Where are our teens?
Rabbi Andy Koren, an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program, is Assistant Rabbi and Director of Religious Education of Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, NC. He can be reached at AKoren@tegreensboro.org
It hit me when I was on the phone with a high school senior. I was calling to recruit him for a Mitzvah- work trip to New Orleans. His response: “Definitely. I hear so many of my friends at school who go on mission trips with their churches. I have waited years for us to do something like this.”
Last October, I led a trip of 23 Jewish teens to New Orleans. We were not the first community to do this. And since the people and city of New Orleans are so easy to fall in love with, we will no doubt go back with teen groups in the coming years.
Yet, this is not a report about New Orleans trips or a call for tikkun olam. Messages of social action – both general and specific – are being broadcast loud and clear on all Jewish frequencies. And there are great Jewish organizations organizing domestic and international voluntourism opportunities.
Rather, this is a call for us as leaders to focus on the teens in our communities, specifically on high school 16-18 year olds. One of the dirty little secrets of large segments of the North American Jewish community is that we dismiss our youth when they most need to be involved. We don’t do this maliciously. Sometimes, like in the case of confirmation for 15 or 16 year olds, this is what our communities have been doing forever. Sometimes the pressures and general over programming of teens (and their families) overwhelm us. Elite programs are designed for those that will stay with us. But the vast majority drop out.
In an article in Reform Judaism, Rabbi Fred Guttman (my senior Rabbinic colleague) wrote: “when it comes to the development of adult identity, it is…the eleventh and twelfth grades that experts deems the most formative years of a young person’s life.” Because of the importance of this period in our teen’s lives, our congregation switched confirmation from the 10th grade until the end of the 12th grade. We have created a culture of involvement for a large percentage of our juniors and seniors, employing them as Religious School assistants (madrichim) and treating them as young adult learners. We also put forth significant resources to make sure that they travel to Israel prior to heading off to college. And we look for every opportunity, such as our recent trip to New Orleans, to personally involve them as Jews in the big issues of our time.
For 10 years I served as a Hillel Rabbi and I would wonder why we were only reaching a fraction of our community. Was it a lack of creativity, effectiveness, ruach, staffing or funding? Perhaps, but why should we have expectations for college-aged involvement, or even adult involvement, if we are training our youngest adults otherwise when they are in high school? As a Jewish community, we can and should do so much better.