Surprisingly Simple Strategies: How a Presbyterian Church Reaches its’ Teens

All Teens Welcome

All Teens Welcome

What might other faith communities teach us, as Jewish educators, about engaging large numbers of teens in religious activities?

We clearly have what to learn, as more and more teens are opting out of Jewish learning past the age of 13, just as they’re beginning their adolescent journeys.

Recently, The Jewish Education Project hosted a webinar called “Interfaith Teen Engagement Exchange” with a team from the Christ Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis.  The purpose was for us to hear how they successfully reach teens in a new engagement model.

Briefly, I’ll distill for you what I believe worked for them.

Some of the strategies will not give you an ‘aha’ moment, and even if they did, some would require a more long-term approach, as in building a culture of volunteerism with active lay leaders.

I’ve simplified things a bit by including several related things in one category. Where that was not possible, you can see additional notes at the end. So, here is my take on the three top strategies that help create their successes:

#1. Empower and train volunteers.

There was an entire system of engagement based on the tireless efforts of unpaid individuals. An army of volunteer coaches, mentors, house group leaders, and peer leaders are part of this model. The volunteers are on board with how important it is to give their teenagers a moral grounding both for socialization in high school and to ensure a connection with their faith later on.  All peer facilitators are trained before becoming a leader, and receive support from a coach or mentor throughout.

#2. Make the program goals ‘stick’.

Create a system of credentialing for leaders. The teen peer leaders have to apply for the position, then are interviewed, trained, and supported in their roles. They can, after a period of time and with further training, move on to other roles. Although the program seems informal at first, with a closer look there is a hierarchical structure that supports the structure and gives teens goals to achieve more responsibility (and status). There are requirements of time and attendance that are clear to volunteers and participants alike. In addition, peer leaders make a multi-year commitment to the program.

#3. Relationship-building is part of the program, not a by-product. Move from small to larger groups. 

The weekly program begins with teens participating in small groups (7-10) where they get to know their peers in safe settings. In those groups, they learn a piece of text that their peer leaders have already experienced in their own training sessions. The discussions are informal, but have a purpose: to relate the text to real life experiences. After the small group discussions, everyone moves to a larger session (100 or more teens). The focus is on fun, interactive, and dynamic experiences: a game, simulation, workshop, or contest.

Additional Techniques:

Branding: the levels of responsibility were given catchy names and logos

Getting out of bounds: An important part of the program was to create relationships within small communities. These meetings were held in people’s homes, with House Group Leaders in charge of the program. People willingly open their homes on a weekly basis to host these programs.

Frequency is key: The programs themselves were not that long (1 hour, 15 minutes from small to large group), but are held weekly. Again, relationships deepen when experiences are shared regularly.

Have you found these strategies to work in your settings?

What would aid in the implementation of such a model?

I’d love to read your feedback! Please share below.

Photo courtesy of wikimedia.org


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

 

 


2014 in review

Thank you for visiting Jewish Teens this year and reading my blog! Below are interesting stats from the 2014 annual report prepared by the WordPress staff.

concert-december-31-firework-3863-525x350

This blog was viewed about 2,900 times in 2014, with visitors staying to read an average of 2-3 additional blog posts!

The next time you sit down for a cup of tea, I’d like to keep you company! Check out some of  my older blogs that are still relevant today, like this one: “Today I am a Brand”

cupoftea

Have you read the most popular posts from this year?

# 1     Teens Lose Out When Jewish Education Becomes an Activity

# 2     “Lesson-Plan” Your Passover Seder: Ways to Involve Teens

# 3    “You’re Not Invited”: Teen Victims of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Years and What To Do About It                                         This post was written in 2013, but still made the list this year

# 4     what parents of Jewish teens told me

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

If there are topics that you think I should write about, please let me know. I’d love to hear from you!

Jewish teens are a very small niche group, if you think about the percentage of total Jews worldwide.

Where do readers reading about Jewish teens live?

mapworld

Most blog readers this past year were from the U.S., Canada, and the U.K, however there are readers from a total of 66 different countries!

Thank you for showing an interest in Jewish teens and Jewish education, and I look forward to your visits and comments in the coming year!

May you have have a Happy and Healthy 2015!


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!

 


Read the Scoop on What Bar and Bat Mitzvah Bios Actually Reveal

What happens after dessert?

What happens after dessert?

Synagogue newsletters: not everyone’s optimal reading material when finding a treasured bit of rare, spare time.
It doesn’t help that many feel like a throw-back to a different era with some of the most musty names like Beacon, Herald or Courier.
The part that I do enjoy reading, when available, is the pithy, brief biographies that young teens write (or have ghost-written by phenomenally proud parents) prior to their B’nai Mitzvahs.
Some are unbelievably artistic and have bios that rival Carnegie Hall performers: (names are changed, but quotes are exact)

“Shaya is an accomplished dancer (she enjoys ballet, jazz and hip-hop) and musician (she plays piano and guitar and enjoys composing, playing and singing).”

Notably the guys in the group, seem to breathe sports air:

“Jonathan is passionate about sports in general: baseball, tennis, squash, soccer and basketball.”

Some are jet setters, even at this early age:

“Shira loves her pets, piano, photography and travels to both coasts and abroad.”

Most are highly involved in the mitzvah part of the event:

“Steve has baked for Ronald McDonald House and helped clean up Yellowstone National Park.”
“Rebecca has been participating in Street Soccer, USA, a nonprofit that helps homeless men and women learn skills beyond the field, by playing soccer with as well as collecting donations for a Philadelphia team.”
“Max participated in the Little League Challenger Program in which he helped kids with special needs play and enjoy the game of baseball.”
“Michal is coordinating donation efforts to bring indoor sports equipment to the JBH playrooms and is organizing and leading several activity nights for the children.”

It doesn’t need mentioning that we want our teens to be active and involved members of the Jewish and American community. Plus, parents want their kids to excel in areas of their interest, and do important service and community work.

But isn’t it odd that the community service these teens accomplished did not occur within a Jewish organization?

Of the ten teens whose faces and bios are featured in the B’nai Mitzvah bios with accompanying meaningful descriptions of their activities, not ONE mentioned what the teenager’s plans were for continuing their education past the much awaited-for ceremony.

Not one.

Even though the information above is excerpted from one synagogue newsletter, from those I’ve read, this one was not unusual.If there is a template that all the kids follow, why is the question about continuing the journey of Jewish education missing?

Is not the ceremony part of an ongoing developmental process in a journey toward Jewish adulthood?

Beyond all the tumult, hype, sweat equity, and of course unparalleled joys leading up to the actual ceremony, we have to ask ourselves questions about why so often the very purpose of the ceremony seems to be absent.

Even in the best case scenario, when I’ve seen teens communicate their intention to continue a commitment to further their Jewish education from the bima (podium), it doesn’t seem to appear in other places.

So, I ask again, why is their place in the Jewish community of the future a mystery?


The New Pew Report on Parenting, Priorities, and Faith

will your family values fit on a T-shirt?

A Pew research study says that families have much in common when it comes to values about parenting.

According to the website the findings “are based on a Pew Research Center survey conducted April 29-May 27 among 3,243 adults, including 815 parents, who are part of Pew Research’s new American Trends Panel, a nationally representative panel of randomly selected U.S. adults surveyed online and by mail.”

The study isolated values such as responsibility, hard work, obedience, being responsible, helping others, curiosity, and more.

What the study reveals upon closer examination however, is that parenting takes an entirely different turn when it comes to faith. As a value, it scored relatively high [although only 31%  of  parents say the teaching of religious faith is one of the most important values to teach children, it ranked third against the top two–Hard Work (44%) and Being Responsible (54%)].

Looking more closely however, the value of faith ranks close to the bottom when factored for ‘net importance’ i.e. how it stacks up against the other values overall.

So, compared to other values, faith scores only higher than curiosity among the twelve values.

One can play with these figures of course, and for those of us for whom religious education is important, we can certainly salve ourselves by saying that after all, having faith includes so many other values….

But we know better. Faith as a value, as something we aspire to, as something that we strive for……..is in crisis, and has been for some time.

In a recent conversation with an Education Director at a very large Reform synagogue, she bemoaned the fact that many of her teen-aged students, enrolled in private schools, tell her that “since they are doing volunteer work with their schools they are fulfilling the mitzvah (commandment) of  ‘Tikkun Olam” (Repairing the World through Service), and that they don’t really need to be at the synagogue anymore.

Ouch.


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.