Time to Discomfort the Comfortable Teen?

By Billy Planer

“One who gains strength by overcoming obstacles
possesses the only strength which can overcome adversity.”
Albert Schweitzer

It is natural for teachers and parents to want to make life comfortable, easy, and pleasant for their students and children; natural to feel we are helping build their self-esteem by having them succeed in their endeavors.

Our attempts, as well-intentioned as they are, may be creating young people who don’t have the necessary tools and confidence to handle life when it takes a hard turn.

In medicine, there is a concept called Wolff’s law. It basically states that bones adapt to pressure or lack of it. Like muscles, bones strengthen under pressure and weaken when not put to use.  In the past 30 years of working with Jewish youth, I have seen a shift to protecting our young people from failure, celebrating any and every attempt at something, holding back from correcting mistakes and keeping them from confronting uncomfortable experiences.

I created a summer program for Jewish teens called Etgar 36 that actually encourages these encounters. We take teens on a journey across America to engage, discuss, and debate with many sides of political issues. Within the space we create in our community, we encourage the teens to actually listen and engage with people with whom they disagree. We live out the quote, “these and those are the words of a living God,” as an underlying theme of Etgar 36 is that just meeting and speaking with people and issues you agree with is not productive. We must engage with “the other,” even at the cost of being uncomfortable. In fact, it is only through this discomfort that we will figure out as a community how to move forward.

While this process is not always comfortable, fun, and nice, like the caterpillar, the students emerge from this tension that we present on Etgar 36 as a stronger, deeper butterfly.

A prime example that comes to mind is the LGBT Reform Synagogue in Dallas, Texas that every Etgar 36 group meets with on the first Friday night of their trip. The synagogue advocates on behalf of same sex marriage. A few days later, we meet with a conservative talk show host who used to be affiliated with Focus on the Family, and he speaks against same sex marriage. One year, at our daily wrap up where the students share their thoughts and feelings from each day, one student said that the anti gay marriage meeting was extremely difficult for him, but it made him confident and committed to the fact that for the first time he wanted to publicly acknowledge that he was gay.

By meeting with people who may be verbalizing ideas that go against who someone is in life, we are truly helping these teens learn how to develop thicker skin as well as the tools necessary to navigate a world that may not care about them as much as we do. The students are also learning how to strengthen their own beliefs in the face of opposition. If we deny our students the ability to have their ideas challenged and made to rethink what they stand for, how do they really know if their beliefs are solid?

The speakers also hold the students accountable for their comments. They call the students out publicly to be able to back up their thoughts, sources, and opinions. As a staff, we also make sure the students are maintaining eye contact and presenting productive non-verbal communicative skills. In today’s world of texting and non-face-to-face communications, these “old school” skills are still vital. I have heard from many alumni throughout the years that my hard line approach to constantly hold them accountable for the way they present themselves at these meetings has paid off many times throughout college and entering the work world. While they may have found it annoying or unnecessary then, they are so appreciative of it now.

I am convinced that our approach also helps build their self-esteem. After all, self-esteem is not something that is caused, but rather, it is a result. While it may feel good to be told you are correct and fine without really having that tested, the self-esteem that is built from that is built in sand. By having to test out our abilities and thoughts, and sometimes having to confront our weaknesses and even fail, we realize that we also have the ability to build back up. That is self-esteem based on results, and that is foundational.

What is Jewish about this approach? Everything. After all, isn’t one of our founding documents, The Talmud, basically a recording of verbal disagreements and debates. Clear winners and losers of the discussions in which we can turn to in order to help shape our opinions?

Billy Planer has been working in Jewish experiential education for 30 years. He is the Founder and Director of Etgar 36, a program that during the summer takes Jewish teens across America teaching them about history, politics and activism. During the academic year Etgar 36 takes day schools and synagogue groups on Civil Rights journeys.