Our whole Jewish village

We can — and we should — support Jewish preteens and parents now 

If you’ve been paying attention to the headlines or to the kids in your life over the last 18 months, you know that this is an especially challenging time for middle schoolers. Preteens face continued uncertainty about safety and health, and they are still recovering from remote schooling and prolonged social isolation. Schools have reduced time for social interaction, and the ability to hang out in person with friends is still limited. And while social media has many positives, it also exposes preteens to antisemitic, racist and sexist content, and it can exacerbate their struggles with body image, especially for girls, according to Facebook’s own research.

It’s no surprise that there has been a surge in the number of preteens needing psychological and psychiatric support. Parents are also feeling overwhelmed by the task of supporting their children. Preteen families need the wisdom and support that Jewish family education can provide.

Just as the Jewish community has invested time and energy into family education for preschoolers, now is the time to do the same for families of preteens. Our collective challenge and opportunity—as outlined in Moving Traditions’ newly released white paper, Family Education @ B-Mitzvah—is to offer Jewish experiences that support sixth and seventh grade preteens and their parents in confirming their values, communicating with clarity and empathy and navigating our changing world. 

We invite the Jewish community to embrace a new framework for family education in adolescence. By integrating Jewish wisdom with social-emotional learning, the Jewish community can in fact provide support and a sense of belonging for preteens and their parents. Over the past three years, we have partnered with hundreds of talented educators and clergy around North America to implement the Moving Traditions B-Mitzvah Family Education Program. In guided communal gatherings and intimate break out conversations, the program combines preteen self-reflection and peer discussion with parent-child and parent-to-parent explorations of family dynamics and Jewish ethics. 

Independent and internal evaluations show that this approach has a highly positive impact on the 13,500 participating preteens and parents at the 110 organizations that have partnered with Moving Traditions to date. Three key findings from the research can be integrated into any preteen family education program:

  1. Jewish wisdom speaks to families in this life stage:
    Preteens and parents find support, relevance, and meaning in experiences integrating Jewish
     teachings with secular wisdom on social-emotional learning and well-beingwhich was especially helpful during the pandemic.
    • 91% of clergy and educators reported that the program made it possible for them to help preteens and parents connect Jewish wisdom to their social-emotional development.
  2. Hevruta (partner learning) strengthens connections between parents and children:
    Preteens and parents value the opportunity to be in meaningful dialogue with each other, drawing on Jewish and secular wisdom about issues of concern at this new stage of life, as children become teens.
  3. 77% of parents reported having valuable conversations with their child during family sessions.
  4. Jewish community supports families when it relates to their lives:
    By effectively addressing the joys and challenges of preteens and parents, clergy and Jewish educators demonstrate to families that Jewish community is a place for support and connection.
  5. 83% of preteens and 87% of parents reported that the program helped them feel like they are part of a Jewish community that supports who they are.

With these findings, it’s clear that this new frame of Jewish family education can provide essential support to preteen families—and to Jewish organizations seeking to provide connection and value. The years leading up to and through the b-mitzvah provide the perfect opportunity to support preteens and teens, when most Jewish families are still engaged in Jewish life.

“So much of the b-mitzvah experience is not relevant to teens’ lives,” said Rabbi Noah Arnow, of Kol Rinah in St. Louis, MO. By contrast, with Moving Traditions’ approach, Arnow says, “The topics are things preteens are either experts in, or things they are very interested in dealing with.”

Building this new framework for Jewish preteen family education will certainly take our whole Jewish village. To get to this point, the Moving Traditions B-Mitzvah Program has benefited from the partnership of Jewish congregations and other institutions across North America. Our thinking was further enriched by conversations at our June convening of 50 leading scholars, Jewish educators, clergy, activists, and funders. We have now identified three areas we believe are ripe for more focused attention, resources, and partnership. Together, we seek to foster Jewish preteen family education that will:

  1. Affirm the diversity of Jewish people by continuing to expand narrow conceptions of “Jewish identity.” Through our language, staffing, and program content, we need to make it clear that Jewish communities explicitly honordiverse racial, gender, and sexual identities, dis/abilities, and multiple faith traditions within Jewish families—that all indeed are created in the Divine Image (b’Tzelem Elohim). More Jews will feel welcome, and our communities will be stronger for it.
  2. Help preteens and parents to navigate the challenges of adolescence today, in a Jewish framework, including puberty, stress and emotional well-being, gender expression and identity, and early adolescent sexuality. By connecting secular expertise to Jewish wisdom, we will raise a more healthy and respectful generation of Jewish community members and leaders committed to wellbeing (shlemut) and chesed (caring).
  3. Deepen the opportunity of the “mitzvah project” by linking it to systemic social change that will address social inequities and protect the planet. A core Jewish value, naming and addressing injustice is of keen interest to many adolescents. Doing so in Jewish community can inspire preteens and their parents to initiate a long-term engagement in good deeds (mitzvot) and justice (tzedek).

With continued innovation and collaboration, we can make Jewish preteen family education as widespread as preschool family education. Together, we can create Jewish experiences where preteens and their families will learn, explore, feel more connected—and continue to stay more connected—to each other, and to Jewish life.

Deborah Meyer (she/her/hers) is the CEO and co-founder of Moving Traditions, which emboldens Jewish youth to thrive as individuals and to challenge sexism in community while building a connection to Jewish life and learning. Family Education @B-Mitzvah: A Moving Traditions White Paper was made possible by funding from Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah and The Covenant Foundation. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.