Taking the Pressure off Jewish Youth Leadership Development

By Talia Cooper and Shayna Goodman

In her recent article, “Judaism is Resting on Your Shoulders. No Pressure…” Jessica Downing aptly describes the predicament that we continue to find ourselves in: “Our students are drowning in homework and extra-curricular activities, all with the promise of securing the perfect future … We have to do better for our teens.” So how do we begin to fix this? In exposing the idea of the “perfect future” as myth, Downing has taken a first step. This myth is pervasive in our culture. Socioeconomically privileged youth have learned and internalized the messages of achievement culture, pressuring themselves and each other to continually strive for prestige. Our next step is to empower youth to work collaboratively to recognize and resist the normative pressures they face.

Since 2006, Ma’yan has focused our work on Jewish teen girls. Our flagship program, the Research Training Internship (RTI), with cohorts in New York and Chicago, allows high school-aged girls to conduct their own research project and examine social justice issues through a critical feminist lens. The young women Ma’yan and our Chicago partners work with are mostly white with access to wealth. They are highly motivated, high achieving and come from some of the most elite high schools in New York and Chicago. No matter what their next steps are, they are already in a position to become tomorrow’s leaders. What then is our role as parents and educators of privileged youth? In our work with girls we try not to replicate the systems that we push back against and to model different possibilities. This means forming a new understanding of what it is to create future Jewish leaders that challenges our traditional understanding of who and what leaders are. As opposed to replicating a system where the privileged elite hold positions of leadership and maintain power over others, we expose these power differentials so that emerging leaders can challenge them as a central part of their work. Here are some of the components of building future Jewish leaders we’ve tried to rethink:

A curriculum that does not prescribe one kind of Jewish involvement

Our interns come from different backgrounds and different understandings of what it is to be Jewish. Can you envision a program that allows Jewish youth to form their own understanding of what their Jewish future is and makes youth feel valued for whatever their contribution is? We feel strongly that every individual gets to decide the Jewish path that is most liberating for them. For some this could mean taking on more practices, and for others this might mean breaking free from what they’ve been taught. There is no best or worst way to be Jewish and we do not spend time worrying about whether these future Jewish leaders will light Shabbat candles or marry in the faith (or marry at all, for that matter). We instead concern ourselves with offering them support in self-confidence, community, and leadership skills. We prioritize an understanding of how Jewish history, religion and identity fit into the larger constellation of our social world. We examine how all aspects of our identity, including race, class, gender, religion and sexuality contribute (sometimes without our seeing it) to our successes, attitudes, feelings and opportunities as well as the pressures we face. By uncovering these societal truths, it becomes easier to resist pressures and find a path and Jewish identity that makes the most sense for our own lives.

Expectations for program participation: We expect interns to attend every session but have no repercussions if/when life/health/extracurriculars get in the way. Facilitators express no disappointment in participants when they are unable to attend and we make notes readily available so they can catch up if they wish.

Body-consciousness: Teens (especially girls) are not often encouraged to feel present in their bodies; to pay attention to their hunger and exhaustion or to allow these feelings to take precedence. We create a space where youth can do whatever they need to attend to their physical and emotional selves. We also try to incorporate movement exercises into our workshops to ground youth in their bodily selves.

Homework: Teens do not typically get to decide about the quantity and type of work they want to take on. We’ve tried to create a program that gives participants the option of how much work they want to take on and what kind of work is most useful to their growth.

These are values that are core to our work. The pressure on families to get it exactly right is understandable, but it can overwhelm clear thinking about what young people actually need: love, connection, time to rest, time to play, time to create, and information about how the world works. They might not need another activity. When we live in a system that values products over people, the outcome will always be dehumanizing. As educators we get to make active choices to counter this narrative.

Talia Cooper is the Program Director at Ma’yan and the former executive director of Jewish Youth for Community Action. She is an educator, organizer and musician originally from Oakland, California.

Shayna Goodman is a graduate of the University of Michigan School of Social Work and Judaic Studies MA program. She works as Communications, Marketing and Social Media Strategist at Ma’yan and continues to write about feminism and Jewish culture.