Spiritual Teens: Haggadah & Dissertation Insights

The Pesach Seder’s rituals and peculiarities encourage children to ask, “Ma nishtana?”—Why is this night different? As the text of the Haggadah repeatedly shows, our goal is not necessarily to provide direct answers to the children’s questions, but to use the opportunity of their engagement to share the beauty of our tradition and the overarching messages of the holiday. 

This profound lesson extends far beyond the confines of the Haggadah and into the realms of academia and spirituality.

When writing my dissertation, I studied the factors which lead teens enrolled in a Modern Orthodox High School to commit to Jewish beliefs. I collected data from 1,341 students from 18 schools across the U.S. using the JewBALE scale to discover which religious practices they followed and which beliefs they ascribed to, as well as details about their background and school experiences. As expected, many of the findings showed positive correlations, showing, for example, that the more one succeeds academically, the more spiritually committed one would be. This provides an additional impetus for religious schools to structure their academic program so that students of varying abilities can succeed academically.

The one negative correlation that I noticed was in relation to what is referred to as a “spiritual struggle” – a tension between accepted religious norms and personal beliefs. Spiritual struggles for a teen can range from questioning traditional practices to clashing with societal expectations. The data showed that the more a student struggled with Modern Orthodox communal norms, the weaker their commitment to spirituality would be. 

However, upon deeper analysis, something remarkable emerged. When students had positive relationships with their Judaic Studies teachers and positive Judaic Studies learning experiences, the negative impact of their spiritual struggle was dramatically lessened. I believe that this suggests that the questions which students have about religion do not necessarily need to be answered directly or resolved in order for them to advance in their spiritual commitment. Rather, positive relationships with role models and enjoyable Judaic Studies learning environments are enough to counter the otherwise harmful effects of spiritual struggles. Teachers, along with parents and other role models in teenagers’ lives, do not necessarily need to provide answers to some of the sensitive questions the teens are struggling with, but rather provide an inspirational framework to Judaism which enables the teens to feel comfortable within the system,  notwithstanding their questions.

Just as the Seder invites questions and curiosity, so too should we provide this welcoming approach year-round. We can empower our youth to navigate the complexities of faith and tradition together with their mentors, thereby transforming moments of doubt into opportunities for engagement and growth. 

(To read more about this and other findings from this study on Modern Orthodox teens, see here.)

About the Author
Sharon Weinstein was a Judaic Studies and Math teacher in Modern Orthodox high schools in the US before making aliyah with her family to Maale Adumim where she works in educational consulting and Israel advocacy.
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