Intersection: A Look at Jewish Youth Education

If the United States and Israel went to war against one another, which side would you take?

So began hundreds of youth group discussion starters, back in the days just after the the Six Day War.

If your high school has a football game on Friday night, do you go or do you stay home for Shabbat dinner?

This one started many Hebrew High School discussions.

Your college class meets on the second day of Sukkot, and the material covered will be on the final exam. Do you go?

Again, a way of beginning a discussion through a dilemma.

The difficulty with the above questions is that they are predicated on assumptions that:

  1. There is an inherent conflict that will arise in the teen’s mind between the appropriate Jewish response and the perceived demands of life.
  2. Throughout a person’s life, s/he will continue to face conflicts between his/her Jewish identity and his/her identity as an American, who wants to be fully involved in American culture and life.

It is quite possible that, in the days in which these dilemmas were written, they actually resonated with kids as a reflection of challenges they faced. It was a conflict model, that either recognized such conflicts in their lives, predicted that they would face conflicts, or sometimes even artificially created conflicts with the assumption that if they became better and more committed Jews, they would need to feel conflicted.

Today’s education for youth must reject the conflict model. Our Jewish youth do not, as a whole, feel a conflict between their contemporary American lives and their lives as Jews. I’ve watched Orthodox day school students go off to teen dances and clubs. Some of their rabbis/teachers make the incorrect assumption that these students have somehow rejected God, Torah and the Jewish people. Yet those same students fastidiously observe Shabbat and Kashrut and volunteer to work with students with special needs. I’ve been on Facebook where my allegedly assimilated students, who tell of social lives that I’d rather not know about, sign up, without prodding, for groups supporting captured Israeli soldiers, tzedakah causes and Jewish groups.

Were we to continue using the old conflict model for shaping Jewish youth education, we would be dead in the water. Let’s see: Your a sixteen year old teenager and you have a choice between a life studying Talmud, not socializing with the opposite gender, and not participating in social activities. Or, one in which you can enjoy rock concerts, hang out with friends of both genders at the mall, and go to the beach. My educated guess: Most teens will not take too long to make the choice.

A proposal for a new model: Intersection. The lives of Jewish teens (and for that matter, an increasing number of Jewish adults) do not reflect a sense of inherent conflict. They reflect a series of intersections. Their identities as American teens and as Jewish teens intersect. Often. Examples of those intersections abound:

  • As mentioned above, the social networking online provides countless opportunities to express one’s identities, in a world full of Jewish and secular opportunities.
  • JCC’s and youth groups have, particularly in the aftermath of 9/11, upgraded their work in interfaith and interracial activities for learning and community service, putting Jewish teens alongside Christian and Moslem teens, each working together from different, yet overlapping value systems.
  • Music of performers like Piamenta, Remedy, and Matisyahu have crossed cultural divides, bringing Jewish young people as well as the general teen population together to hear Jewish values and texts put into the conversation.

The goal of Jewish youth education today must be to help them find ways in which they can maximize the possibilities of those intersections in ways that will equip them to live lives in a world which, increasingly, flows from a confluence, rather than conflict, model.

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