Jewish teens want to engage — just ask them

Jewish teens want to engage — just ask them

Welcoming teens into Jewish life is one of the most important and seemingly one of the most challenging endeavors of the Jewish community. The rapid decline in teen engagement in Jewish life post-bar/bat mitzva is well documented — and depressing. 

It’s also an entirely reversible trend, but only if the Jewish community approaches teen engagement in a new way, one that recognizes the whole teen and values her or him as an equal partner in creating experiences that add meaning to her or his life.

In general, Jewish teens today — like their non-Jewish peers — are deeply thoughtful, inquisitive, and ambitious. Also like their peers, they can be narcissistic and attached to technology. Most of today’s teens are vastly different from those of a generation ago, and in many ways from those of a decade ago. This is due in large part to the changing world we live in, the central role of technology, and the nearly endless opportunities for personal customization a click away.

We know this because over the last two-and-a-half years, The Jewish Education Project led major research to learn about Jewish teens from Jewish teens. We heard directly from them about their lives, including their views on spirituality, their ambitions, their fears, their feelings toward friends and family, and how they form their identities. We’ve compiled and analyzed the findings into a new report, “Generation Now: Understanding and Engaging Jewish Teens Today.”

The report’s insights are a wake-up call to organizations or individuals who want to engage Jewish teens. Our community needs to work with them to create experiences that address all aspects of their lives.

Just a few insights from “Generation Now” show the depth of Jewish teens today:

Jewish teens want programs of substance that add value to some facet of their life. They are most likely to find Jewish knowledge meaningful when they see the connections and relevance to the rest of their lives. Programs that blend this value with opportunities to have fun, socialize, and be with friends are especially attractive.

While many teens still see Judaism as a religion, many more relate to being Jewish in language commonly associated with ethnicity, culture, heritage, or tribal affiliation.

Being a minority group in the United States is something that many Jewish teens highly value and feel pride in, but they do not view themselves as being special for this reason. In fact, many Jewish teens enjoy involving non-Jewish friends in “Jewish activities.”

Jewish teens often are both universalists and particularists. Their orientation is fluid and depends on their environment. As an example, “doing good” is an important value, but seldom seen as a Jewish value.

During major holidays, teens appreciate time to bond with immediate family, visit extended family, and enjoy family traditions, particularly around “traditional” foods. 

The challenge now is to take the report’s findings and have them inform our community’s approach to Jewish teen education and engagement. We must move beyond thinking about teens as passive recipients of Jewish learning experiences. Instead, we must begin designing initiatives and programs with Jewish teens, for Jewish teens.

Many teens are ready to lead now and want to have skin in the game. They are the most effective people to engage their peers. At the recent Summit on Jewish Teens, held during the BBYO International Convention in February, teens welcomed the invitation to take a place on the stage and at the table with philanthropists, lay leaders, professionals, and others — to network with these individuals, to learn from one another, and to share and hear about the latest developments in Jewish teen engagement.

Every community is different, with differences within each community itself. A “cookie cutter” approach to programming would inevitably fail. Yet “Generation Now” offers recommendations for all communities to consider. Effective initiatives will engage teens intellectually, physically, and socially; offer something that teens want to share with friends; be demonstrably applicable to teens’ lives; develop skills; help teens feel proud of being Jewish; help teens be better citizens of the world; and/or support teens in making the world a better place.

Changes in teen engagement will come from organizations that can do things differently, and from new organizations ready to engage 21st-century Jewish teens and make Jewish experiences a meaningful and central part of their lives.

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