supported each other?

What if post bar or bat mitzvah education transitioned from a Hebrew school frontal learning model to a monthly experientially based forum? A unique space where Jewish texts, rituals and values had not just relevance, but also meaning and insight into teenage lives and the world around them?

So let’s make it happen. Recent discussions of b’nai mitzvah, including an essay in eJewish Philanthropy by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, have decried the “cult of the self” that has created a “bar/bat mitzvah industry.” But instead of thinking as Rabbi Salkin puts forth that changing the age of the rite will solve the issues inherent in why, as he puts it, for the vast majority of bat mitzvah girls and bar mitzvah boys “you can practically hear the synagogue doors slamming right after Ein Keloheinu,” let’s re-imagine a new Jewish communal response to the post b’nai mitzvah coming of age journey. Let’s focus on the reality that teens come of age in a world with distinct and often narrow expectations based on gender. This difficult truth should guide our communal strategy for helping our post b’nai mitzvah teens become spiritually, emotionally and physically healthy women and men. The bar or bat mitzvah preparation and service alone will not achieve these ends.

Every teenager experiences the confusion, the elation, the daunting responsibility all implicit in what it means to be an adolescent. Let’s put those emotions at the core of our educational programming for this age group. Research supports what anyone who has spent time with a Jewish teenager knows, namely, that teens are over-scheduled. They feel both academic stress and social pressure to fit in. We also know that peers are critical at this age, mentors can make an enormous impact, and that skeptical teens will respond primarily to relevant conversation. They aren’t kids anymore; they have real lives and real problems. So we have to talk to them, help them with the tough stuff. Low self-esteem, unhealthy body image, bullying, peer pressure, and anxiety to name a few issues. Most of all, our teens need to see that, as a Jewish community, we are there to address these topics in a Jewish space and in a Jewish way.

In our work at Moving Traditions, we see examples across the country of our partner synagogues and JCC’s providing engaging, relevant and experiential-based programming that positively impacts Jewish teens and their connection to Jewish community. The 220 synagogues and JCC’s that will join with us this Fall in running our signature programs, Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing! and Shevet Achim: The Brotherhood, will inspire teens to explore over time the central questions of their lives – questions like “What does it mean to be a man?” “What does it mean to be a woman?” and “What does it mean to be true to myself?” With an ongoing intimate group of peers and a committed mentor, these middle and high school age participants will be challenged to think critically. From the social pressures that weigh on them as girls and boys, to learning how Jewish values fit into their challenging everyday lives, they will wrestle with and tackle what it means to be a Jewish teenager in the 21st century. In the process, these teens, just as the over 12,000 teens who have participated before them, will create something magical, a personally meaningful Jewish community that is all their own.

But, of course, compelling programming is not enough. As one of our Shevet Achim group leaders put it, “I know this program is powerful. I just need parents to get their children to come to three meetings. If I cannot engage them after three meetings, so be it but I need a shot and that takes parents helping me get their teens through that door.” This year, 4,000 teens will participate in a Rosh Hodesh or Shevet Achim group. That number could easily be higher if more parents sought out and supported a workable model for engaging their Jewish teens. Parents need to see that adolescence is precisely the time their teens need Jewish community and tradition the most as it can help guide and support them through that crazy period of life called adolescence.

So in a world where boys and girls receive extreme and often conflicting messages about becoming men and women, and at a moment when Jewish institutions are not retaining the majority of students beyond b’nai mitzvah, it is time as a Jewish community to pause. It is time to ask ourselves how can we, as educators, mentors, philanthropists, parents, and above all, Jews, best accompany our teens on their journey to adulthood. The place to start is with the teens themselves. Let’s understand their scheduling constraints, their anxieties, and the endless pressures on them to achieve, and let’s give them a time and a Jewish space to talk and be real with their peers. Let’s recognize that adolescence is the most “engendered” time of their lives as their bodies change dramatically and they intellectually begin to grasp the limits society places on them based on gender. Most of all, let’s challenge teens on their search for meaning by showing them that Jewish texts, ritual and values have something powerful to say about the issues they are grappling with. Only then, in partnership with parents, can we as a Jewish community begin to effectively accompany our teens on their epic journey into adulthood.

Lisa Gersten, Esq. is Director of Development and Communications for Moving Traditions.