by Rabbi Dave Levy
The Jewish community has been abuzz about the recent Jim Joseph Foundation study “Effective Strategies for Educating and Engaging Jewish Teens.” This important study highlights 10 key areas of learning, as well as another 10 implications for strategy development. I am grateful for this study and the structure it provides for an important conversation about our future work. The study encourages us to create a community of peer organizations that, while already existing informally, could really take flight with more coordination and effort. We at United Synagogue Youth (USY) immediately convened meetings to discuss the study and its impact on our work with USY. I look forward to sharing our findings and action plans in the future and I am looking forward to great outcomes for all of us working with teens.
As my staff and I reviewed the study, we noticed one key strategy that was not mentioned in the report: creating true, deep, JOY in celebrating and living Jewish lives.
Let me elaborate. What I have observed in travelling to USY events all over the continent and Israel is that our teens still love to sing and dance. So many studies and statements about today’s teens suggest that they are radically different from the teens that came before them. Singing and dancing, though, is a commonality shared by teens of every generation. I have seen teens, from a group of sophomore guys who would typically be too cool, dancing to “Call Me Maybe,” to 800 teens going wild singing and dancing at the opening of our annual International Convention. What they all have in common is one of our most cherished values: simcha.
We don’t talk enough about simcha – joy – in our discussions of how to reach teens. I believe firmly that our success is rooted in our ability to engage our teens in joyous expressions of their Judaism. This is important not only in Jewish terms, but in terms of the pressure cooker lives teens experience in their high schools and communities. One of the essential roles that we can play, therefore, is providing them the space for unguarded expressions of joy. From our perspective as educators and parents, it is when they are singing and dancing that we know that our teens are going to be okay.
Don’t take my word for it. Read what the Prophet Jeremiah says in his words of consolation after the destruction of the Temple. We sing his famous words at many of our USY events: “Od Yishamah…” “It will again be heard…” What does Jeremiah prophesize will again be heard? “Voices of joy and gladness.” Jeremiah tells us that while things look bad now, we will one day again know that the “Kids are Alright” – when they are singing and dancing again. Even in the time of the Bible our community was concerned with the engagement of our youth. Jeremiah gave us singing and dancing as an indicator to detect that things were looking up.
That is why, for all of us concerned with youth engagement, we should feel good each time we see our teens sing and dance. The joy of being Jewish that we impart to our teens is crucial to their making enduring commitments to the Jewish community.
Going forward, let’s challenge ourselves to create new and more music for our teens to sing and dance to. The Jim Joseph Foundation study, and those that came before it, point us to strategies for better delivery of these tunes to our teens. Our future will be brighter as we act on these critical recommendations. In the meantime, we should continue to celebrate each time we find our teens singing and dancing together.
Rabbi Dave Levy is the director of Teen Learning for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.