How do you keep today’s Jewish teens engaged? Keep them happy, urges David Bryfman, chief innovation officer at The Jewish Education Project.
In the past, Jewish education has stressed the transmission of knowledge, skills, and literacy, but, said Bryfman, that approach “no longer works.” The Jewish Education Project, a nonprofit that works with Jewish educators and clergy, released a study in April highlighting that members of Gen Z — the cohort right behind millennials — prize personal happiness above all else. (The study profiled 139 teens between the ages of 12 1/2 and 17 and from four cities — Atlanta, Boston, Denver, and Los Angeles.)
“Teens and millennials today are looking for more direct meaning and relevance in their lives,” Bryfman said in a phone interview.
Robert Lichtman, chief learning officer at the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, noted the numerous Hebrew words used to describe happiness, such as simha, gila, and rina.
“Happiness is an undervalued quality of life,” he told NJJN.
In Jewish educational settings, from day schools to afternoon synagogue schools to youth groups, that means providing teens with practical takeaways that can improve their lives, said Aaron Dorfman, president of the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, a nonprofit that works to make Jewish teachings relevant to students today.
“We need to pivot away from content mastery — like does the child know the Bible stories or can he/she navigate a siddur? — and focus on how the student can apply the lesson learned back to their actual life,” he said.
Yoni Glatt, director of the Jewish Teen Education Experiences Network of Greater MetroWest, in November started a popular course, “Superheroes and Judaism,” that is taught through area synagogues.
He draws Jewish lessons out of story themes and the depictions of comic book heroes, such as Superman and Magneto. He said that students frequently tell him they didn’t realize how many of the most famous creators of comic books were Jewish, and that the traits of several superheroes are deeply ingrained in Judaism.
“When you take a topic that interests them and ‘Jew it up,’ it speaks to them on a whole new level,” said Glatt.
The trend is rooted in an increased focus among educators on positive psychology, a relatively recent field founded on the belief that people can use psychological techniques to help them lead more meaningful and fulfilling lives. Today, more than 200 colleges and graduate schools in the United States offer classes on happiness and positive psychology. The introductory positive psychology class at Harvard University, taught by Israeli instructor Tal Ben-Shahar, remains the most popular at the school, according to a recent New York Times article on happiness.
This concept has trickled down to high schools and day schools, said Dorfman. “If happiness is something that can be learned, Jewish educators believe it is something that can be taught,” he said.
At a recent conference — part of the Jewish Futures series “Happiness Hacks: Feel Good, Do Good, and Stop Obsessing about Jewish Identity” — the JEP partnered with the Lippman Kanfer Foundation to teach more than 400 educators and lay leaders how to integrate positive psychology into their curricula. The conference, attended by educators in the Greater MetroWest region, included a lecture by renowned Israeli positive psychologist Dan Ariely and group exercises in “laughter yoga,” a series of exercises that induce laughter to promote healing.
“In the past, the purpose of Jewish education was to [allow students to] fully participate in American life without giving up their Jewish identity; now, that’s not enough,” said Aryeh Ben David, founder of Ayeka, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit that focuses on “soulful” Jewish education, which teaches Jewish subjects with more “personal meaning and impact.” Ayeka is currently working with four schools in the United States to train Jewish educators in “soulful education.”
“Teens today don’t need a classroom to access information — they can get anything they want to know on-line,” said Ben David in a phone interview. “Jewish education needs to become a vehicle to enhance students’ lives, rather than just transmit content.”
Lichtman said focusing an educational conference on the theme of happiness was refreshing. “Quality of life is on the agenda and Jewish education is a powerful tool to enrich someone’s quality of life.”
Ariely’s presentation on Jewish teaching and practice was one of Lichtman’s takeaways from the event. Ariely’s message was that Judaism isn’t a shackle, but “braces to liberate you to pursue other things,” Lichtman said.
The new model, which speaks to the “needs of this generation,” follows the larger educational trend toward project-based learning and differentiated instruction, a framework for teaching that provides each student with a unique educational path.
Bryfman acknowledged that the criticism of this educational strategy — that it reinforces self-serving behavior patterns and undercuts the communal imperative to repair the world — is “perfectly legitimate.”
“It’s not surprising that this generation has been labeled ‘generation me,’” he said. “In this consumer culture we live in, [teenagers] have come to expect that they can pick and choose what they want to participate in. That holds true for Judaism as well.”
Bryfman argued for a pragmatic approach.
“If you are insistent on telling young people what they ought to know in order to be better Jews, that approach will not work for the vast majority of Jews out there today,” he said. While he conceded that it would be a “mistake to go all the way in the other direction and give people only what they wanted,” the real job of Jewish educators is to find “that middle ground that works — meet people where they’re at and bring them to a place closer to where we think the Jewish world would be better off.”
Ben Chaidell, a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary pursuing a master’s degree in Jewish education, suggested that the key to education for the Gen Z cohort is to tailor Jewish wisdom in a way that has practical applications.
“The big question our students are asking today is ‘What role can Judaism play in our lives?’” said Chaidell, 27, who has taught in a variety of educational settings and hopes to be a Jewish educator for children of all ages. “We need to focus on what the takeaway can be for them. Loyalty to the past and a sense of communal responsibility are no longer motivators. The motivator is being part of a larger project that does something for you — Judaism and personal fulfillment can’t be an either/or conversation.”