I’ve worked with teens in camps, schools, youth movements, Israel trips, service learning and Shabbatons. The breadth of programs is astounding and the depth of Jewish experiences created by many of these programs is powerful.
Yet despite programmatic richness and the community’s multi-million-dollar investment, we struggle to reach Jewish teens. The teens I work with represent the elite – the small percentage engaged in Jewish activities. What’s more, I see the same faces in Jewish schools, summer camps and travel programs, while most of their peers have little contact with any ongoing Jewish experience.
A U.S. study conducted by Brandeis University in 2000 found that while 86 per cent of kids in Grade 7 are engaged in some form of Jewish activity, by Grade 12 the number drops to 56 per cent. For non-day school students, these numbers are generously estimated at 60 per cent in Grade 7 and 20 per cent in Grade 12. A recent study of New York teens indicates the numbers have dropped even lower in the last decade.
The statistics groan on. While approximately 50 per cent of American teens are active in a youth movement, among Jews, only 20 per cent are involved. Participation in Jewish camps drops to 13 per cent by Grade 12, and only a marginal number of teens visit Israel. The Union for Reform Judaism, which recently launched a teen engagement campaign, estimates that if current trends persist, 80 per cent of children who become bnai mitzvah will have no connection to their synagogue by the time they reach Grade 12.
Our system stymies engagement. Our focus on the bar/bat mitzvah has resulted in it serving as a graduation from, rather than gateway to, Jewish activity.
While day school enrolment and Israel trip participation are higher in Canada than America, a planned, systematic approach to teen engagement is sorely needed in our community.
Synagogues and bar and bat mitzvah educators must see their roles as transition co-ordinators, guiding students to the next Jewish experience. Parents, who, despite teens’ protests, play a significant role in adolescent identity formation, must be empowered to shape their children’s Jewish journey. As a community, we must recognize that one point of contact does not suffice. As powerful as day school or camp may be, the effect of these experiences is marginalized when it’s the only point of ongoing Jewish contact.
Teens offer great potential. Outside Jewish contexts, they participate at high levels in extra-curricular activities – sports, arts, community service – and a wide range of resume-building activities. They’re interested in shaping opportunities that speak to their interests and, when engaged, they’re passionate, devoted and social. During high school, they question their assumptions of identity and relationships, and actively seek mentors and guides on this journey.
The answer to teen engagement doesn’t necessarily lie in more programming. We already have a menu of activities rich in diversity and depth. Rather, we must rethink the ways we connect with teens. To do so, we must work collaboratively with educators, parents, community leaders and teens themselves to plan multilayered pathways of Jewish experiences that flow from bar and bat mitzvah celebrations to Hillel on campus.