There’s a statistic going around that has everyone in the Jewish community shaking their heads and all asking the same questions.
Here’s the statistic: After B’nai Mitzvah only 20% of Jewish teens around Metro Detroit are engaged or connected with a Jewish organization or activity of any kind. That means that four out of five Jewish teens aren’t doing anything Jewish.
Four out of five teens are letting their Jewish identity idle in the background.
Four out of five teens are letting their Jewish identity slip further and further away.
Four out of five teens are going to grow up and may not associate with the Jewish community in their adulthood.
How did we let this happen? Where did we go wrong?
To be honest, I’m 17, I’m not sure. I probably can’t answer those questions.
Here’s what I suggest – let’s stop asking what happened to bring us to this point. Let’s look forward and ask ourselves where we can go from here. We have one out of every five teens actively engaged in different Jewish connections. What drives their involvement and how can we apply that to the second, third, fourth teens? How can we meet the hardest-to-reach fifth?
Personally, several factors in my life motivate my immersion in my Judaism.
First, growing up with a Rabbi Mom, I have been exposed to not just the traditions of my family but much of the history of my heritage. I feel a duty and a responsibility to acknowledge, appreciate and interact with this history.
Second, I adore relating to my peers who share my context. The other Jewish kids in my school and community understand where I am coming from. Many of our values overlap and it eases the development of meaningful relationships.
Ultimately, I find it cool to be Jewish. I think kids in our community take being Jewish for granted. There are so many of us in this area that we do not comprehend how unique our culture is. We don't realize how truly special it is to be Jewish. It is something that should be a source of real pride.
How do we get young people to acknowledge these motivations? How do we get these ideas the exposure they need to make an impact?
Benji’s Recommendations for Jewish Teen Engagement:
Resources. We are in an unprecedented time where our community’s resources for teen programming exceed the demand for them. Never before have we been faced with the problem of too much funding but not enough participation. Community leaders need to engage young people in the allocation of those resources, rather than guessing at what we want or assuming it’s the same as always.
History. As Jews, we carry a tremendous amount of history and heritage. Yes, we should emphasize the responsibility that Jewish teens have to uphold the thousands of years of ritual and custom. But it shouldn’t feel like a weight added to the many stresses in our lives. Instead, our heritage should serve as something sturdy that we can walk along and, in doing so, make sure it is there in tact for those who come after us.
Inclusion. We as a Jewish community need to ensure that the spaces that we create are as welcoming as possible. There is a difference between claiming to be open to anyone and really doing the work to be inclusive of everyone – Jews of color, interfaith families, teens who don’t live in the parts of our region with a substantial Jewish presence. If they are a focus of planning and programming – not an afterthought or accommodation – they will come.
Not every kid is going to dedicate their entire life or even the majority of their free time to the Jewish community. But if we can get them participating in some way that is meaningful to them, no matter how small, we can help them begin to nurture their Judaism for years to come.
Benji Stern is a senior at Bloomfield Hills High School. He is the regional president of Michigan BBYO, involved with YFTI and serves on the Jewish Fund Teen Board. He is a managing editor at the Hawkeye and right back for varsity soccer.