RJ Magazine Top Menu

Action: Re-imagining the Post-B'nai Mitzvah Experience

Last Passover and Holy Week, 21 teens from Beth Emet The Free Synagogue in Evanston, Illinois and 17 teens from the Second Baptist Church, a nearby Black church, journeyed down South on a trip called “Sankofa”—a West African term that means “go back and get it” and embodies the mandate to look to the past in order to understand the present and build the future.

Together they attended Good Friday services, Shabbat services, and Easter Sunday services. Each student had been paired with—and, in time, bonded with—a partner from the other community with whom s/he sat on the bus, roomed, and experienced all the sites. They crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, site of the infamous 1965 Bloody Sunday in which police officers brutally attacked Civil Rights marchers. They worshiped at the 16th Street Baptist Church, an African-American church in Birmingham where a racially motivated bombing killed four girls in 1963. They discussed hard issues, such as white privilege. At the trip’s end, the group visited the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, site of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, provoking strong reactions compiled in a collective memoir:

Jasmane (Second Baptist Church): “I thought I was going to be strong about it, but I was shaking, rocking back and forth crying, ‘Why did this man have to take the life of a dreamer? He only wanted peace for all.’ [My partner] Anni quickly held me tight.”

Thulani (Second Baptist Church): “Suddenly we formed a big group hug, holding hands, singing, praying, sharing.”

Leor (Beth Emet): “Back on the bus, we talked about the quote on the plaque in front of the balcony where King was assassinated, which went something like, ‘You can kill the dreamer, but you cannot kill the dream.’ That stood out to us, because we were the dream: riding in that bus, talking, thinking about carrying out our ideas and continuing our relationships.”

Sarina (Beth Emet): “Together, black and white, Jewish and Christian, we took in the end of the dreamer, but not the dream.”

For the last seven years, Beth Emet has made service and social justice consciousness a focal point of the 8th grade program and a core component of its 9th–10th grade curriculum, in preparation for the older teens’ social activism. “Capturing the attention of teens post b’nai mitzvah is difficult because they are involved with so many things—from school to social life to extracurricular activities to preparing for college,” says Rabbi Andrea London. “To engage them, they need programs grounded in Jewish teachings and practice, that move them from the classroom into the real world—opportunities that challenge and support their taking leadership in changing their communities and the world.”

Back home, the teens who experienced “Sankofa” now committed themselves to continuing advocacy for racial equality. One Beth Emet student took issue when her high school teacher scolded a Black classmate and threatened him with detention for taking out his cell phone (all devices are prohibited at the school). Standing up in class, she announced: “I’ve been listening to my iPod all through class today and you didn’t say one word to me. And now this Black student takes out a phone and you’re getting all over him.”

The teacher shot back, “Then you’re getting in trouble, too.”

“Well, fine,” she replied. “Then at least it will be fair.”

The Jewish and Black Baptist teens have also been meeting regularly, of their own accord, to continue their conversations on racial equality. Adult mentors are not leading but partnering with them as they organize into committees to further racial reconciliation work. “They share a common bond,” says Yoni Siden, director of Youth Programs at Beth Emet. “And they know that it’s the hard work they are doing now, in their own communities, that really counts.”

For years, Caroline took voice lessons, wanting to sing but too shy and frightened to perform on stage. After becoming a bat mitzvah at Temple Beth Elohim (TBE) in Wellesley, Massachusetts, she joined TBE’s Jewish Actors Workshop (JAW) to be with her friends. In her first year, she was thrilled just to have an ensemble role in their production of Fiddler on the Roof. But in her second year, supported by the JAW staff and her friends, she was cast and beautifully sang a solo in 13! The Musical. Caroline’s mother later confided: “I can’t imagine my daughter could have done this anywhere else.”

These days, TBE’s post b’nai mitzvah teen community is engaging 150+ teens. TBE leaders attribute their success to a much broader approach than teen education—in fact, they don’t even like to use the “e” word. The teaching component is just one facet of their broader mission, which Alison Kur, executive director of Jewish Living, describes as creating “a safe, nurturing, empowering, and sacred environment for every one of our teens.”

On any weeknight, you’ll find some 40 students in the temple’s teen lounge, relaxing from the stresses of academia and college applications. Helping them talk through the issues they face while simultaneously strengthening their TBE connectivity is a teen mentoring program called BELCRO (Beth Elohim Community Reaches Out). Each 7th grade student is paired with an older teen mentor, and that older teen is paired with an adult mentor for additional guidance. TBE has seen powerful exchanges and relationships develop as a result. One seventh grader undergoing hospitalization and rehabilitation for a severe eating disorder talked to her teen mentor about the challenges she faced; the teen then reached out to her adult mentor, who guided the teen behind the scenes in mentoring the 7th grader on her road to recovery.

TBE’s learning program for 8th–12th graders, Havayah (the Hebrew word for “experience”), is all experiential, encompassing chavurot (small interest-based Jewish learning groups, such as art, cooking, drama, and sports); Shabbatonim (weekend programs where teens build sacred community); and senior youth group (offering a variety of social, leadership, and social action opportunities). This flexibility allows teens who might ordinarily not fit in to find their way. One high school sophomore at risk of expulsion from private school reached out to the TBE youth professional overseeing Havayah’s Jew Man Group, where male teens explore how Jewish values can help guide decision-making. Through one-to-one conversations as well as Jew Man Group meetings, the sophomore developed deeper relationships that helped him express himself, make better decisions, connect his growth to Jewish values, and ultimately stay in school.

Another key Havayah component is its non-competitive inclusiveness: Every teen who wants to be a leader becomes a leader. The incoming TBE’s BELY youth group board includes 36 teens because 36 teens sought leadership positions. At the same time, TBE’s youth team works individually with each teen, empowering him/her to take on the particular leadership opportunities that seem the most exciting, challenging, and rewarding to him/her.

The retention statistics are revealing. When Havayah began in 2003, 23% of TBE teens were continuing in a Jewish engagement program after becoming bar/bat mitzvah; in 2012–13, it’s 70%. This past year, 130 students participated in Havayah, and for the coming year, TBE leaders expect the number to grow to nearly 200.

Eleven teens at Congregation Shaarai Shomayim in Lancaster, Pennsylvania are on a social action trip to the Gulf Coast to help clean up the destruction left by Hurricane Katrina. They listen as the director of a recovery agency reads a letter written by a Katrina victim expressing her frustration that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) doesn’t see her as an individual, but a case number. The only identifying information in the letter is that case number. Shortly thereafter, the woman committed suicide.

“I figured a group of Jews would know better than anyone what it means to be reduced to a number,” the director says.

We were “dumbstruck silent,” says Rabbi Jack Paskoff.

The teens spend that night in a Quonset hut on a campground. Unplugged, without electronics or TV, they light Hanukkah candles, play board games, and reflect on what they’ve witnessed.

Moving on to Waveland, Mississippi, the group helps clean up the home of a man who lost virtually everything in Katrina. That night, the teens talk about Jewish history, and when they light the menorah, they reflect on its symbolism. While most of their peers are on vacation enjoying the holiday season, they realize that they are bringing “dedication and light” to others.

Rabbi Paskoff attributes the temple’s high Confirmation retention rate—approximately 85%—to five factors: offering meaningful social action trips, treating teens as adults, taking into account the individual needs of each teen, bringing the community together to support teens, and offering them many ways to be engaged.

Treating teens like equals, he involves them not only in creating youth programs, but programs for everyone, including a congregational retreat and a Rosh Hashanah service. And, like their adult counterparts, throughout the year those teens who have contributed to the life of the congregation receive the honor of aliyot, sometimes reading Torah and Haftarah portions, reciting blessings, and/or blowing the shofar.

“My congregation considers it a priority for me to spend time with our teens,” he says. He joins them on social action trips, teaches 11th and 12th graders through discussion-based learning, visits them at NFTY events, and spends two weeks with them as a faculty member of Camp Harlam, where, he says, “they get to see me in shorts and a t-shirt and be much more playful than I can be at home. And my students have my blanket permission to tell their public school teachers I’m available to visit their schools to discuss anything Jewish. I make more than a dozen such visits every school year. The students seem to take pride in being able to introduce me.”

In this small community, the whole temple supports its young people’s Jewish engagement. Sisterhood gives a $400 stipend to first-time URJ campers and $50 as an incentive for each NFTY event they attend. The Brotherhood grants a $1,000 subsidy to any 10th grader for a URJ Israel trip so long as the young person promises to continue Confirmation studies upon return—which the students do. Additional need-based scholarships are also available.

Rabbi Paskoff believes it is important to engage teens in a variety of ways beyond Sunday religious school, where, he says “you’ll typically find students exhausted from staying out late the night before. If we involve them in many different ways—experiential and social as well as educational—and times, we have a much greater opportunity for building life-long connections to meaningful Jewish living.”

What can congregations do to both engage and teach post b’nai mitzvah youth? Here are four expert tips:

1. “Relationships are what matter,” says Lauren Biletsky, director of Youth and Family Programming at Congregation Kol Tikvah in Parkland, Florida, where some 100 teens are now active in youth group, up from 10 teens three years ago. “Our teens know they can come see the rabbi, cantor, teachers, or me at any time and we’ll help them. Teens ask me about sex and drugs, tell me their deep dark secrets, ask for help with school work, and share their accomplishments with me, all because of those relationships.” To connect with teens, she advises, “Treat them as equals. Wear jeans and a youth group t-shirt; if you’re wearing a blazer and heels, they’re not going to want to hang out with you. The whole idea is to be real and natural. And show them that you really care about their lives by talking about what interests them. If they’re wearing a Yankees shirt, ask them about the Yankees. If they mention a family vacation, ask them to elaborate.”

Also important, she says, is cultivating relationships among the teens themselves. “Because our teens are continually trained in leadership and team-building, Kol Tikvah youth groupers will immediately invite newcomers to come hang out with them. They’ll text them to say it was great to meet them, and they’ll welcome them at programs. When teens see that this is a place not just for ‘you,’ but ‘you and you and you and you,’ they know it’s their home, too.”

2. Turn teens into mentors. Ana Apter, Teen & Chai School director at Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul, Minnesota, says that “our Gesher Mentor program has played a part in significantly raising our 10th–12th grade retention rates since the program began in the 2006–2007 school year, from 38% then to 65% today.”

At Mount Zion, some of the 11th and 12th graders mentor and teach the 7th graders, co-facilitating about 110 hours of classes, programs, and retreats, and assisting younger students with their mitzvah projects. They also write and teach lessons for the congregation’s annual sex-ed retreat for 7th graders, using the URJ’s “Sacred Choices” curriculum; as well as for a six-week mini-elective they design around the subject of pekuach nefesh (saving a life). “This is often the first time the 7th graders realize being Jewish isn’t just something that you are ‘forced’ to do through b’nai mitzvah,” Apter says. “It’s something teens choose to do because it’s a fun, engaging, important part of teen life.”

3. Train your staff in experiential education for post b’nai mitzvah youth. Consider encouraging your educators, youth advisors, and clergy to take advantage of HUC-JIR's Certificate in Jewish Education program, a nine-month online and face-to-face course specializing in teens and emerging adults. Coursework focuses on adolescent development, experiential learning, program planning, change theory, uses of social media, the arts, service learning, and more.

4. “Tap into what teens care about,” says Dr. Isa Aron, co-director of the B'nai Mitzvah Revolution, a joint URJ–HUC-JIR project that is partnering with 14 Reform congregations which are experimenting with new approaches to b’nai mitzvah preparation and observances. “In some cases teens are excited about social justice; others care about community and friends; others love arts, or sports, or academics. And sometimes it is offering them a relaxing respite from the stresses of high school life.”

At Temple Shalom in Dallas, post b’nai mitzvah students choose many of their own courses of study. The temple’s Next Dor program is structured similarly to college, with required credits and electives from each of four pillars: education (attending classes, independent study, select books and movies, etc.), worship (attending services), tikkun olam (temple-sponsored mitzvah projects, community service, etc.), and community (attending temple youth group and NFTY events, Jewish camp, etc.). 

The program has grown by 13% over the last four years, and Rabbi Andrew Paley expects a further increase this year. “Having students pick their classes in a quasi-college fashion increases buy-in,” he says, “as well as confidence that their learning will be meaningful.”