Are we reaching high enough?
I doubt that anyone would say that mentoring teens during the coming-of-age years is not a good thing. It’s also doubtful that based on the data we have today, anyone would disagree that we need to connect Jewish teens to the community more, not less.
Doing so helps create a sense of community while building connections, awareness, responsibility, self-esteem, problem-solving skills, and gobs more of all the good stuff. So why don’t we do it more?
Relationship building needs to be at the core of any effort to connect teens with Judaism, and though many programs meet those goals, few consistently deliver over a period of time on communal connections beyond the program itself.
Let me give a few examples.
There are many discrete programs, some gender-based, some philanthropically oriented, some at camps, some in synagogues, some not….that connect Jewish teens to each other and their individual mentor/educator/volunteer but don’t build lasting bridges to the larger Jewish community.
Those programs, successful as they are, often function as “Jewish island experiences” (my term) that are wonderful options while teens are there, but don’t build enough bridges for teens to get off the island. There seems to be little integration between the groups and the greater Jewish community, either in formal or informal ways.
I remember when I was at summer camp, there was a special program in the last week titled “How to Take Camp Home.” That, in itself, was a great idea and a start to help bind the two experiences. The trouble was, no one in my home community had a similar program called “How to Create Camp Here.”
Recently, I accompanied a group of Jewish teens to local college campuses, specifically to check out Hillel and Jewish life. The students were so appreciative that this world was opened up to them before they had to make decisions about college. Yet, this trip was clearly a one-way effort. It was in the best interest of these teen’s Jewish education to have them tour Jewish life on campus, but there is no outreach the other way, from campus to community.
Many programs are like that: one-way avenues to Jewish identity.
We need to make sure that the content we’re offering our teens is not limited to Jewish island experiences but instead function as experiences which connect, web-like to other Jewish organizations and future Jewish activities.
Why not encourage the teens in our programs to further their Jewish education into areas that are not explored in the curriculum that go way beyond the specific setting? Information is available on so many topics, in so many venues, that we really have no excuse for not constructing those bridges when students are in our programs or when they’re getting ready to leave.
In order to build Jewish community in an organic and authentic way, as leaders we need to think beyond our own programs and build-in fundamental ways of integrating those experiences into a larger framework. Building programmatic scaffolds to connect and weave the experiences so they don’t stand alone would be an important step to secure Jewish continuity. In addition we would, as leaders, model the very behavior we want our teens to develop.
(Photo credit: Jrwooley6)