by Brad Sugar

If you’re interested in an informal education experiment, grab a sheet of paper, find the nearest teen or adolescent, and give them one instruction: Draw a Jew. It may sound ridiculous, but over the past seven years – this simple exercise may have taught me more about the state of Jewish life than I care to admit.

Seven years ago, I instructed a group of students at Walter Payton College Prep (in Chicago, IL) to complete this exercise for the first time. Every Monday, students from all backgrounds (Jewish and not) met after school in the foreign language room, under the auspices of a network of Jewish culture clubs across the country (now called “The Jewish Student Connection”). As they converged upon the whiteboard to complete the task, I remember at once being taken aback with their artistic skill yet saddened by their representations of what “Jewish” was. As you might imagine, stereotypes ran rampant. Of course, there was the big nose. The Orthodox rabbi, replete with payot to the ground and a brimmed black hat that would make John Wayne proud. The doctor. The lawyer. The businessman, with a blinged out gold Star of David resting upon his opened shirt button, buried beneath curled hair. Over seventeen drawings in all.

To be sure, this was a “teaching moment” I could not resist.

“What’s missing from this picture?” I asked. A student then ran up the board, and amended his picture of the businessman by inserting a bagel in his hands. Not the answer I was looking for.

There were a lot of things missing from the picture, of course, but perhaps most egregious was the fact that not a single female had been drawn, despite more than half of the artists at the board being young Jewish women themselves.

I was also curious as to why none of the participants had drawn themselves, or someone that wasn’t an obvious caricature or stereotype. Here they were, in a self-selecting Jewish club, clearly identifying as being Jewish – yet no one “regular” was represented on the board. This really bothered me, and I spent the next hour after the meeting had finished asking each student about his or her representation of a Jewish person.

As it turns out, most of them fell back on stereotypes because there were no significant Jewish leaders in their lives other than immediate family. Few belonged to synagogues, and fewer went more than once a year. Jewish camp was not on the radar, Hebrew school was anathema and the acronyms of the local Jewish youth groups were simply gibberish to them. As teenagers, they had no true Jewish heroes. No immediate Jewish role models to emulate, to seek out, or to spend time with. The best representation of Jews to them was the stereotypical male Rabbi.

Some suggest that the most viable solution to inspire our youth to lead Jewish lives is to provide them with rich Jewish experiences. This may be true, but defining the desired outcomes for these experiences is difficult. The Jewish Student Connection’s approach is very specific: to expect our Jewish youth to grow into participating Jewish adults, we need to provide them access to affable and knowledgeable Jewish role models and leaders they can trust. Men and women. Religious and secular. Gay and straight. Jewish professionals and professional Jews. Young and old.

The high school and college years are such critical periods – not just for adolescent development, but for Jewish development, too. Think of all the important conversations that take place during this period: dating, friendship, and loss – just to name a few. If only our teens could have these conversations in a Jewish context, in consultation with a Jewish mentor they trusted – perhaps their future decisions will also be made a similar context?

Think about the Jewish mentors in your life with whom you’ve had these discussions. Perhaps it was a camp counselor, a youth director, or a Rabbi. Maybe it was a Hillel professional – or maybe even a relative. The point is – it is the people in our lives that mold us as we grow. Relationships almost always last longer than experiences, and as such, we must invest our resources in fostering meaningful relationships with those that matter. To Jewish Student Connection, teens matter.

To celebrate the Jewish inspirations in our lives, JSC has begun a campaign to recognize the individuals in our lives – past and present – that have made a Jewish difference. Please join us in recognizing these difference makers in our lives, and become partners in our mission to provide the very same experiences to the next generation.

Brad Sugar is National Director of Operations for the Jewish Student Connection.

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