Widening the Narrow Bridge: Gen Z Jewish Parenting and Jewish Education in 2020 – A Call to Action for Jewish Community Leaders, Educators and Clergy

By Shoshanna R. Schechter, MA

As the world of Jewish educational leadership grapples with the many challenges associated with adapting our time tested paradigms and models for the next generation, “Jewish Gen Z”, there is one significant concern that stands front and center above all – the rapid rise of anxiety among adolescents.

The “kids” that we are discussing, born between 1997 and 2012, are already sitting in our classrooms, attending our summer camps and signing up for our “Tikkun Olam Teens” winter breaks. Thereby, it stands to reason that it would behoove our Jewish communal leadership and institutional structures to devote time and resources to not just creating programs (that we hope will work) for this emerging generation of unique American Jews, but also understanding the foundational basis how they came to be. The 2013 Pew Study on American Judaism opened our eyes to the world of the Millennials, which greatly influenced the nature of the engagement programming created for them as well as the allocation of community resources. From the limited, but very telling, research conducted thus far, it is clear that Gen Z, let alone “Jewish Gen Z,” is generationally distinct in enough ways to merit similar treatment.

Full disclosure, in addition to being a life-long Jewish educator, writer, researcher and academic- I myself am a “Gen X” parent of three Gen Z daughters. As hard as I try to “take my own advice”, when it comes to my parenting choices – my daughters are still very much Gen Z kids – and as such, like their peers, are growing up in a world where “our smart technology advances so quickly it outpaces our ability to civilize it[1].”

Let us start from the positive. In the year 2020, which populations is the American Jewish community serving well? Honeymoon Israel, the highly inclusive interfaith and LGBTQ+ friendly independent organization, leads new young couples (ages 45 and under) on trips to Israel, and then focuses primarily on building community among their participant groups. PJ Library of the Grinspoon Foundation focuses on the “next” phase of emerging Jewish adulthood by creating multiple open tent entry-points for parents of preschool through elementary school age children to create connections and build support systems within their own communities. After all, how many of us find our “Mommy friends” out of children’s Jewish preschool cohort?

When we turn to the post B’nai Mitzvah world, there are a myriad of youth groups for the young people themselves to plug into. What then, does our community offer for the parents of Middle and High School students? Most Federation, synagogue, and general “Young Leadership” community connecting groups (OneTable, or in the DC area, Gather DC) cut off at ages 40-45.

When working at the Richmond Jewish Federation as the Women’s Philanthropy Director, I cannot tell you how many phone calls I received from Jewish community members in their 40s and 50s, with or without children, asking what kind of activities were available for them. Sadly, unless you were ready to write a big check, my answer was, “not much.”

For any of educators or Jewish communal professionals that serve the Middle and High School demographic, the extreme pervasiveness of teen/tween anxiety, in all clinical forms, is not only affecting our daily work, it is clear that at this moment there are no signs that this upward trend is slowing down. By bypassing the needs of the parents of adolescents– the people who truly need support, inspiration and help at one of – if not the most – challenging phases of parenting, our core Jewish community institutions are missing an exceptional opportunity to make an lasting and significant impact on the most influential people in the lives of our next generation.

Now, to be clear, there is significant “professional development” for Jewish educational practitioners addressing the background, current data, and recommended techniques for decreasing and alleviating adolescent anxiety. Taking a step back, in truth, by leaving out the parenting piece, our community is addressing the symptoms without attempting to understand the catalysts behind them.

When Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, of the 18th century, introduced the concept that “the whole world is a narrow bridge, and the essence is to remain fearless,” one could posit that he also would never have suspected that in the year 2020, his short but clear message on the debilitating power of FEAR would end up being the Ikkar, the foundational essence, of some our biggest challenges facing not just Gen Z and the committed Jewish educational professionals serving them, but their Gen X and Millennial parents as well.

Whether we like it or not, our children, students, and campers are growing up in a world where they are rapidly and consistently exposed to massive amounts of diverse sources of media. No matter how tech savvy we parents *think* we are and as many “parental controls” we can attempt to install on our children’s smart phones, tablets, computers – there is no possible way to control the transmission of information of all kinds – some of which we may believe to be appropriate and some not. I have heard of parents attempting to “bypass the system” by forbidding all technology involving “screens” and, in their minds, any access to social media – however, unless one chooses to raise their children in complete solidarity from the outside world, as we learned from The Borg of Star Trek “Resistance is futile.”

Yet, while the issue of “too much access to too much information” is a significant part of the problem, it is not the only one. While on one hand our tweens and teens are not developmentally ready to process much of this information, they are also missing the opportunity to organically build a social and emotional skill set to “critically reflect on or apply what they consume{2].” The result being, a generation of extended adolescence. In addition, as mentioned above, a marked tremendous increase in fear driven anxiety as they attempt to make sense of their own perceived reality.

However, are technology and social media the only culprits here? What most Jewish educational institutional leaders are missing from the perplexing pattern of pervasive anxiety is that not only are these kids attempting to navigate what the world is throwing at them, (much of which can be quite fear inducing in itself: school shootings, economic instability, terrorism, Coronavirus etc.) they are also often being parented from a place of fear.

The many significant events affecting the ethos of American culture of the past 20 years (9/11, Columbine, economic recessions, terrorism, mass shootings, bursting of the housing bubble, pandemics, employment instability) combined with the well documented trend of news media outlets actively crafting fear inducing stories and “possible” crisis level events have resulted in a generation of pathologically fearful parents.

Today’s “helicopter” or “snowplow/lawn mower” parents, as they are often labled, see the modern world as uncontrollably dangerous and full of threats to their children’s safety, wellbeing, health and future. As such, they seek control wherever they can find it. This pattern leads us now to a place where the compulsion to completely control every moment of our children’s lives is delaying the normal emotional and developmental growth that should be taking place during adolescence. From hyper monitoring schoolwork, over-programming evenings and weekends with “safe space” and “resume building” activities, overreacting to possible medical concerns (resulting in much higher percentages of Gen Z kids on several daily prescription medications).

All the more so, the most harmful “snowplow parenting” practice involves smoothing every life challenge or complication away, with the goal of insuring that our children do not have the possible chance to “fail.” This results in our children and students feeling a lack of control from all sides. In this contradictory equation, how would it even be possible to develop that critical sense of independence and personal responsibility for our choices and our actions?

As Jewish educators, leaders, clergy and administrators, many of us are working very hard within our own institutions and organizations to shift this pattern. We create “resilience building” policies that require students to advocate for themselves, social emotional learning classroom designs and implements activities that encourage students to build relationship building and problem solving skills.

As impactful as that can be, it is simply not enough. As educational practitioners and leaders, we need to collaborate with parents of adolescents in new and innovative ways. The need to build Jewish Parenting programs into our synagogues, JCCs and Day Schools and other community institutions is more crucial than it has ever been. This “Call to Action” challenges us to go beyond the era of “Classroom Moms,” “PTA fundraisers” and “School-Wide Family Mitzvah Day.” This even goes beyond the formerly popular “Family Education” trend that has come and gone.

Just maybe – by fostering fresh connections and offering resources, support and a sense of community to this ignored and underserved population of parents and families, we can begin to take steps to shift the paradigm of fear and anxiety. We will not know until we try – and, if we look back to Reb Nachman for the answer, fear cannot be allowed to hold us back.

Shoshanna Schechter is the Director of Jewish Life at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, MD, a 3rd year Executive Doctoral Student  at the William Davidson School Graduate School of Jewish Education of the Jewish Theological Seminary. In addition to being a CESJS alumna, Shoshanna is also the proud mother of  3 CESJDS students, Netanya (8th), Elianna and Kinneret (4th).

[1] Kelly, 2017, as cited in: Elmore, Tim, and Andrew McPeak. Generation Z Unfiltered: Facing Nine Hidden Challenges of the Most Anxious Population. Poet Gardener Publishing in Association with Growing Leaders, Inc., 2019.

[2] Elmore, Tim, and Andrew McPeak. Generation Z Unfiltered: Facing Nine Hidden Challenges of the Most Anxious Population. Poet Gardener Publishing in Association with Growing Leaders, Inc., 2019.