We need to define Judaism more broadly.
The Jewish teens I work with in a Jewish community high school are looking for more ways to connect with Judaism other than the synagogue/religious experience.
The most lush and plush indoor spaces don’t help them feel more connected. Many don’t get ‘prayer’ or the focus on a ‘higher being’. It’s as if belief in God is ‘so yesterday’ and they feel way past that intellectually.
At least these teens are in a Jewish academic and social environment on a weekly basis, where we touch on these issues. What about their Jewish friends (most) who don’t attend?
We know that Judaism is more than a religion, but on the American Jewish landscape, it sure seems that’s how we’re defining it for them. And as long as they see Judaism strictly in those terms they can choose to opt out if they don’t ‘believe’.
What’s the answer? For teens who don’t go to day school or Jewish camps, it could be sponsored trips to Israel that take place while in high school, instead of waiting for the Birthright bonus in college. Perhaps incentives that would encourage them to participate in American Jewish World Service trips, Panim, teen fellowship programs and other successful ventures. How about communal scholarships to continue in a Jewish community high school?
It could be many things that we haven’t even thought of yet. But we need to try.
I’m so glad that these teens are in a setting where we get to discuss these issues together. When they’re here, they know they’re in a zone of non-judgement and impartiality that is palpable.
Just in the past two weeks, our school partnered with other youth movements and organizations (Habonim Dror, BBYO, Interfaithways) to bring our teens programs that challenged them to become aware of several real issues facing the Jewish community (hate speech, issues faced by interfaith families, personal comfort zones, and more).
I’m not saying that this experience is the magic potion we need, but working with Jewish teens on these issues in an environment of a Jewish community high school sure makes me feel a lot better about options we’re giving them for future engagement.