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My high school friends called it “the black hole of death.” This was the (loving) name for “the Jewish events Julie goes to all the time that keeps her from hanging out with us on weeknights and weekends.” They were right to make note of the timing – in high school, I spent most of my time outside of school attending youth group events, leading board meetings, working at the synagogue, and serving as a madricha, a counselor. What my friends did not realize, though, was that this involvement gave me so much more than a busy week and a topic for my college essay. These activities and the caring adults who supervised them gave me the confidence and skills to survive high school and thrive in college.
Since the Jewish population began moving to the suburbs in the 1950s as part of their successful acculturation into mainstream American society, Jewish education programs have aimed to teach children how to be both Jewish and American: to find the unique qualities that define this dual identity. This mentality and educational ethos enabled Jewish families to feel connected as they moved out of the physically close communities they inhabited in the major cities into the suburbs. As families migrated, however, the level of engaged young people began to drop, leading to a lack of adult engagement within the Jewish community. The alarms rang out when a 2006 census estimated that 80% of Jewish teens stop being Jewishly involved after their Bar or Bat Mitzvah.
Thankfully, many of the programs that emerged from this crisis of continuity succeeded in keeping more students engaged and led to research that provided a better understanding of what type of programming works for the post-B’nai Mitzvah age group. In 2011, the URJ launched a campaign to rededicate the Reform Movement to engaging youth, which led to the emergence of more specialty camps across the country and provided an increase in funding for youth professionals and Jewish youth programming. In turn, this led to higher participation numbers and more sustainable involvement.
Even with increased engagement, teen programming faces another obstacle – the ever-increasing pressure of academic and extracurricular excellence that hyper-focuses on college admission as the measure of success. While these pressures have always existed, it seems the intensity has increased dramatically in the past few years. Extra SAT/ACT preparation, AP class homework, internships, and other college preparedness activities are taking priority to Jewish supplemental programs. The most common reason cited for this is the ever-present stress of schoolwork and the desire to be constantly building a resume.
I believe Jewish institutions need to worry less about giving into the pressures of the secular educational world and instead lean into the college preparation and whole-child education we do provide. College preparation is about more than test scores and information retention. College preparedness (or gap year and alternative paths) involves building skills related to problem-solving, conflict resolution, time management, resilience, confidence, and a growth mindset among other skills. Jewish education that involves scaffolded leadership and whole-child development guided by thoughtful, well-trained, and trusted adults can and should provide an education of these incredibly important life skills.
Jewish education can provide opportunities for students to fail without fear because of our emphasis on community-building and physical and emotional safety. In her recent article about happiness in Jewish education, Director of Youth Learning and Innovation for the URJ, Michelle Shapiro Abraham, offers: “We must offer learning not only for education and enculturation but also in service of developing a deep and abiding happiness within the individuals themselves.”
The Jewish teen who enters college having determined and debated a budget for a youth group event will be prepared to live with her first roommate. The student who began each class of his synagogue’s Senior Seminar with a 5-minute meditation will be able to use this relaxation and focusing technique when he encounters a problem on a chemistry exam he struggles with. The skills I learned as a teen participant in a philanthropy program enabled me to lead twenty-five young adults through a $35,000 allocation process nearly fifteen years later as a professional. These practical skills matter and are resume-worthy too.
We cannot put a price or a timeline on teaching resilience and self-actualization. It may seem counter-cultural to convince our teens and their families to pick a youth group hike and text study over more hours of ACT prep, but we as Jews have always been ones to push the envelope and define success on our own terms. We can and should be advocates, character builders, and supporters of our young people in becoming the best versions of themselves through a strong, whole-child focused Jewish education.
Julie Bressler is a fifth-year Rabbinic Education student at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. She serves as a rabbinic intern at Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA focusing on integrating mental health and wellness into synagogue programming. Julie discovered her love of Judaism and sleeping under the stars at URJ Camp Newman and at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA.