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In 2010, a documentary was released entitled The Race to Nowhere, revealing the pressures our teens experience in their everyday lives. The film argues that we focus so much on teens’ production and performance that often the most important skills, like critical and conceptual thinking, problem solving, and creativity, are pushed aside.
When I first started at Temple Israel here in Memphis in September 2014, I immediately began reaching out to teens and parents to build relationships. To my surprise, it was harder to schedule time with the teens than it was with the adults. It wasn’t because the teens were avoiding me, but rather because they were so busy. Many times I would take them out for dessert around 9:00pm because that was when they were done with their homework.
What is even more frightening is seeing that teens have become afraid of the concept of failure. As adults, we make it appear that if one receives a C-, they have failed. We’ve created a competitive school atmosphere, pushing our teens to attend classes, go to practice, go to work, and then complete homework every day. We have normalized stress and now deem it acceptable. Seeing this left me considering what Judaism can teach. How can Judaism help both parents and teens slow down, showing them that the journey up the mountain is more meaningful than reaching the top?
As the Director of Teen Engagement at one of the largest congregations in the Mid-South, I feel obligated to constantly remind my teens that they must take time for their family, their friends, and themselves. We strive not to over-program our teens and have worked hard to ensure that when they walk into Temple, they can come just as they are. We offer opportunities for them to find meaning in their Jewish experiences that are simultaneously enjoyable and also complement what they already have going on in their lives – like our Ragin’ Rabbis basketball team where our teens come to Temple to play basketball with each other while learning about sportsmanship, comradery, and teamwork. Since most of our teens require volunteer hours for school, we also offer ongoing social action opportunities. We have a social action group that volunteers one afternoon a week to tutor at-risk children in South Memphis, one of the poorest zip codes in America.
When our teens enter Temple’s doors, they can put their homework, football practice, and honor society aside and just be. I find that I need to remind myself of this as well. If we cannot teach our youth how to live in the present, how to say ‘I can’t take on any more work’, or demonstrate that one’s worth isn’t determined according to what they produce and how they perform, then we have failed them. We must consistently and relentlessly remind our teens that their value is in who they are, just the way they are.
Julie Fortune received her Master's in Philosophy of Religion from the University of Memphis and has worked on her Ph.D. in Religious Studies at Florida State University. She was a Special Education teacher at Memphis public schools and served as the Chair of the Special Education Department for three years. She is currently the Director of Teen Engagement at Temple Israel in Memphis.