Tag Archives: synagogue

Hiring Jewish teen aides? Five things you should know

I promise, keep reading, and you’ll get to my five suggestions. But first, some advice…..for a student named Rachel.

Here are some things about Rachel that you should know:

She absolutely loves working with kids, and has done so for the past several summers at a Jewish camp. The kids love her, parents rave about her as well, plus she has a lot of patience. In addition, everyone says that ‘she’s a natural’. And naturally, she’s thinking of majoring in elementary education. If she went to college, in four years, she would earn a teaching degree, and may even decide to go for an advanced degree. College costs are a real concern for her family, though her parents assure her that with loans, they will be able to handle the tuition payments at a state school. Just last week she was offered  a job as a classroom aide at an after-school program. For her, it would mean a real job and money. Now. She could save some money by living at home, at least for a year, and she could also save for college to show her parents that she is willing to help. Besides, she wouldn’t get to work in a real classroom until her junior or senior year in college and the after-school program really thinks that Rachel will be an excellent role model for the younger students, and taking the job would mean that she could make an impact on those children—-now.

What should Rachel do—work as an aide now or continue her education?

You probably are wondering why I’m asking the question, but please continue reading because you know I have to ask: what is your advice for Rachel?

Right about now, you might be thinking that this is a no-brainer. Would anyone recommend that she forego her own education in favor of the immediate: earning some money even though she’d be using her talents and skills? We know that society places a real premium on an education.

So, let’s take a leap and say that Rachel celebrated a Bat Mitzvah, and is being offered a job at her synagogue’s Hebrew School. What could be wrong with that?

In many synagogues around the country, on a weekly basis, students get paid to work in Hebrew schools at the very age when they should be furthering their own education. Sure, their choice is not necessarily to go off to college to earn a Jewish studies degree, but why is their own education sacrificed in order to hire them as classroom aides? I’m specifically talking about the many students I hear about each year who say that they can’t go further in their Jewish education because they’re working as an aide at a Hebrew school and would be too busy.

Here’s FIVE reasons why synagogues should supplement teen aide programs with an educational component:

#1. Why shortchange a Jewish teens’ education at this important time in their lives when they’re ready to intellectually grapple with Jewish ideas?

#2. Hiring teens creates ‘instant role models’ at your synagogue, but you’re also saying that really, continuing Jewish education isn’t nearly as good as getting a paycheck.

#3. Hiring teens makes the statement that there isn’t much to a professional Jewish educator, after all, someone who has just completed a bar/bat mitzvah is perfectly suited to help out in the classroom.

#4. Students working in these classroom rarely receive the additional support or training to deal with the many issues that come up or the questions they have.

#5. Instead of learning to change paradigms, and thinking creatively about Hebrew school options, students often cycle through the very ineffective system that they experienced.

A recent study regarding the placement and retention of close to 3,000 public school teachers found that when they were student teachers, they should have been considered students, and not teachers in order to get the support they needed. How much more so would this hold true for our Jewish teens placed in classrooms? 

Still, it is really wonderful to have the teens around, as a presence in the school. Additionally, it’s a built-in retention tool for engaging members past the usual drop-off Bar/Bat mitzvah age.

So, what is a Hebrew school to do?

Well, for starters, tell the aides that in order to work in your school they must be enrolled in further Jewish education (online, adult study, Hebrew high school—- something). An additional option is to offer teens a training program, to receive the much needed support I mentioned above.

Unless we do that, I believe we are failing our youth with this practice.


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


Seven Things to Do When Teens Come Home from Jewish Summer Camp

How to Bring Camp Home

How to Bring Camp Home

Soon, thousands of Jewish teens will arrive to their home communities, having spent an amazing immersive experience in a Jewish summer camp. These teens, armed with new enthusiasm for Jewish life, should be able to transition successfully into their Jewish life at home, sharing their experiences with peers, their families, the synagogue, and maybe even the Jewish community as a whole.

Summer camp is exhilarating for our Jewish teens. For most, living Judaism 24/7 and not as an ‘add-on’ like Hebrew school, is a powerful experience for them.  For example, Shabbat at camp is a communal affair, with everyone in the camp community living on the same page. Each week has the rhythm of Shabbat, with the pace at week’s end picking up in a flurry of activity; frenzied preparations of personal and communal cleaning that peak before sundown on Friday night. Daily schedules then ease into a newly relaxed pace of free time and socializing that ends on Saturday night. This arc of Friday to Saturday night is a palpably different feeling than the rest of the week.

A Jewish Bubble That is Alive and Vibrant

At camp, teens are socializing in a Jewish world surrounded by staff and friends who are all Jewish and who are making a commitment to be together, living Judaism, for several weeks. The passion for living a Jewish life can’t be duplicated—there are just too many factors that make that impossible (that’s why many Jewish Federations around the country and the Foundation for Jewish camping are trying to get our kids to go there).

So, Jewish teens spend the summer being energized about a Judaism that is alive, pulsing, vibrant, and changeable and at summer’s end have a decidedly different experience.  At home, the pace of the weekly arc is gone for the most part, unless campers live in a Shabbat-observant home. They may or may not miss any restrictions they’ve had (electronic fasts in some places) but they will miss the natural rhythm that the week holds.  Their home friends won’t have a clue what they’ve experienced, and neither will you, as parents, if you haven’t experienced it. They no longer live in a community of like-minded teens.

Why should we make teens wait all year long to experience these same feelings again?

When Teens Return Home

Most teens returning to ‘normal’ life after camp don’t experience a transition between these two worlds. Instead, there is a disturbing disconnect as they see huge differences between the summer months and practices at home and the synagogue during the year, which is like going from one entirely different cultural experience to another.

We can look at ways to maximize their experiences and make sure that the energy is captured, and create more of a seamless transition.  There may be programs working on this, like youth groups that connect campers during the year, but not all groups function in that way or are successful in that effort.

Links between Camp, Home, and Synagogue

We need to create better links, bridges, and supports from one experience to the other for our Jewish teens. So, how can we maximize campers’ experiences when they arrive home?  What I’m suggesting won’t be broad or sweeping systemic change but are definitely do-able. There are activities that can be tweaked for home, synagogue and even youth groups. Below are just some suggestions for optimizing Jewish teens’ experiences at camp and using their creative talents, no matter the level of your observance:

#1.  Make Friday night (at least) different from the rest of the week by getting the teens involved in trying to create a different Shabbat experience at home. It doesn’t much matter how—a tablecloth, cold cuts on Saturday, a change of clothing, challah, candles—can set the tone, even over a pizza dinner. Too much? Choose one small change, but try to commit to it every week. Ask them for ideas, and don’t accept the usual “but this won’t work here” response.  Start slowly, perhaps building on ideas month to month. For example, try an electronic fast, for at least a few hours either Friday or Saturday, or both, every week. Your teenager is already used to it, so making the change won’t be difficult.

#2.  Mentor a group to begin a ‘camp style’ minyan at your synagogue, even once a month for starters.  Or ask them to duplicate a service one Shabbat evening or morning.

#3.  Ask your camp to connect you with other campers/parents in your area to keep the camp spirit going.  Many camps are forming parent groups just for this purpose. You might want to get together with other camp parents to create a different Shabbat experience. This might already be happening at your synagogue through a new program called “Guess Who’s Coming to Shabbas”. Find more about that here:  https://www.facebook.com/GuessWhosComingToShabbas.

#4.  Make sure that your teens are connected to Jewish learning experiences during the year, hopefully in addition to a youth group. Many programs are conducted on a weekly basis–offering teens a ‘camp reunion’ opportunity—and some courses are even online. They are specifically geared toward teens’ interests and expectations. These programs offer expertise in bridging the camp- to- home experiences.

#5.  Feature these Jewish summer camp experts as part of a panel that explores the ways in which the synagogue and home communities can learn and be enriched by their experience. Also, make sure there are ways to put these teens in front of younger students to share their experiences and keep the legacy of Jewish camping a presence at your synagogue.

#7 Put one or more Jewish teens on the synagogue’s ritual committee to infuse it with some new ideas and approaches that they’ve learned at camp. Give the teens a goal to incorporate one new and different thing from camp into synagogue programming for your youth

This issue has been on my mind for quite some time.   I was one of those campers, at ten years old, filled with a spark of Judaism from summer camp that didn’t get replenished until the next summer. The youth group in my area was purely social, and didn’t offer me enough of the “Jewish infusion” that I had at camp.

We can make a difference in how our teenagers experience Judaism during the year. Even implementing one suggestion from the list can send a strong message that as a community, we’re all working together on their behalf.

Photo credit: wikipedia.org

Related articles


How We Are Shortchanging Jewish Teens

Teens need to be with other teens. Lots of them.

Teens need to be with other teens. Lots of them.

Some time ago, I wrote a post called What I learned about marketing from working at a Jewish Community High School. The “Aha, yes, you got it right” e-mails never came,  but I wrote that post mostly for myself anyway. It was a way to help me clarify some of the challenges inherent in my part of the Jewish world, because getting buy-in from Jewish teens was just too impossible of a job and I needed to explore why that was so.

Well, things have gotten much, much harder.  Then, I carefully outlined the primary reasons for the recruitment struggle, giving much detail of the built-in synagogue realities that make it even harder than anyone would think it would be.

Taking stock is a helpful exercise, but expecting change is another matter entirely. In fact, looking back, I was naive because I thought the challenges I referred to were the major obstacles to scores of teens signing up for enhanced Jewish education programs.

Boy, did I underestimate things.

What I didn’t experience so much then was turf, mostly because things just a short time ago, weren’t that bad. I’ve encountered it so much that I feel shell-shocked from the experience.

Let’s say that in a sea of drowning people, no one is going to throw you a lifesaver.

Specifically, no one is going to ‘share’ precious resources i.e. members. The Jewish community is in a period of deep change (though some have said chaos), and I can almost see the curtains being drawn and shutters being shackled as many organizations and synagogues are just trying to weather the storm and hold their own.

This behavior has not necessarily held true for the number of partnerships that are beginning to sprout up everywhere, albeit out of necessity. The economics of sustaining organizations has driven collaboration and that is a good thing to come of all this.

The issue I’m focusing on is limiting choices for others when the desire to hold on to them becomes paramount.

I respect and value the desire of synagogues to create ways of keeping their teens involved–especially as it pertains to keeping Post Bar/Bat Mitzvah teens on site—-we know how powerful Jewish role models can be, and that goes both ways. Jewish teens are role models for the younger students, and the professional leadership are mentors for the teens. That works.

Except when the teens themselves are being short-changed out of their own educational opportunities.

Holding onto your Jewish teens is wonderful, as long as you’re providing them with substantial, content-laden experiences. It’s just not okay if you simply want them on your real estate.

I’ve heard comments like “We just like to have them in our building” to “Our teens are needed here because they sell snack at break”

Sorry, but the way to have teens on hand, is not simply to have them give a hand. They need more.

Having classroom aides is not a bad idea in and of itself,  when done correctly. As an experience that stands alone, I don’t think it gives teens a fair deal. Please read here for some of the reasons why I believe that to be true.

In order to ‘weather this storm’, there needs to be some long-term planning on creating better business models, one that allows teens some choices as to how they want to play out their Jewish journey.

The reality, is that building those skills now, of helping teens actively choose their Jewish involvement, is what may make a difference for Jewish continuity when they get to college.


How to Make Jewish School Cool for Jewish Teens

English: Self-made Star of David in Adobe Illu...

Judaism: Where’s the cool?

Over 70 seniors recently graduated from a supplementary Jewish community high school. Why was attending cool for them, and not for their friends? Why are they, who have continued this far in an educational program past the age of Confirmation cut-off, in the minority? I know, it seems everyone is on this question now.

They made this choice, and they’re not odd, nerdy, or weird…so, what’s the deal here? We’ll get to that issue later.

In thinking about how to attract more of these dedicated and amazing teens, a good place to begin is with a report on recent research sponsored by the Jim Joseph Foundation: “Effective Strategies for Educating and Engaging  Jewish Teens” . The report offers very concrete steps to take for a program to have sustainability, and many creative programs are listed, although not representational of an academic environment.

In addition to the dead-on recipe list generated by that report for programs to be successful (cool is not mentioned by implied), there are some suggestions I’d add, specifically related to an educational experience with curricular goals.  Here they are:

  1. Make sure the program holds students accountable. Somehow, we’ve been led to believe that less is better (teens are so busy, how can they possibly have time for a weekly program?). This has not been true in my experience (I think teens elsewhere are not so dissimilar), as demonstrated by the large numbers of teens who show up every single week, despite mid-terms, finals, and scores of extra-curricular activities. Programs that count attendance and record grades are not ‘old school’. Teens have said that in their ‘regular’ world, earning a  grade counts, so why shouldn’t this standard apply elsewhere in an academic setting? However, it is important to give them the choice, since not everyone is motivated similarly, and putting students in charge of how they’re assessed is an important distinction to make here. Most students are academically motivated and respond to programs that stretch their minds and challenge their intellect. When attendance and participation matter, it sends a message that their efforts matter.
  2. Offer well-crafted and executed experiences. Whether in the classroom, on a bus, in a museum, on the floor, in an auditorium…..make sure the program is memorable and worth the time.
  3. Get the parents on board. It helps if the parents have attended a similar program after Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Parents definitely ‘get it’ once they’ve experienced similar programs with substance. The social aspect, and why it’s important to have teenagers be with lots of other teens, is part of their own memories. If they were lucky, they also remember learning something too. However, it’s a hard upward climb for parents who have no reference point as to what the gains of such a program might be.  Holding parent orientations, open houses, educational sessions for parents, and engaging parent advocates are some ways to mobilize parents who might help (but don’t expect them to come in droves, their kids pressure them not to be involved; ‘nerd’ factor at work).
  4. Hire phenomenal teachers, and continually offer professional development opportunities. The best teachers offer a deep knowledge of the subject area, plus a facility for informal, experiential activities. Classrooms need to feel like camp communities. Open sharing, unconditional acceptance, loyalty to each other, and regular contact all help set the tone. However, even the best teachers need guidance and opportunities for reflective practice.
  5. Get your teens to talk to other teens.  This is probably the most difficult challenge of all. Plus, there is a disconnect I  mentioned at the beginning of this post. While graduates talk about how much they’ve gotten out of the program, they don’t understand why others don’t attend. However, the tough truth is that teens don’t like to talk about the fact that they’ve chosen to attend an additional educational program besides their ‘regular school’.  Can you imagine the following conversation?

Cool Student: ” I heard you go to another school besides this one….dude, is that right?”
Jewish Teen: ” Are you kidding? Me, take more classes? Are you nuts?”

Based on the dialogue above, there goes the recruitment opportunity, right out the window marked “nerd”.

So, numbers 1,2, 3, and maybe even 4 are totally doable. The fifth is a real challenge.

We’ve asked our students, who rate satisfaction levels above 80%, why they don’t tell their friends about it, and a version of the above is the response, peppered with comments like: “C’mon, this is on a Sunday morning, you think I’d tell any of my friends that I wake up early to come here?” “Unless there were chocolate cookies coming down from the ceiling, I wouldn’t tell my friends to come with me on a Sunday.” “Oh, there’s no way they’d be interested in this. This is too Jewish for them.”

We understand the difficulty. The question is, what are some ways to deal with this? Please, feel free to comment!.

Photo credit: Wikipedia


Writings about Jewish Teens: 2012 in review

The WordPress.com team sends me a summary e-mail at the end of the year (complete with fireworks!) that lets me know my progress (I’ve been blogging for two years) and more about what you, the readers of this blog, find interesting to read about Jewish teens.

There is a list of the most viewed blogs–can you think of a better motivator?  Even in my very, very small niche world, this list gets compared (ready?) to the number of climbers of Mount Everest! See below.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 6,900 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 12 years to get that many views.

See what I mean? Here’s the list:

A Few Top Posts from 2012

1. From Jewish Camp to Synagogue: Five No Brainers

This post talks about the chasm experienced by many campers when they return home after a summer injection of Judaism, and what synagogues can do to bridge the gap.

2. Judging Jewish Education by Fun

What are the trade-offs between programs that offer fun and those that offer content?

3. Five Things Parents Should Know

I know what you may be thinking. People seem to like the number five. (See number 1.) Interesting, no? These are things that parents should know about Jewish education for their teens.

4. Hiring Teen Aides? (Full disclosure: this title had the number five in it too, but on my end, it’s just how many tips I wrote at the time).

Synagogues use/hire teen aides in the classroom for all sorts of reasons. Here are some reasons to think about the intentions of these efforts.

5. One minute, three reasons why Jewish education helps teens focus on what’s important.

The title pretty much says it.

6.”Please feel free to contact me….”Advice for #Jteens and others

I wrote this in response to an e-mail I received from a job applicant, and found the comment an ironic one from a person wanting to make a favorable impression.

7. “Wow, You’re Soooo Jewish!”

I wrote this post after hearing a student tell this to another student in a Jewish values class. It’s interesting to see the students’ take on just how “Jewish” things are.

One more thing, a 2011 post made the list, and you can read that here:

What I learned about marketing from working at a Jewish community high school 

You might have missed some of the ones above, or want to read more about Jewish teens. Hit the subscribe button, and you won’t miss a thing!


Three Jewish Teens: Tons of Time? Not

What clock do these teens use?

What clock do these teens use?

I’ll paint the picture. Last night I chatted with a group of three 9th grade teenage boys, hanging out in the synagogue lobby, waiting for a ride home after attending a community pluralistic supplementary Jewish high school program in suburbia.

What I didn’t know, is that right in front of me, was such a rich representation of Jewish teen life.

Typical teens. Phones in hand, either texting or waiting for one. Yet they were so willing to answer my questions after I introduced myself.

“So, how are you guys doing?”

“Great!”

“How’s your time here been?”

“Cool, we like it.”

“Glad to hear it! So, do you “do” anything else ‘Jewish’?”

“Yea.”

“Like what?”

The three of them proceeded to tell me what they do.

They’re active (hold positions on committees) in the synagogue’s youth group, USY. There’s more.

They also attend a Jewish summer camp sponsored by HaBonim Dror (not affiliated with the synagogue/youth group). There’s more.

They also participate in a once a month boys-only group sponsored by Moving Traditions.

They also just started high school.

How do these boys have the time?

Do they get more hours in a day than the average teen? Are they more organized? Less social? Less academic?

No. No. No. and No.

You can figure it out. It ‘s what sets some families apart from others. We know who they are.

They’re the ones who know that for teens, multiple connection points to the Jewish community is proven to be a good thing—for character, and all those other intangibles I’ve written about previously.

That’s what the studies haven’t been able to quantify.

Who are those parents? What drives them to make the decisions they do? How can we support them? Find more of them?