What do young people say about youth engagement? The RJ editors sought out Reform teens who had been estranged from Jewish life but then found a way back to Judaism. Here are two of their stories. For more teen responses, and to add your views, visit reformjudaismmag.org/teens.
Help Us Find Our Own Jewish Meaning
by Austin Wand
Growing up in Colorado, where being Jewish was so uncommon, I always felt that Judaism was not relevant to my life. There was a separation between who I was inside and outside of temple, and it led me, slowly, to disengage from the Jewish community. With each passing week of Hebrew school and Sunday school, I became less enthusiastic about Judaism. And at the end of my temple education, I knew little more than a few letters of the Hebrew alphabet!
Things started to change in my sophomore year of high school when I reconnected with Viktor Jackson, a good friend who was involved with the thriving Jewish teen community in Boulder. When I heard about all the great people and fun activities he did with the youth group at Congregation Har HaShem, I felt like it might be worth taking a step into the past and rejoining my Jewish community again. A little unsure but curious, I joined up, and it didn’t take me long to realize that the Jewish community is actually much bigger than I had thought. A domino effect took hold of my life as I fell into more events with other Jewish teens. That led to my getting involved with Jewish kids across North America through NFTY, which holds a big place in my heart.
At my first NFTY retreat, I thought how odd it was to be around so many kids who had all walked down similar paths in developing their Jewish identities against the background of a Christian society. Right from the beginning, I sensed a community developing around me. And by the end of that retreat, and all those I’ve gone on since, I felt amazingly close to everyone as we acted together to improve our society as well as ourselves. One of our major themes was tikkun olam—to give back or to give unto others. We also learned about our Jewish culture in a fun and unforced way.
When I was 17, our youth group was told about an opportunity to go to Israel with a group called IST (Israel Study Tour). It took me a long time to decide to go because the trip would be a month long and I would use up most of my savings. Finally I decided not to miss out on a chance to travel to such a meaningful place with a group of people my age who would be able to process and talk about the experiences on the same level.
Being in Israel clarified for me what Judaism means. I looked past the hardships of the Jewish people and found a world of Jews who wore their Judaism with pride. A highlight was being invited by Israelis to join them at the Western Wall on a Friday night to welcome Shabbat with the same dances and prayers I had learned in America. It felt so good knowing that Judaism brings us all together.
After this amazing journey, Judaism moved more to the center of my life. It is who I am, who my ancestors were. I am proud to be Jewish.
To successfully reach out to youth, I believe our leaders need to offer us different kinds of fun-filled activities that promote working together and reaching out to others, rather than drowning us with prayers and worship services. These worship services don’t work well because it’s hard to relate to something you don’t understand. It might help if more prayers were in English. I am also a believer in games as a way for teens to open up to each other and become more excited about Jewish learning. Going to youth group activities with my buddies and playing games that developed character and promoted Jewish learning definitely worked for me.
Most of all, Jewish teens need opportunities to socialize and freely share our ideas of religion with a large group of friends and not let one leader or counselor provide the only interpretation of what is being taught. Young people need to develop the skill and capability to communicate their own ideas about the meaning of Judaism. This will help them Jewishly and in life.
At the time of this writing, Austin Wand was a high school senior and member of Congregation Har HaShem in Boulder, Colorado.
Accept Us As We Are
by Kira Harland
Around the time of my bat mitzvah, I began feeling embarrassed about my views on God. I’d learned through five years of Hebrew and Sunday school about the biblical God—one who is all-knowing and omniscient—but by no means did I believe in that God, or really any God. I felt that my teachers at the temple were trying to brainwash us into believing in God. I asked myself: “Can an atheist be a Jew?”
And God wasn’t the only part of Judaism I felt forced to accept. We had to chant Hebrew prayers, but we had no idea what most of them meant and we weren’t taught enough Hebrew to figure it out ourselves. I began to feel that to be a Jew I had to believe in things that didn’t make any sense to me. When I asked my teachers about why we prayed in Hebrew, their answers seemed mundane; they told me that Hebrew was the language that God was used to. Sometimes I felt ridiculed because they seemed upset by my continued questions. Eventually I kept my opinions and questions to myself.
Meanwhile, at home my parents never mentioned God, but we did celebrate the main holidays, and my parents taught me that one of the most important parts of being Jewish is being kind to other people. This idea was reinforced for me on my first day of middle school, when I found myself wandering around during lunch, frantic to find a friend. Suddenly I heard my name from across the courtyard. Five kids I knew from temple were calling me over to sit with them. It gave me faith in the kindness of Jews and made me proud to be Jewish.
It was in 10th grade Confirmation class that I fully began to see Judaism in a new light—the deeper life meaning of being Jewish. Instead of focusing on religion, the rabbis looked at Judaism from an intellectual, historical, and cultural perspective. The rules of Judaism teach how to have relationships, when to forgive, what to eat, what values are most important for living a righteous life, and what to do at every new step in life. I began to see that Judaism is about how to live a happy life that benefits the ones around us.
Also, the rabbis allowed me to disagree with certain Jewish traditions. For instance, on the issue of finding a life partner, one rabbi told us to find a Jew for the sake of compatibility. I found this to be inapplicable to the world today. When I disagreed aloud, some peers chimed in to take my side, while others took the rabbi’s. Yet the conversations stayed civil and we learned from each other as we opened our minds to applying the traditions to today’s life. The best part was that I could still call myself Jewish and be accepted by the rabbis, even when I disagreed with their values.
In 8th and 9th grade, I became a board member of the Tikkun Project, a social action youth group that applied the teaching of tikkun olam to our community. The Jewish moral concept to “repair the world” became a guidepost for me. As a Jew, I felt a moral duty to help those around me and to stop injustice. Making a positive impact in the world is important to me, and Judaism was giving me the moral and ethical grounding to carry this out.
My many moments of true connection with Jews around me have proven again and again why being Jewish matters. Most recently, just minutes before I left to go to temple for a Friday night Teen Shabbat Jam, I opened a rejection letter from Stanford University. While I was expecting this news, I cried during the entire car ride. Seeing how upset I was when I arrived at temple, everybody immediately comforted me without even asking what the problem was. They all gave me the love I needed, and by the end of the night, I forgot all about the rejection.
These days I am involved in a temple youth band called Kavannah that leads teen services once a month for about 65 people. We try to show worshipers how musical prayer can bring us closer to one another and help us become better people. We encourage people to be themselves, and the air of the room is full of fun, laughter, and connection. I have watched people change through this experience, going from shy to social in only two hours. I have also come to believe in a God who acts as the spirit of connection between people.
The best way to engage Jewish young people is to not force any beliefs on them and instead allow them to find their own enlightenment by forming their own opinions. Every child learns differently, so telling every child the same abstract idea about God is an ineffective way to keep children interested in Judaism. I always found it more helpful to have an adult tell me his or her individual view of God, and by learning many different perceptions I can formulate my own opinion.
Getting Jewish teens to attend new programs is hard because teens want to feel comfortable and accepted. If more teens realized that a core Jewish value is being friendly and accepting of new people, they would be less inclined to stay away.
At the time of this writing, Kira Harland was a high school senior and member of Temple Solel in Cardiff, California.