Over the past few months various major conversations have been had around the direction of Modern Orthodoxy; the place and space of American Rabbis vis-à-vis the Israeli Rabbinate, the direction of where open orthodoxy is headed, the importance of Yeshiva University as a leader for Modern Orthodoxy. The reality is that while these conversations and many more are important, the key players who are adding to the discussion are a forgetting about and in turn becoming irrelevant to a key demographic of our society; our teenagers and young adults.
One of the primary tenets of our faith is found in the first two chapters of the oft recited Shema, as the Torah states in Deuteronomy chapter six, verse nine “and you shall teach them diligently unto your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you wake” and again in chapter eleven, verse nineteen, “And you shall teach them to your children, talking about them, when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you wake up”. It is here we learn of chinnuch, of education, and the primary space it operates in within our religion, culture, and presence across the world. We are known as the people of the book, our scholars both religious and secular are admired the world over, and it is due to this very space that education has occupied which has enabled this appreciation of the quality and quantity of our scholarship. Yet in the areas of education for our next generation, both formal education in day schools, as well as informal education through our synagogues and community centers, through our teachers and our rabbis, and through the most valuable resources, parents, are we missing the boat? Are we leaving behind a generation of Jews who are feeling increasingly disenfranchised from our history, have created distance from our religion, and who ignore our culture?
I have worked for the past decade in formal or informal education, and have spoken to colleagues who maintain similar views; that if we sincerely want to see the advancement of our people, especially when we focus on the Modern Orthodox community, we need to begin to include our teenagers and young adults in conversations in a way that includes them in the discussion, talking with them, not about them or at them.
Many synagogues and community organizations focus on the present; they do not have serious and complex long term plans. This is because the synagogue is reliant on the income of the here and now. The reality is that for the most part, we humans are focused on what we, the individual needs, not so much on what the ‘other’ needs, especially when it is future tense. This leads communities and organizations to focus on the income earners, those that have stable jobs with money to spend and donate to the cause, or on those who have retired who might be willing to donate or bequeath larger sums of money. This is important, don’t get me wrong, it is what keeps our institutions financially afloat, but it cannot be the only rationale that goes into an organization. We also need to seriously advance the position and engagement of our teens and young adults. The reasons are twofold; firstly, if we engage them now then they will make the community their home when they become the income earners and will be able to financially provide in the future. Secondly, and more importantly, whether or not they are part of our community, they will hopefully be a part of a community somewhere. If we do not think about the long term, we are essentially denying our own future.
For some reason, prayer has been the flag which we have raised as the priority of youth and young adult services. Even today’s discussion on our teen’s involvement is around the area of prayer, with the scandal or lack thereof, of girls wearing tefillin, phylacteries, at some of our Modern Orthodox schools.
We have tasked our schools and our synagogues to come up with a solution to disengagement with prayer, when we ourselves are not connected to it in the first place. One of the priorities of youth engagement in Modern Orthodox communities for the past two decades has been in the area of Teen Minyanim, believing that our youth are no longer committed or interested in prayer and services, these new minyanim were seen as a saving grace by Rabbis, lay leaders and parents across the diaspora. While in many cases teen minyanim were successful in providing an atmosphere for collegial prayer, most were relegated to rooms or social halls in synagogue complexes that were not worthy as a house of prayer. The reality is, and this is a feeling held by many in the field, that many teens feel that they are being pushed away out of the main sanctuary and out of the spotlight of communal life; that ultimately they are not an important demographic in the community.
If we are to truly engage with teens and young adults, ensuring that they will be long lasting members of our community, able and willing to take the mantle of leadership to the next generation, then we need to realize that denying them a voice within our organizations is not working. That teen minyanim and other services and programs which do not address anything deeper than the surface, need to move from primary to secondary goals of our communal life. We need to ensure that a serious call to action is made, and heard by our members and our organizations, and we need to hear it now.
Growing up religious in the Auckland Hebrew Congregation, the only orthodox community in Auckland, New Zealand, it was not hard to be engaged, but it was lonely. Most of my age group was not involved because they were not religious, and the reality was that sports and social activities held a higher position than the community. In saying that, what the Auckland Hebrew Congregation got right was its commitment to at least give an authentic voice to its youth – even though there might not have been anyone to take them up on the offer. From age eighteen, I was privileged to serve on the Board of Management, and in 2009 successfully changed the constitution at the Annual General Meeting to allow two seats of the ten member board, to be occupied by a young adult aged eighteen to twenty five.
This may seem trivial, but it makes a difference. It is definitely not the only thing that can be done, nor should it be the only thing done. But what it does do is calls upon a board to listen to its youth, to act for its youth, to make changes and adopt policies that are of benefit for its future. It shouldn’t be a rarity, it should be policy – youths and young adults should be on the boards of our synagogues, of our schools, of our local community organizations – so that the future is being addressed.
I hope to use this space as a place for discussion on current events within our Jewish world, especially through the lens of the future generation. We have spent enough of our history looking back, and while we do look forward to brighter futures of the messianic time, let us also take a moment to look at what space our next generation will occupy in our community, and focus the conversation around that future.