It is hard to believe that this month marks the one-year anniversary of our oldest son’s Bar Mitzvah. The memories of this wonderful simcha are fresh in our minds. But as proud of Harrison as we were that weekend, what has made us the most proud is how involved in Jewish life he has remained, by doing things like regularly attending Shabbat services, being a Madrich (religious school teaching assistant), attending 8th grade pre-confirmation class, enjoying youth group events, playing on the JCC OC baseball team at the Maccabi games this summer, and joining Teens Love Caring, a Jewish teen service organization. He, along with most of his friends from temple, viewed their B’nai Mitzvah as the beginning of their immersion into Jewish studies and activities, rather than the culmination. Unfortunately, however, not everyone remains as involved, and many Jewish teens we know and respect have chosen to reduce their Jewish involvement. While I am not judging the priorities of these families, as people need to make the decisions that work for them, it does cause us to question what our Jewish community can do to keep these teens engaged, committed, and involved.
Noticing this attrition in our own community prompted me to do some research and I learned that the “post Bar/Bat Mitzvah exodus,” as it is referred to, is a common problem across the country and is one that has become a primary focus of Jewish educators and clergy. Studies conducted by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University in the early 2000s found that participation in Jewish programs dropped from 86 percent of kids attending in 7th grade to only 72 percent in 8th and 9th grades and to only 56 percent by 12th grade. Moreover, a study of just the Reform movement found that 50 percent of Jewish teenagers stop participating in Jewish programs after 7th grade, and, shockingly, by the end of high school, only about 15 percent of teens are still involved in a significant Jewish way.
Why is this the case? There are several factors that seem to contribute to the decline of involvement. First, there are so many demands placed upon a teenager’s time. High school brings increased time devoted to studies and homework, and many teens become involved in clubs and organizations, in addition to continuing with or increasing time spent in extracurricular activities such as sports. A second contributor could be social. By the time these kids reach the teen years, they often prefer to attend football games and other social events, rather than come to Shabbat services and temple events. Teenagers tend to plan their own social lives, rather than their parents signing them up for things like synagogue youth groups and classes. A final factor that seems to play a crucial role is parental influence. So many parents had unfulfilling experiences when they were younger that, while they feel the Bar or Bat Mitzvah is an obligation, once that obligation is fulfilled, they feel they are released from any responsibility for further Jewish education or involvement.
More important than why so many teens stop coming is why it is so important that our community try get these kids to stay involved. Although the younger grades are important for learning Hebrew, prayers, and Jewish history, the teenage years are the time when students are maturing into young adults and forming their opinions about our world and their place within it. As they mature and are faced with difficult choices in life, such as saying “no” to the negative influences (i.e. drugs, alcohol, and inappropriate behavior) and saying “yes” to positive choices (i.e. community service and being a good person), we want to ensure that these students learn about and embrace Jewish principles and beliefs with regard to contemporary moral and ethical issues. There are so many topics of discussion that engage today’s youth and keep them coming. If your synagogue’s teen education program isn’t stimulating your teens, perhaps you should make an appointment with the education director or rabbi and discuss the content of the programs. Eighth through 12th graders seek meaningful discussions with their Jewish educators and peers about topics relating to how to cope in today’s world and things that pertain to them as people and as Jews. In the safe environment of their synagogues, today’s teens are emotionally mature enough and ready to discuss and debate topics such as the bioethics of cloning, the death penalty, abortion, substance abuse, war, and premarital sex.
An equally important aspect is to engage these teens to connect socially with other Jewish teens, such as in youth groups and clubs. During these formative years in their lives, it is so important that we keep them active and excited about Jewish life and promote Jewish continuity, so that they have a strong Jewish identity as they move on to college and beyond. Being involved in high school will certainly lead to their wanting to be involved in college (seeking a university with a strong Jewish campus life!), marrying Jewish, and maintaining their own Jewish homes. There are many opportunities for youth group involvement at all of the OC synagogues. If your teen complains that the activities are “not fun,” then encourage him or her to get involved in the leadership of the group and to suggest activities that are fun and interesting. Also encourage teens to call, email, or text their friends to encourage others to attend. Harrison and his group of friends might be unique, in that they literally beg our clergy for more events, get together regularly outside of synagogue activities, and would all rather be with their “Jewish group” than their secular school friends. Those strong friendships came about, because they all went to youth group and encouraged each other to attend. In addition to temple youth groups, there are other opportunities for Jewish teenagers in Orange County, such as TALIT Nation and other programs sponsored by the Jewish Federation and the Bureau of Jewish Education. The JCC also has myriad opportunities for teens, from “hang out time” to organized groups and leadership opportunities. Attending Jewish summer camp is a “tried and true” way to maintain Jewish identity . Travelling with the JCC to the week-long Maccabi sports games and Artsfest are excellent ways for Jewish teens to pursue their passions in a Jewish context.
In addition to educational and social opportunities, being involved in community service with other Jewish teens is an excellent way to stay connected. Being a “madrich” or “madrichah” at a synagogue is a great way for a student to stay involved, learn to work with kids, and earn community service hours. Harrison has also become involved with a wonderful Chabad-run teen service organization called Teens Love Caring, which is a group for 7th to 9th graders who do different social action projects throughout the year. Youth community service opportunities through the JCC, the Federation, and the synagogues also abound.
There are so many different ways that Jewish teenagers can remain involved in our Jewish community, and I encourage you to help your child find his or her niche!