Connecting Teenagers to Judaism and the Synagogue
The Union is honored to be joining Congregation Ner Tamid on this Shabbat. Ner Tamid is an extraordinary congregation in every way. In a very short time it went from being a 300 membership unit synagogue to a 700 membership unit synagogue. Naturally enough, it built a new building to accommodate its expanding needs. And then, of course, came the terrible economic meltdown, which has hit all parts of North America – but some more than others. Los Vegas has the highest unemployment rate in the country, and has been particularly hurt by exploding construction costs.
I can’t speak to the details of the economic situation, but I can say this: in difficult times, this congregation needed great leadership, and that is what it has had. Your president, Bruce Matza, is something of a glutton for punishment. This is the third Reform congregation in which he has been a leader, and the second that he has served as president; he has also served the Union with distinction. It is fair to say that he did not sign up for what happened when he became president here, and neither did his officers and board, but they have provided clear direction and a strong hand to get you through these difficult times. And even more important, Ner Tamid has never ceased for a single moment to offer the comfort, support, and inspiration that a community needs at just such a time. Under the direction of Rabbi Sandy Akselrad, who has provided visionary leadership for nearly a quarter of a century, Ner Tamid is the kind of synagogue that is always doing more, teaching more, reaching out more, and being creative in a thousand ways. This Shabbat service is evidence of that; your thriving pre-school is evidence of that; your “Shabbat Across the Valley” program is evidence of that.
Yes, Ner Tamid is struggling with the economy at the moment, but it is a great congregation, and it represents the Reform Movement at its best.
Tonight I would like to talk about teenagers.
As I have told some of you, when I took my first congregation at age 27, my wife and I had no children, and I preached a number of sermons entitled “Rules for Raising Children.” Our daughter was born five years later, and after that I preached some sermons entitled “Guidelines for Raising Children.” When our children got to be teenagers, I stopped speaking on the subject altogether.
Our teenagers are, let us say, a challenge. They tattoo their bodies and wear rings in their noses.
In short, teenagers do now what they have always done: they drive their parents crazy, and in ever more creative ways. They are self-absorbed and oblivious. Not long ago they were our best friends, and now they can’t stand the sight of us.
I have often thought that if Moses had teenage children, the whole Jewish enterprise would never have gotten off the ground:
“Dad, you mean we have to go to the Pharaoh’s palace again?
We’ve been there 3 times this month already.
And every time we go there’s all this stuff with frogs and lice and boils.
Do you have any idea how embarrassing that is?
Can’t you think of me sometimes?”
But as difficult as it was for me when my children were teenagers, and as hard as it is for parents today, I want to put forward a contrary thesis: The teenagers in our synagogues are great kids.
They are amazing, in fact: funny and caring, with an astonishing work ethic. From what I can see, they are the smartest generation ever, quicker and more tolerant of diversity than kids have ever been.
And they have a lot to deal with in their lives. I know it’s hard for us to put up with them, but it’s not always that easy for them to put up with us, either. Let’s think of the terms that have entered our vocabulary: Velcro parents, helicopter parents, baby-on-board parents. They all mean that same thing: we are overprotective, and we immerse ourselves in every detail of our children’s lives. There are reasons for this, of course. In tough economic times, we worry about our kids’ future. But by becoming excessively involved, we do not always help them.
When I ask parents of teenagers: “Do you invest more time and effort in your children than your parents invested in you?”, the answer is almost always “yes.” But when I ask: “Are your kids happier than you were at their age?”, a lot of the time the answer is “no.”
Nonetheless, I repeat: these are great kids. They are more than distracted Twitterers with superficial values, more than applicants to the college of their choice. They may play at being sophisticated and cynical, but they are also filled with idealism and innocence; and they are able to hear frequencies that we adults cannot hear.
And the problem for Reform synagogues is that we have not succeeded in keeping them connected. As I told the Union board in June, the numbers are sobering. Approximately 80% of the children who have a bar or bat mitzvah will have no connection to a Reform synagogue by the time they reach 12th grade. This is hardly a new problem, but it is one for which a solution must be found. It is the teenage years that shape Jewish consciousness and create Jewish identity. If, between the ages of 13 and 18, our children form Jewish friendships, study Jewish subjects, and become part of a Jewish community, the odds that that they will lead Jewish lives are vastly increased.
Our failures here do not mean that our kids hate the temple. In fact, the opposite is true. Almost all of our kids seem to like their synagogues and have warm feelings toward their rabbi. They view Judaism as a “very nice thing” – beneficial, even pleasant, but not something that they get fired up about or that is terribly relevant to how they live. Often their approach is one of passive acceptance or casual tolerance – a kind of “whatever” attitude.
I remember that when our son was 17, there were only two things that could get him to temple: the first was a substantial bribe, and the second was a court order. When we tried to talk to him about this – and it wasn’t easy because, as you know, teenage boys do not actually talk – he would say: “You know, Dad, the temple is really a place for you and your friends, not for me and my friends.”
None of this means that our synagogues are not making an effort. This synagogue, Ner Tamid, is an example of a congregation that has worked very hard to engage its teens. It sends a good-sized delegation to the URJ’s Camp Newman, it has a junior youth group and an active NFTY chapter, and its impressive high school program, called Gesher, offers teen trips and other special events. Ner Tamid is always trying new things, and it does much better than most of our synagogues. Still, as Rabbi Akselrad explained to me, retention is a real challenge, and the post-bar mitzvah dropout rate is higher than he would like it to be.
And of course, we have congregations that have just given up, and others that have never made teenagers a high priority.
But now for the good news: the synagogue and North American leaders of this Movement are ready to take on this challenge in a new way. We are launching a Movement-wide effort, involving every arm of Reform Judaism and reaching out to every one of our 900 congregations. Our goal is to take the 65,000 teenagers who are now part of Reform congregations and to engage them in Jewish life. And this campaign begins today.
We will be guided in these efforts by those Reform congregations that have kept almost all of their kids all the way through high school. There are at least 40 of these congregations, large and small and in every corner of this continent. And what we have learned from their experience is that religious identity is not an accident; that teenagers with high degrees of Jewish commitment do not get that way on their own; and that their engagement is a direct legacy of synagogues that invest time, energy, and love in their teens.
What these synagogues have taught us is that it is not enough to expose our kids to Judaism and then hope that when they are ready, religious commitment will somehow happen by osmosis. In a world in which we coach our kids in SAT skills and soccer skills, we need to go on the offensive and coach them in Jewish skills and Jewish life.
And all that we do will be informed by our understanding of what kids today need – which is not that different from what kids have always needed:
They need unconditional acceptance and caring.
They also need a deep sense of community and spiritual connection. It’s true that they have cell phones and Facebook and hundreds of online friends. But the fact is that all these friends increase anxiety more than they reduce it, and young people still need intimacy and belonging more than anything else.
And they need a congregation where they can find refuge from a difficult world: where nobody is mocked, derided, or bullied; where morality rings louder than materialism; and where they know that they really count. And this too: where they are summoned to a higher standard. Our kids yearn for a mission larger than themselves – a mission that Judaism can provide.
Some of what we do will be educational: teenagers swim in a sea of rationalism, and therefore we have to stimulate their brains. In teaching them, we should not be afraid to be subversive. When I was a congregational rabbi, I remember one of my members looking back wistfully and saying: “You know, when I was a kid, my temple was the one place where I could say anything or ask anything.” That is what we want our temples to be today.
But formal education is never enough. Sometimes we forget in our work with youth what we’ve always known about romance: location, music, candles, ceremony and atmosphere all enhance the experience of falling in love. If we want our kids to fall in love with Judaism, holiness and God, then we must also give them what youth group, NFTY and our camps give them: heartfelt music and prayer, authentic Jewish ritual, Shabbat candles and the experience of a loving and inclusive community.
Passion is the key. Let’s not forget the connection between the passion of youth and the passion of faith. Passion is a symptom of adolescence, but also a symptom of being Jewish. If our youth enlist their passions elsewhere, then we must receive this as a judgment not on adolescents, but on us.
And how exactly are we going to do this?
Let’s be clear: There will be no magic bullet, no single program that will produce instant results. There is much that we at the Union must do, beginning with more resources directed to NFTY, our North American youth movement. This is a solemn commitment that we have made. We must also expand our camps and promote our pre-schools and day schools. At the same time, we know that great wisdom resides in our congregations, and we are asking every congregation to be involved. Our goal is to build a grassroots demand for success from synagogue leaders, Board members, and parents – a movement of the people and by the people. And this means including our teens as well. If we have learned anything at all over the years, it is that empowerment works better than guilt, and that synagogues with the best youth programs always involve kids in designing what they want.
What we are looking to do, in short, is to encourage a culture of change – where movement and congregations will be focused, with laser-like intensity, on teens; where success in this area will be the norm, not the exception; and where each synagogue will have a temple-wide strategy, supported every step of the way by the Reform Movement.
In an email sent to all Reform congregations this week, Peter Weidhorn and I outlined how the Union hopes to begin. We have produced a guide that will enable every synagogue to assess its teen program beyond b’nei mitzvah, and to set goals for stronger recruitment and involvement of teens. We have created an organization of youth professionals that will offer training and support for congregational staff members who work with teens. And we have issued an invitation for synagogues from each of our districts to work with us on pilot projects that will test new ideas for teen engagement. These include a community organizing pilot so that synagogues can transform the way that they reach out to young people; an experimental 8th grade curriculum pilot; and a teen philanthropy project to induct teens into purposeful acts of tzedakah.
There is much more that we proposed in our email, but you get the idea. The key is long-term planning, thinking, and doing rather than quick fixes. And the second key is partnership: between congregations and the Union, among congregations, between the Union and the CCAR, and among all the arms of Reform Judaism.
How important is this project? As I have said before, if we were to succeed, we would dramatically reduce the number of families that quit the synagogue after bar mitzvah, and most of the membership problems that our congregations face would be resolved.
But that is not the reason that we are undertaking this effort.
We are undertaking it because we believe in our kids.
They are rebellious, as young people always are, and suspicious of religious establishments, but they are also looking for direction and a sense of coherence; they want to know that life has a purpose. They are desperately searching, I believe, for a religious grasp of how their lives fit into the big picture.
And we must respond to what they want with the best that Reform Judaism has to offer. We will not impose religion on them, because that doesn’t work. But it means offering far more than an endless round of dances and social activities. It means providing them with a community, a tradition, and a call.
A community of young people like themselves, and of synagogue professionals who care about them and see them as amazing children of God.
A tradition of practice and belief that is rich, modern and open, but deeply rooted in Jewish soil.
And a call to serve not only the synagogue but all of humankind, and to do their share in repairing the world.
There is sometimes a tendency to blame the young for their lack of engagement. But we know that is a mistake. If our teens are deserting the Jewish ship, it is because the ship for them is empty, and it is we who have failed to fill it.
This great congregation, I know, is deeply committed to facing this challenge; so too are hundreds of other Reform congregations throughout North America. Together, we can lead the way. We can push aside inertia and grab hold of history.
On this Shabbat, therefore, let us affirm our collective commitment to load our ship with a rich Jewish cargo, focused especially on the needs of our young people. And then, we will welcome them to join us. If we do our job wisely and well, offering them a Judaism of morality and meaning, they will – I promise you – board our ship with enthusiasm and hope.
On behalf of the Board of the Union, I thank Ner Tamid for being our hosts this evening. And I wish you all a Shabbat Shalom.