Sparking the Flame: Engaging Jewish Teens Through ‘Inspiration-Based’ Education

Teens making menorahs; courtesy NCSY.
Teens making menorahs; courtesy NCSY.

By Rabbi Donny Schwartz

Christmas is a hard time to be a Jewish teen. It’s even harder if you’re the one trying to reach out to that Jewish teen.

Over the last several months, we’ve all been debating the veracity of a host of studies that essentially attempt to predict the Jewish future. You may be in favor of these studies – or opposed to them – but the reality is that none of us can accurately predict what will happen 20, 15, or even 10 years down the line.

But we at NCSY can tell you one thing – we’re out there on the front lines of Jewish teen outreach every single day, and the challenges are vast. We run Jewish culture clubs for teens on nearly 200 public school campuses nationwide, and we come face-to-face with the thousands of teens who will become our Jewish tomorrow. And the sad reality, especially at this time of year, is that most aren’t particularly proud of, or interested in, their heritage.

But can we blame them? Walking down the hallways of a typical public school – a microcosm of the wonderfully diverse world we live in – it’s hard not to wonder: How can Jewish teens who have exposure to every kind of culture find meaning and relevance in a holiday like Chanukah? And how can we expect their celebration of this holiday to be more than a token effort at best, aimed perhaps at making Mom or Dad, or Grandma and Grandpa, happy?

If there is a depth to Chanukah and a relevancy for our teens today – which we believe there is – how can we capture the attention of this particularly inattentive and distracted audience and help them connect to this timeless holiday and, by extension, their heritage?

Historically, studies have shown that the key to lasting Jewish engagement is education. But with a growing number of teens “checking out” of Jewish education after their bar and bat mitzvahs, the need to find creative ways to engage this demographic has never been greater. This is where Jewish youth groups – and thankfully, there are many – need to redouble their efforts and fill this void.

At NCSY, we reach out to over 16,000 teens nationwide. In addition to Jewish culture clubs, we offer Shabbaton weekends, leadership training programs, social action experiences, and summer trips to Israel. And while these programs help Jewish teens make Jewish friends – and have a great time doing it – we offer more, much more. Our focus is “inspiration-based” education, motivating teens to think more deeply about their Jewish heritage and how it can shape their Jewish future. We do this by offering teens a safe place to ask their Jewish questions. We also provide college-age mentors who guide the teens as they explore their personal paths to Judaism. When they have questions, we have answers. And our teens discover, in their own unique way and at their own pace, what it means to be Jewish and why that’s important, for now and for the future.

We recently commissioned a study of our most popular Israel summer program for public school teens, The Anne Samson Jerusalem Journey (TJJ). Steven M. Cohen of Hebrew Union College measured the impact of the program on the lives of over 2,000 public school teens.

He concluded that TJJ alumni care about building Jewish families:

  • 95% say that marrying a Jew is important to them; and
  • 86% believe it’s very important to raise kids as Jewish.

And these teens aren’t just thinking about the future. They are living Jewishly right now:

  • 94% attend a Passover seder;
  • 93% attend high holiday prayer services;
  • 88% fast on Yom Kippur; and
  • 61% participate in Jewish learning at least once a week.

Some 92% of TJJ alumni also identify as being emotionally attached to Israel.

And though Professor Cohen did not ask these teens whether they light Chanukah menorahs, these stats give us the strength to reach out to more teens, despite the very real odds against us.

Chanukah, in its purest form, celebrates the victory of the spiritual over the mundane. At this, the darkest time of year, we celebrate the inner light of every Jew, no matter how deep it may be buried within him. And each of us can capture our own inner light and use it to inspire those around us.

With one flame, one can ignite a thousand candles. And that’s how we look at every teen we inspire. There’s no telling when his or her spark may burst into flame – or how many others he or she may ignite.

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.