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October 10, 2015 | 27th Tishrei 5776

Adolescent Education No. 2, 5769

Al sh'loshah d'varim haolam omed:
Al haTorah, v'al ha-avodah, v'al g'milut chasadim.

The world depends on three things:
on Torah, on worship and on loving deeds.
- Pirkei Avot 1:2

This year each issue of V’shinantam will focus on adolescents and applications for our Jewish educational and youth settings. In this second issue, we consider key findings from the Youth Programs Research Project on Adolescence. This research took place concurrently with the URJ Portraits of Learning Study and NFTY surveys during 2007-2008.

The Youth Programs Research Project on Adolescence, a joint project of the Youth Programs and Lifelong Jewish Learning Departments of the Union for Reform Judaism, encompassed three phases:

  • A review of ten years of research on teens (Jewish and non-Jewish) to consider their life circumstances, priorities, activities, and interests.
  • Interviews with experts on adolescents and adolescent education, both within and outside of the URJ
  • Specific research on friendship, social-emotional learning (SEL), and significant adult/mentor relationships.

The project has enabled us to speak confidently about common patterns of Jewish engagement for teens. The next step will require us to reframe Jewish educational opportunities and practices to better respond to the needs of teens today.

Two central findings impact all educators, regardless of whether they work with or teach teenagers.


  1. Age thirteen is too late to be asking how to retain kids in Jewish life post-bar/bat mitzvah.
  2. Relationships children and teens build with their friends and with Jewish role models play a pivotal role in their decisions to continue in our programs beyond bar/bat mitzvah.

 Key Themes from the Research:


Academic pressure is difficult to manage:

  • Adolescents feel tremendous academic pressure. Too frequently they manage this pressure with prescription medications, drugs and alcohol, and self-destructive behavior. Many adolescents who use prescription medications use more than one and some are self-medicating. Adolescents who use drugs and alcohol are often do it alone, in addition to what they may use in social environments.

Many teens lack resiliency:

  • Teens have a difficult time indentifying their own strengths and weaknesses and maintaining self-confidence and excitement about the future. They increasingly lack skills which allow them to work through difficult issues or to see that problems are temporary. This causes stress which can affect both their academic performance and social environments.

 Use of technology is ubiquitous:

  • Teens use technology for social networking, academics and knowledge acquisition, as well as entertainment.

 The ability to customize is assumed:

  • Teens (and their parents) expect that they will be able to tailor their academic and extracurricular experiences to their precise needs, schedule, and interests in the same manner as they create their I-Pod play lists.

Religion is important:

  • Most teens report that religion/spirituality is important to them. However, they struggle with accessing religious life in the way it is currently being offered by our institutions.

Friends matter most

  • Influence of friends is the most important factor in teen decisions about how and where to spend time.

Parents matter, too:

  • Parents are the second most important influence for teens. When parents are supportive students will continue to participate in activities and programs. Unfortunately, too many parents view supplemental religious school as lacking a high level of content and clear goals. They often perceive that their children do not have a sense of belonging and that their children’s social and emotional needs are not being met in our congregations. In addition, by the time children reach adolescence, many parents are disengaged from congregational life. They may carry their own negative feelings about past synagogue experiences into decisions about post-b’nei mitzvah participation for their children.

Institutional linkages are important:

  • Experiential Jewish education programs (i.e. camping, Israel travel, youth groups) are mutually reinforcing. Teens who participate in one such program have a higher likelihood of participating in another. Research also shows that those linkages are often not made successfully, if they are made at all.


One size does not fit all:

  • Needs of middle and high schools students vary tremendously by gender, age, and personality.

Classroom teachers and youth workers play a significant role in shaping the experiences of each student. By knowing some of the issues that confront our teenage students we can adapt our classrooms, teaching style, and content in ways that will influence their experiences now as well as the decisions they will make regarding further participation in our synagogues and in Jewish life.


1. Actively build relationships from day one:        

  • Classroom teachers and youth professionals play a significant role in shaping the experiences of each student. Classroom environments, teaching styles, and subject matter should address the issues that confront our teenage students.
  • Make it a priority to foster friendships in the classroom and develop synagogue culture where students feel safe, honored, and respected.
  • Meet your students’ social and emotional needs by giving opportunities for students to talk about their lives and learn in peer groups.
  • Take the time to learn about your students enough to engage them in conversations about personal interests as well as connect them with others who have similar interests.

2. Alleviate the pressure:

  • Make your classroom or youth group be a place where students don’t need to feel pressure to succeed.
  • Convey that you are a caring, listening ear and give students an opportunity to share what is going on in their lives in a safe environment.  
  • Play music, allow for “down time,” and take breaks. Lessons will become more productive and time will be better spent if students can refocus and decompress from their school day.

3. Build resilience:

  • Resiliency is defined by Dr. Sylbil Wolin (Project Resilience) as “persistence in the face of adversity.”  Support teens in working through their problems without solving problems for them.  
  • Use stories that illustrate how other teens have worked through their problems and developed strong coping skills.
  • Allow students to anonymously express the things that matter to them and then discuss or incorporate these into a lesson or program.
  • Use Jewish texts and stories as examples of life choices made and discuss the consequences.  

 4. Leverage your students’ technological know-how:

  • Make your classroom technology friendly to help bridge the gap between the congregation and middle/high school.  
  • Develop class assignments or projects that use web-searches, video-creation, wikis, or “virtual” field trips.
  • Use electronic media to let students know you care. Send a text message saying you missed him or her in class or ask about a test.
  • Create a class/TYG Facebook group.

 5. Customize the Jewish experience:

  • Every teen is different. One assignment, activity or project does not fit all. Be creative and find meaningful ways to connect to every learner.  
  • Cater to student interests and needs by allowing them to choose their interaction with the material. If you are studying a story from the Torah, perhaps one student can can write a poem, another perform a song, and another illustrate what s/he learned.
  • Vary the activities, times, and locations of youth group gatherings to appeal to the widest range of teens.
  • Place equal value on all the activities and options offered.


6. Embrace the journey to developing a religious identity:

  • Capitalize on the “big ideas” teens think about to make religion relevant every day.  
  • Provide opportunities to “ask the teacher/rabbi/youth advisor” about challenging topics.  
  • Learn what students are curious about and what they struggle with when exploring spirituality and religion.  
  • Create communities that nourish the soul. Establish ground rules to allow participants to take risks. Encourage students to write down questions and acknowledge that there are not always easy answers.  
  • Allow students to share their concerns or feelings about what may be happening in class/youth group while respecting the pace and privacy of each student. Not everyone will be ready to share at the same time.
  • Use journal writing as an outlet for students to express their concerns and questions.

7. Involve parents:

  • Solicit parent support and involvement. When parents are supportive of activities, teens will find it easier to participate.
  • Seek opportunities to speak with parents personally to provide positive feedback and to share exciting classroom activities.
  • Be visible and available for parents to ask questions and get to know you.  

8. Make linkages:

  • Be aware of programs and activities (locally, nationally, and internationally) that are available to students through the Reform Movement.
  • Find ways to promote programs or ask students who have participated to share their experiences.
  • Get to know your students and parents in order to make meaningful and personal recommendations.
  • Avoid making assumptions about whether students will or will not repeat something or try something new

9. Embrace differences:

  • Be sensitive to varying levels of development and to learning differences.
  • Vary classroom activities and accommodate student needs by incorporating breaks, movement where appropriate and gender-specific discussion groups or programs.  
  • Honor the developmental, emotional and social differences among middle and high school students and plan accordingly.

The Connection Between Academic and Social-Emotional Learning by Maurice Elias, 2006


Torah at the Center: Portraits of Learning Vol. 11 No. 2


Berger, Ron. An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2003.


Desetta, Al, and Sybil Wolin. The Struggle to Be Strong: True Stories by Teens about Overcoming Tough Times. Minneapolis, MN., Free Spirit Publishing, 2000.


Kessler, Rachael. The Soul of Education: Helping Students Find Connection, Compassion, and Character at School .Alexandria, VA., Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2000. 


Novick, Bernard, Jeffrey Kress, and Maurice Elias. Building Learning Communities with Character. Alexandria, VA.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2002.


Levine, Madeline. The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids. New York: Harper, 2006.


Wolin, Sybil and Al Desetta. The Struggle to Be Strong: How To Foster Resilience in Teens, A Leaders Guide. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing, 2000.


URJ Resources:


Sacred Choices


Resilience of the Soul


Packing for College


For further information on the URJ’s Research Project on Adolescence, please contact:

Dana Sheanin, MSW, MAJCS


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