Categorized | San Diego County

Jewish Teens: Keeping them involved after b’nai mitzvah

Darren Schwartz

By Darren Schwartz

LA JOLLA, California — One of the core Jewish values that I grew up learning was the notion of L’dor v’dor – from generation to generation. At a structural level, this value implies the passing of traditions and values from an older generation to the next. The challenge with this value can be that as you materialize it, or dig deeper into what is being passed down, there is a disconnection between the meaning behind the tradition and the method for delivering it. For me this is most evident in the tradition of b’nai mitzvah.

In 2013 the Jim Joseph Foundation, one of the most prolific Jewish private foundations, issued a report called “Effective Strategies for Educating and Engaging Jewish Teens.” This study confirmed a general assumption about Jewish teen drop off after b’nai mitzvah. They were able to quantify the stark decrease in participation at age 13 that continued all the way through high school. The report goes on to present effective models for engagement and elements to consider when structuring a program

The b’nai mitzvah is a classic example of a tradition passed down from generation to generation, where the tradition remains intact but the meaning has been lost. I know that this sounds dramatic but if this tradition allows adolescents to claim adulthood and commit to leading a Jewish life only to have their next move be dropping out of Jewish life, what is the point of the ceremony?

It is estimated that there are 7,000 Jewish high school teens in San Diego and 90% are unengaged or marginally engaged within the Jewish community. This does not simply refer to synagogue engagement, this means any type of Jewish engagement including JCC, youth groups and other agency programs. This drop off in high school does not mean that they have left the Jewish community forever, but it does call into question the expectation of what it means to be committing to being part of the Jewish community.

Looking at the landscape of our local Jewish community there are approximately 25 different Jewish teen programs and three Jewish day schools that serve high school students. These programs range in size from dozens to hundreds. They focus on a variety of topics including hunger, special needs, surfing, Jewish education, cultural celebration, philanthropy and Israel. Some meet weekly and some more sporadically.

The point is, at face value, the Jewish community has a strong menu of opportunities to engage teens but is somehow unsuccessful in reaching them.

Why is this the case?

There are many reasons. There are challenges with relevance, location, timing, marketing, teen leadership, adult mentorship etc., all issues that I plan on exploring in future “Jewish Teens” columns/ However, these challenges are all compounded by the fact that the generational messaging of what it means to become bar/bat mitzvah has put too much emphasis on the ceremony and not enough on what it represents – an adolescent committing to leading a Jewish life and being a part of the Jewish community.

No matter the programs or opportunities we develop as a community to engage Jewish teens, this challenge will remain a constant. Until the messaging of this tradition changes to emphasize the importance of active involvement in the Jewish community, teens will naturally prioritize other aspects of their life like sports and getting into college. They must begin to see their Jewish identity as a tool for being successful in these other endeavors.

So the next time you find yourself at a bar or bat mitzvah, please take a moment to ask the nice young man or woman how they plan on getting involved in their Jewish community as they move into high school. If they don’t know, please send them my way.

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Darren Schwartz is the director of the San Diego Jewish Teen Initiative. To contact Darren about opportunities for Jewish teens or in response to this article, please email [email protected].

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2 Responses to “Jewish Teens: Keeping them involved after b’nai mitzvah”

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  1. […] YORK — In my last column I identified a major challenge in Jewish teen engagement the stems from a disconnect in the values […]

  2. […] In my last column I identified a major challenge in Jewish teen engagement the stems from a disconnect in the values and traditions associated with bar/bat mitzvah. The ceremony that symbolizes a child’s commitment to live a Jewish life relies on an implicit notion that he or she will know how to do it.  This is not a judgment on Jewish education, nor the values and traditions imparted by families. It is a recognition of a challenge in preparing b’nai mitzvah students for their next chapter of their Jewish journey, one of self-exploration and solidifying a foundation of Jewish identity. […]


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