Over the past 30+ years, I’ve listened to North American Jewish teens (and some international ones, as well). Like their adult counterparts, they kvetch about their rabbis and synagogues. But their gripes are different, and worth some attention (which isn’t to say that adults’ grips aren’t). Here’s some of what I’ve heard over the years, from my youth director days, my congregational rabbinate and education era, my camp and experiential educator gigs and my time in Jewish educational organizations:
“My rabbi doesn’t really care about teens. He’s all about the adults who pay dues.”
“My synagogue wants the kids in the building, but on its terms.”
“My congregation gives financial assistance for teens to participate in Israel programs, but only those of its movements’ youth group.”
“I love the tunes that I learned in camp, but the rabbi and cantor refuse to introduce them into services.”
“The rabbi seems more concerned about keeping the synagogue in business than about my Jewish growth.”
“I don’t find the rabbi easy to approach.”
“I feel ostracized because I belong to a community-wide Jewish youth group, rather than the synagogue’s youth group.”
This is just a short list of what I’ve heard from teens. And to be honest, more than one of the above statements were true of me and of synagogues that I led early in my career. The rabbis’ and synagogues’ concern for institutional survival is understood. And, as my friend and colleague David Bryfman has pointed out, teens (unlike younger kids) don’t add money (or membership) t0 synagogues. If anything, they cost synagogues money, when they invest resources in youth.
Forget for a moment the current debate as to whether the American synagogue is in trouble. It is certainly in flux, as Hayim Herring and others have pointed out. And for a moment also, let’s agree that the expectations placed on synagogues and on rabbis are too broad. It is unreasonable to expect that any individual rabbi can be everything: a scholar, a spiritual leader, a fundraiser, a community builder, a great speaker, a relationship manager, a teacher, a marital counselor, a spokesperson for the Jewish people, an expert on Israel, and, on top of those, a talented youth worker.
More important to me personally is not the state of the synagogue and rabbinate, but the state of Jewish youth, who often state that they do not “fit in” to the synagogue they grew up in, or find it difficult to connect with their rabbi in a meaningful way. And what is also important is that teens, like most of us, want to have meaning in their lives and, on the whole, welcome adults (yes, including rabbis) who are capable and prepared to meet them in the teens’ place of comfort (physical as well as emotional safe space). What’s a Jewish community to do? Here’s my idea:
Let’s create the field of a Youth-Oriented Rabbinate. A small number of synagogues have such positions, as do some day schools with “rav bet sefer” positions, but often the colleagues who occupy them use them as stepping stones to “bigger and better things.” I’m recommending that we don’t build a field merely on the “young rabbi” who works with “young people” for a few years right after rabbinical school. I’m proposing a true career track.
The second part of my proposal is to locate community youth rabbis on neutral turf, funded and housed outside synagogue walls. JCC’s, Federations, summer camps and community youth organizations are a few places that these rabbis could work within. Moving them out of the synagogues assures that their roles will not be to “sell” the synagogue’s or movement’s particular programs.
The third part of my proposal is to train these Youth-Oriented rabbis. There is much to be learned from youth ministries that function in Christian denominations, as well as from a few successful synagogue, JCC, summer camp and youth group models. Training has to include the obvious skills: counseling, coaching, education, technologies, arts, music, human development. It also has to include what every youth professional needs to know: pop music, sports, the latest TV shows, social media and anything else that is a part of youth’s lives.
I’m ready to walk the walk. I challenge any foundation or organization to create a Community Youth Rabbi position and to invite me to apply. Can’t scare me…I have 30+ years of working with Jewish teens under my belt, and can readily name others who’ve done the same. Unfortunately, because of the lack of a serious career track, much of our work with teens has been incidental to our “day jobs”. Let’s get serious about our Jewish youth.