Category Archives: Jewish

Jewish Teen Engagement: Do We Want to Win or Lose the Game

Place your bets on teens!

Place your bets on teens!

The Jewish community is the throes of change that at times seems to be at a dizzying pace, yet there are still so many obstacles that seem to discourage the participation of Jewish teenagers in Jewish life.  (I’ve written about some of them here and here).

By the time we figure this all out, we might have lost our chance.  The adolescent years is a time for making decisions about identity, but that opportunity gets lost in the wave of programs trying to perpetuate themselves, rather than perpetuating a relationship with the Jewish people.

This is best explained through a case study.

Let’s pretend you’re a teenager who is part of a synagogue community. Your bar/bat mitzvah was a few years ago.  It was a great experience, and as you said in your speech “all the work you had to do was worth it in the end”. Your parents were so proud.

You were glad to ‘be done’ but against all odds, you decided to continue in your synagogue’s Confirmation program. You were surprised though that 50% of your friends dropped out. They were too busy they said (but aren’t you?) or their parents said they weren’t going to  ‘make them’ attend (your friends told you their parents said they didn’t want them to resent their parents later).

So, now, from a class of 25, there are about 12 kids in your weekly class. You really enjoy studying with the Rabbi, and talking about the issues that matter to you. You really are beginning to see the relevance of Judaism in your life. Some of your friends in other synagogues have a different set-up, they work in their synagogue schools every week and earn some money. Sometimes you wonder whether that would have been better, since your parents talk about college expenses so much. But, you do like learning…..so much so, that you might want to continue—-even after the Confirmation ceremony, but the only option is Adult Education, and that would just be too…..uh…..nerdy.  You’ve heard that your friend’s synagogue has a class for 11th graders, but you don’t belong to that synagogue.

If you are lucky enough to find out about a community Hebrew high school that offers programming for 11th and 12th graders (some community schools are seen as competition to synagogue offerings), you’d be one of the few to do so, because by about now, there are 75% less of your friends who would have made this same choice (so now you’re down to about 3 of your friends). Your other friends were too busy (but aren’t you?) and they have college to think about (don’t you?) and get their grades up to speed (don’t you?). And chances are, your synagogue might not have shared this information with you.

If you find a program to attend, you might want to learn conversational Hebrew, or take leadership classes, participate in an internship program, or even take a college course. Little do your friends know that this experience will actually help get you into college, prepare you to think more broadly (your Bio-Medical Ethics class is so issue-oriented), and gives you so many chances to develop your skills in public speaking (you plan programs for the school), attend college readiness programs and establish relationships with teachers….not to mention the ‘street cred’ of being able to handle everything you’re already doing plus this academic program.

But you are one of the lucky ones, and you probably will be among the future leaders, simply because the education and involvement you’ve had puts you there.

So, with you, the Jewish community won. Your friends? Well, time will tell.


For our teens: what does it really mean to be Jewish?

What does it mean to be Jewish?

Is this what it means to be Jewish?

A portion of this post can be a lesson plan for Jewish teens, with the image above as the trigger.

It would be an interesting exercise and not entirely out of context as a beginning to a discussion about Jewish values (that is, if Google defines our context).

The photo came up in a Google Image Advanced Search (free to use or share) for “Why be Jewish?” and struck me immediately as a conversation starter for this topic.

So, if showing this on a projector to a group of Jewish teens, some introductory questions to ask them would be:

What is your first reaction to this image? What strikes you about this picture?

How does this image make you feel?

What does this image say to you about Judaism? Jewish life? (the whole concept of talking about life within the framework of death is a teaching moment in itself). (Psalm 90:12, Psalm 39:5, The Kaddish, etc.)

What are some of your thoughts about Jewish belief?

It might be interesting then, to move from the image toward their personal beliefs about being Jewish.

What defines them as being Jewish? Push hard on this question…don’t accept answers that are superficial and have been called “bagels and lox” Judaism.

For us as parents and Jewish educators, answering this question for ourselves is primary, and not at all an easy task.

List at least seven things that define your identity as a Jew, and you might ask the teens to do the same.

It would make for a very rich conversation.

With that completed, you  might move on to your responses to why should our teens be Jewish?

It’s a basic question that we will need to grapple with for several reasons:

1.     In today’s open society, Jewish values resemble good old-fashioned American humanistic values.

Kindness to animals? Check.

Respect for the elderly? Check.

Caring for the environment? Check.

Social and humanitarian causes? Check.

Well, you get the idea. Our teens are so much a part of the American (Judeo-Christian) value system, that selling them on Jewish values is tough.

Not only that,

2.     Jewish teens don’t perceive themselves as different from their friends, nor do they want to be different.

Then the hard bare reality might hit——many of us don’t want them to feel different either….since we may well remember what that felt like. (So, what do we do with that? )

Among most teens that are not in day school, religion is pretty much a non-issue among their friends. In high school, most kids aren’t staying up into the midnight hours talking theology.

Chem? Yes.

Advanced Physics? Totally.

God? Don’t think so.

3.     Jewish teens aren’t so much interested in doing things that are devoid of personal meaning, and many rituals connected with Judaism have not passed                that test for them.

What’s been missing is context.

Ritual without it is pretty empty, since there isn’t the automatic compulsion to follow ritual for halachic  (Jewish legal) reasons.

You can try this. Just ask them how important it is for them to….say Kiddush. Motzi.

Thought so.  (We’re talking about most Jewish teens here, not those for whom a context has been provided).

4.      Back to the God thing. In high school, Reason is King. They haven’t delved far enough into the sciences to really, really comprehend the mystery of it all, which when they do, (later, in college perhaps) can be an awesome and spiritual experience.

Yes, they’ll talk string theory, and quantum physics, but won’t really be able to absorb all of its implications. (Check out an earlier post: Thinking about Religious Truths and Scientific Lies, ). In short, they’re not there yet.

So, we have a job to do.

Far more than even worrying about Bar and Bat Mitzvah drop-off.

We have to get them to want to be Jewish.  They need to Love Being Jewish. 

The very first step, is making sure our top seven answers are substantive.

Then we need to let our teens see how much we love it. 

Photo credit: wikipedia.org

This post is an updated version of a previous post called “Why should our teens be Jewish?”


Top Ten Questions You Should Ask When Visiting College Campuses Through a Jewish Lens

Finding your Jewish path at college

Finding your Jewish path in college

 

For my family, when selecting college options, it was never solely about the numbers of Jewish students on campus. It was more nuanced than that, because in today’s environment, there are so many more factors to consider other than statistics.

For example, a school may have a large Jewish population, but precisely due to that size, students might not opt for specifically “Jewish” activities when given the many choices there are in a large school.

So below is a top ten list of questions (actually ten main questions, with lots more in between) you might ask when selecting colleges that match your teen’s interest level for Jewish engagement.

Hillel, the largest Jewish campus organization in the world, has a searchable online tool that answers some basic questions about sheer numbers of Jewish students, but does not offer specific answers to most of the questions below.

  1. Is there a Hillel or other Jewish options on campus (Chabad, Meor, Jewish Student Unions are examples). How far are they from the main campus? How well attended are the events they sponsor? Are there different choices for prayer styles? What is the attendance like? Are there students who take leadership roles? Is the staffing full or part-time? Does the Hillel consider itself an “Open Hillel”? Does the Hillel sponsor a Birthright trip?
  2. Is there an option for Kosher Dining on Campus? Is there open dining, so that students can eat at both places as part of the meal plan?
  3. Are there opportunities to major or minor in Jewish Studies? Is Hebrew language offered? If not, are there partnerships with other schools that have more choices? Will the school easily accept credits in these areas from other colleges?
  4. What is the environment like concerning Israel? Is there an active “Students for Justice in Palestine” group on campus? Have there been anti-Israel rallies? Is there a BDS movement on campus? Have any Israeli products ever been banned from campus stores?
  5. Are there travel abroad opportunities within the State of Israel?
  6. What is the school’s policy about Jewish holiday observance? Are there provisions on campus to celebrate Passover? Are there on-campus holiday services?
  7. Are there Jewish fraternities or sororities? Are they in the same location as other Greek groups?
  8. How many synagogues are there in close proximity to the campus? Is there an opportunity for students to participate at neighboring synagogues? Are there jobs in local synagogues for teachers? Youth group leaders?
  9. Has the college been in the news concerning issues surrounding academic freedom? Have the professors signed any petitions for political causes?
  10. What is the roommate selection process like?

If you feel a bit overwhelmed by this list, well….don’t. College costs are high, and the stakes are even higher. Ask away, then make a decision that is informed.

 

For more general information:

http://www.petersons.com/college-search/ask-experts-college-visit.aspx

 

 


For teens who want to write a better college application

Take five, relax, let yourself think about who you want to be.....

Take five, relax, let yourself think about who you want to be…..

 

Before you read further, you need to know this.

I am not a college advisor, consultant, or guru.

But I am a mother of two who gave her kids and their friends some advice in how to best present themselves on a college application.

My experience as a career consultant, evaluating and helping others write thousands of resumes helped prepare me for the task.

Whether due to my editorial help or not, thankfully, my kids got into the colleges of their choice.

I can relate to the intense pressure right about now that teens face in finalizing applications and putting the finishing touches on that all-important college essay.

With the upcoming flurry of activity surrounding Thanksgiving, I’m sure most teens will not be really, truly thankful until the last application has been sent off to the seeming abyss of the college admissions office.

Although much of the focus might be on the college essay, you might want to pay equal attention to how your application (or resume) reflects the story of who you are and what you’ve accomplished.

Yes, you need to squeeze meaning out of every word so your essay (in addition to meeting the new 500 word upper limit for the Common Application) must be attention-grabbing. However, you can be equally thoughtful and creative with factual information.

Many teens overlook how they appear on the application or college resume.  Consider these points before you tackle the job:

  1. Know who you are. This is the most crucial thing you could do right now. Some call this ‘branding’, and although I may not love the term, thinking of yourself in the third person, as a brand so to speak, will help you define more carefully what you want to present. What are your interests, hobbies, skills? Are they reflected accurately in your activities? Could someone figure out what’s important to you by seeing the totality of your activities? If not, you may either have too many activities listed or too few. No one says that you have to write about every single thing you’ve ever done. If need be, edit out those things that don’t add meaning to your presentation. Being a marginal member of a group for a few years won’t add to the portrait you’re trying to paint.
  2. Learn how to write a resume. The experience will help focus you and help you limit your words. Make sure you use action words and show results where possible. For example: “created unique fundraiser that engaged over 70% of students, raising $5,000 as the most successful event that year.” is way better than “planned or chaired school fundraiser.”
  3. What experience can you share that will set you apart from the crowd?  Try to not to list things that are general, but instead show off your specific contributions. For example, “contributed to a monthly blog for the school paper that received regular reader comments….” instead of “wrote for the school paper” or “was a reporter for the school paper”. Similarly, if you list commonplace activities that all of your peers are also listing, well, it’s just ho-hum. Think hard about what you do that others are not doing. For example, taking additional academic courses shows that you’ll be able to handle a challenging course load in college.
  4. Show a commitment over a long-term to some activity, cause, youth group, camp, or educational experience, that perhaps led you to take on a leadership position. If you can articulate that, even better. For example: “participant in youth group for three years, taking on successive leadership positions and am now Vice President of Membership.”
  5. Make sure your language is colorful, descriptive, and not boring. Hopefully your personality will shine through and you’ll get to the college of your dreams!

Please comment if you have additional ideas to add, everyone will benefit!

 


Teens Lose Out When Jewish Education Becomes an Activity

How Much Time to Spend on Jewish Education?

How Much Time Is There to Spend on Jewish Education?

People are setting into new routines and school is still in its start-up phase.

Schedules are being rewritten, dates are being calendared, and carpools being arranged.

From the myriad of after school activities that teens get to choose from, the options become dizzying. How can parents prioritize?

There are those activities that just might nail a college scholarship.

Then there are those that show the ability to be part of a team and as a plus, perhaps gain a honed skill in a much desired sport.

There are also those that demonstrate a level of creativity and talent.

Or a willingness to volunteer for a great cause and work towards an intangible goal.

Or demonstrate leadership by taking an active role in student government.

The choices are really endless, the goals often meritorious, and the pressure to succeed is on.

But what about the opportunity to talk about the larger issues in life?

What about teens who need to ‘download’ their day within a Jewish context—especially now when we’re confronted with so many moral and ethical challenges?

In the past few years, there are many more students who have stress-related disorders, and getting them at younger ages than ever.

The pressure to be busy has intensified, and Jewish education is suffering as a result, because it becomes a choice about which activity to do.

But what is the reality?

Actually, most teens have more time on their hands than parents realize…like spending the equivalent of almost a full day involved with social media: In 2010, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that “Today’s teens spend more than 71/2 hours a day consuming media — watching TV, listening to music, surfing the Web, social networking, and playing video games, and that number has surely increased by now.”

Teens: Making the right choices?

Teens: Making the right choices?

So, if we get rid of the time obstacles, what might some other barriers be for today’s teens to participate in a regular Jewish educational program?

1. Cost might be a factor. Welcome to the age of “free”. Some would say that it all started with Birthright trips and the expectation that it was important enough for young adults to have a memorable and strong identification with Israel that trips were/are free. Other freebies followed suit in the manner of free Hebrew schools. So, actually paying for a program is not a given anymore.

2. Lack of commitment from Parents. Some parents are hard-pressed to make the tough decisions to have their teen attend a supplemental Jewish education program, not wanting to ‘force’ their kids to do anything that they might not automatically be drawn to. Some have said they are afraid their teens will ‘resent’ this later. (my experience is just the opposite, so many adults have said to me, after learning on their own or through an outreach organization, that they wished their parents ‘forced’ them to learn when they were younger).

3. No experience of their own to draw upon. For parents who themselves did not continue after the age of 13, (or didn’t pursue the extra education mentioned above), they don’t know what their teen will be missing, and therefore can’t ‘sell’ the concept.

4. False choices. Some parents think a ‘Jewish activity’ is important, but limit their teen’s participation to one thing, reinforcing the idea that Jewish education needs to ‘fit’ into a greater scheme of commitments. This is more difficult to understand and accept when the one thing is only a monthly program!

5. De-valuing of the Jewish educational experience.To a certain extent, we can choose to blame Hebrew schools as a convenient scapegoat, or we can look deeper into versions of “American Judaism”  by-the-movements that did not speak enough to the deep need people have to connect. (Many have written about this, read further from authors such as Wertheimer, Sarna, Schwartz, Wolfson, etc.)

6. Parents are tired. Some say that their kids don’t want to have to 1. wake up early or 2. get home late, but often it is the parents themselves who are beat, can’t/won’t do one more carpool, shlep to one more activity. And this brings us to the point of the post. 

Avraham Infeld is famous for saying “Judaism is not a religion.” What I’d like to add is “Judaism is not an activity”. It’s not what we squeeze in or have to fit into our schedules. It’s who we are. It’s about who they will become.

It’s what teens need time for….to figure out how Judaism plays a role in their lives, now and in the future.

Let’s at least make sure our teens are not losing out on this opportunity.


what parents of Jewish teens told me

parentmeeting

 

I recently had the privilege of meeting with parents who attended informal meetings designed especially for them in locations across Philadelphia.

All the parents I met with are parents of teens who attend a weekly post Bar/Bat Mitzvah supplementary high school program, and the discussions were held over a period of several months–on Sunday mornings or evenings, or weeknights.

A few months ago, we asked parents to complete an anonymous online survey (survey monkey), and the response rate was extremely high at 30% . Where relevant, I’ll include those results as part of this post.

What I learned might surprise you…..or not.

Parents shared a lot in these informal discussions, but it was also interesting what I learned by inference from those parents who did not attend.

What I learned from Parents

 

#1. Parents of these teens are really, really tired and really, really busy.

Or really, really not interested in coming out for a meeting to discuss a Jewish education program where their teen attends. I can tell because we had a very low response to these meetings. However, parents did not seem to mind filling out the satisfaction surveys and wrote in plenty of comments to ponder.

For the most part, the parents who attended the meetings seemed just as busy as those who didn’t—-and even they were puzzled as to why more parents did not show up.

I was less surprised, as over 30% of parents responded that they weren’t interested in additional programming that we might offer them.  Others opted for parenting workshops (13.8%),  Adult education classes (23%), or Social programs (26%).  The largest percentage of parents  (43.7%)  were interested in College Readiness Programs, which brings me to point #2.

#2. The pressure is on. Parents of students in middle school were curious about college credit options in the program. This no longer shocks me. It did shock me 10 years ago. I’m sure the teens are feeling it either directly, or by proxy so to speak. Their teens are stressed and overworked, and it’s a question as to who is picking up on the stress from whom. That would make for an interesting  and valuable Parenting/Teen workshop.

#3. Parents appreciate the space their kids have in our program to talk about ethical and moral choices: they are pleased that they’re learning “Judaism’s view on_________________ ” (insert trending topic). They feel that there just isn’t time in a school setting to delve into the issues, let alone offering a Jewish context for those choices.

#4. Parents who attended are vocal about the reasons why sending their teen is important, although a large percentage seem very hesitant to make this a ‘have to’ if their child, for any reason, was not happy.

#5. Back to #4, Happiness seems to trump everything. Very few parents were willing to force the issue if his/her teenager did not want to continue.

#6. Parents want their kids to have a wide social network, and are concerned when their teens are not connecting socially with others in the program. For some teens, this is their sole Jewish connection in a neutral and casual setting. It is essential therefore, that we build social support systems into our program, to ensure that teens feel part of the community. This means more mentoring programs, linking students with each other beyond the usual ice-breakers,  and seeing that we continue to provide a safe space for all.

#7.  Some of the parents who send their teens to us are still in the “Hebrew School Drop Off Mode”….meaning that our program is just one more activity to which they are shuttling their kids.

In all, it will take some effort to create the partnerships we are aiming for, but I believe we are up for the challenge.

Photo courtesy: sha3teely.com


Jewish Teen Education by the Hour

How much time is too much?

How much time is too much?

How many hours does it take to become knowledgeable about something?

I know, it’s a very broad question….but try to humor me. Your task is to become more learned about Judaism…..to become literate.

How many hours would you need to spend?

Okay, got it?

For comparison’s sake, students spend on average, 181 days per year in a K – 12 school environment, which translates into approximately 900 or so hours per year.

Many people don’t even think this is enough, especially when compared with the more rigorous school schedules of other countries. (And we know the U.S. is continuing to lose ground in the education of our youth).

Hourly disputes aside, no one would say that at the end of high school, one’s education is complete if mastery of a subject area is the goal.

Yet, (you know where I’m going with this), at the end of just  few short years in Hebrew school, at what amounts to a paltry number of hours, parents and students are calling it quits. (This post is not directed at teens enrolled in a Jewish day school).

Think about it…..if you’ve been to college and are reading this….how many “credit” hours did it take as an undergrad to major in something?  And if you added all the studying to those credit hours, what number would be your total?

More importantly, as a result, if you had to rate your knowledge about the subject, what score would you give yourself on a scale of 1 to 10?

(I’d love to read your comments on this).

When I googled the topic online, wiki answers provided me with this clarification of my question: “How many hours in your major do you need to graduate from college?” and generalized (though varying from institution to institution) that between 30 and 40 credit hours suffice for a major, with general agreement that each credit hour represents at least 15 hours of class time (exclusive of studying time).

So, back to Jewish teens and post B’nai Mitzvah education.

How many hours do you think teens should devote to learning about their heritage, language, culture, history?

Remember, these are the years when critical thinking kicks in…and teens can begin to wrestle with beliefs, tradition and change.

So, how much time in total per year? 

How about in aggregate, from between ages 13 – 18?

So, in all, how much time on the clock does the average Jewish teen spend on learning about Judaism?

I think the answer would astound you…..it shocks me.

In the best case scenario, where teens attend a Jewish educational program at least once a week, the time they spend watching TV is more than twice the amount of time spent learning about Judaism.

That’s the best case–and kudos to the parents and teens who are at least making that choice.

What does this say about the teens who are in monthly programs? Or those who are not participating in any learning during the academic year?

Malcolm Gladwell aside, we don’t need to create 10,000-hour experts, but teens wouldn’t even rate in any bare minimum category with the limited hours that are devoted to Jewish learning.

Years ago, a teacher I worked with said that parents were only interested in (this will sound dated) “Kodak Judaism”. When I looked puzzled she said “They’re only interested in exposure…as long as their teens are exposed to Judaism, that seems to be enough for them.”

Right about now, you might be thinking that immersive experiences offer the perfect answer…after all teens are living Judaism non-stop for hours on end in a Jewish summer camp.

The problem is, our teens are Jewish all year-long, not just in summer. Otherwise we’re perpetuating our own pathetic version of the well-worn campaign “What happens in Jewish summer camp, stays in Jewish summer camp”.

Somewhere, between exposure and 10,000 lies a reachable goal. We need to get there.

Related Posts:

Judging Jewish Education by Fun

One Comment I Never Hear as a Jewish Educator

Jewish Parents: Choose your teen’s activities wisely