Putting Teens in the Driver’s Seat

Inside Leadership

Putting Teens in the Driver’s Seat

It’s a question at the forefront of our minds: How do we engage more teens in meaningful Jewish life and use social justice as a powerful engagement tool?

These two related issues brought four hundred lay leaders, professionals and teens together recently at the URJ Biennial for a Symposium on Youth and Social Justice. The Youth and Social Justice Symposium sought to harness the passion of leaders of all ages to pursue justice in our world, strengthen our congregations, and build Jewish community. By convening leaders from within and beyond the Reform Movement, the Symposium started a conversation about how we as a movement can leverage our resources and to inspire transformational change and engage more young people by doing so. Read on to explore the new research presented on teens and adolescence, and join us in moving our future forward by adding your voice to the conversation.

The Symposium featured several speakers, but it was the research from Dr. David Bryfman in particular that piqued our interest the most. Dr. Bryfman is an acclaimed researcher and youth engagement practitioner who serves as the Chief Learning Officer at the Jewish Education Project. Bryfman shared recent findings from his research on youth and social justice, and described teens’ interest more in the “universal” as opposed to the “particularistic,” or focused exclusively on their own needs. He explored the biological reasons behind this, including the development of adolescent brains that influences how they respond and react to their surroundings. He also shared data about the elongation of adolescence – from 1.5 years in the early 20th century to 15 years today - and its implications for our work with teens. If teens’ brains are in rapid and constant development throughout the entire arc of their time in our programs, what does that imply for how we adapt our work with them?

Bryfman also notes that while our understanding of adolescence has grown and changed over the years, there are some fundamental aspects of the teenage experience that have remained constant. Among the primary questions that young people are concerned with are:

  • Who am I?
  • With whom am I connected?
  • Where do I fit into this world?
  • How can I make this world a better place?

As Bryfman noted, these questions become our job as the adults who work with Jewish youth. When we are asking ourselves what we can offer teens today, we must strive to answer at least one, if not all four, of these questions. We have the capacity to help our youth understand that their universal and particularistic desires are not at odds with one another, but instead are interrelated. “Youth in your communities are already leaders,” explained Bryfman. “They do not want to be referred to as the future of the Jewish community.” Bryfman also reiterated that youth who participate in social justice activities need trained adults to mediate the experience with them and that “we simply don’t have enough of them.”

Bryfman ended his presentation with a quote from one young leader, the NFTY North American President Jeremy Cronig, who said, “Teenagers and millennials today are much like Abraham because we challenge the status quo to our own ‘higher power.’ We work to better ourselves, but also to better the world. And we do this mainly for one reason: because we see the world ‘burning’ and we do care.”

What’s Next?

​Only together, as a movement, can we empower Reform Jewish youth to be change-makers and to connect deeply with meaningful Jewish life. At the Symposium on Youth and Social Justice, we started the conversation by engaging teens, professionals, and lay leaders in dialogue to explore pressing questions. Now it’s time to broaden this conversation by having it in our congregations, with our lay leaders, and with our teens. We encourage you to ask questions such as:

  1. In what ways do you think teens could and would want to get more involved in the work of social justice?
  2. What are the biggest impediments to this already happening?
  3. What would excite you and compel you to keep working towards the powerful connection of youth and social justice?
  4. What role should teens play in this work?  

During this brainstorming process, teens and adults worked together to identify opportunities and roadblocks, to dream of “the next big idea” and to better understand the role of adults in empowering youth. As one teen said, this was an opportunity to put teens “in the driver’s seat when it comes to [their] own Jewish identity.”

In concluding the brainstorming dialogue, Rabbi Bradley Solmsen, the URJ’s Director of Youth Engagement, said, “The challenges are clear to us all. We need to support more of our youth to do more to make a difference. Our tradition and our texts can better be positioned to motivate them and so many of their peers to see how Judaism can be a force to truly repair the world.”

Weren’t able to make it to the URJ Biennial for the Symposium? Share your feedback by participating in the Symposium virtually. Your participation in this dialogue moves us one step closer to making our Reform Movement the leader on faith-based youth social justice, and ultimately engaging more teens in meaningful, transformative Jewish experiences.  

Have something to say about this post? Join the conversation in The Tent, the social network for congregational leaders of the Reform Movement. You can also tweet us or tell us how you feel on Facebook.

Rabbi Elizabeth Wood is the director of learning and innovation for the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY), the youth arm of the Reform Jewish Movement. Originally from West Lafayette, IN, she is a graduate of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, where she was ordained in 2009; she also holds a Masters in Hebrew Letters from HUC-JIR and a B.A. in Jewish studies and political science from Indiana University. Her prior congregational experience includes Temple Beth El in Tacoma, WA, and The Reform Temple of Forest Hills in Queens, N.Y., where she worked as the associate rabbi educator.

Rabbi Elizabeth Wood

Published: 11/12/2015

Categories: Youth, Conferences & Events
What's New
Teen leaders at a Reform Jewish teen gathering
Nov 26, 2019|Michelle Shapiro Abraham, MAJE, RJE
Rabbi Allan "Smitty" Smith on the bimah at Biennial
Nov 13, 2019|Rabbi Rick Jacobs

Find More in The Tent

Learn more about this exciting new platform, where Reform congregational leaders connect with colleagues and peers who have similar concerns, interests and responsibilities.