Working with Jewish teenagers, I’ve seen it demonstrated that one very effective way to get them thinking deeply about their identity and the role that their religious values, beliefs and practices play in their daily lives, is to engage them in a comparative religion class. Whenever we begin such a course together, we always start by looking at the various reasons that are often heard for studying other religions. For example:
- To learn about another religion and come to better understand it.
- To explore the similarities and differences between our faith and the faith of others.
- To find common ground and, through understanding, build stronger relationships with people of other faiths.
All of these reasons are true, but the one that I find to be most true in terms of actual impact over a relatively short period of time is that we come to better understand and know ourselves.
And so, during this year’s course that I teach in our local Hebrew high school program one night a week, we recently came to end of our 4 week introduction to Islam. During this same period of time, the incredibly well-crafted TLC TV show, ‘All-American Muslim’ has been airing. A number of the students have been watching it, and it has provided not only a wonderful window into the lives of a diverse group of Muslims living in Dearborn, Michigan but, as we reflect on how questions of practice, observance, gender roles, interfaith relations, conversion, childbirth, and more, are part of the discourse of the families portrayed in the show, so the Jewish teens that I work with have found many of these topics to offer a powerful lens to look at their own lives and the diversity to be found in the Jewish community.
Our mini-unit culminated with a visit from a mother and daughter who live locally, to engage in a conversation about their own journey of faith. Mom is from Puerto Rico, and converted from Catholicism to Islam in 2000. Her daughter, raised as a Muslim, shared her own interfaith experiences with members of her family, the multiple identities of being both Muslim and Puerto Rican, exchanges she has had with students at school who understand or do not understand the co-existence of these identities, and the personal spiritual path she walks as she navigates life as an American teenager and a practicing Muslim.
While my students had many questions for our guests, our guests in turn had questions for our students. Why don’t your names sound Jewish? What is a Hebrew name and how is it used? Why is it that we say our culture is Puerto Rican and our religion is Islam, but being Jewish is both culture and religion? How do you deal with explaining Jewish holidays and taking holy days off school?
I sat back and listened to my own students provide incredibly articulate answers to these questions, even as they were thinking out loud and learning about the kinds of questions that those who see us as ‘other’ might ask; things that we might take for granted but yet cause us to reflect deeply on who we are and how we live our faith when we are asked the questions. In a brief 45 minutes, I saw my students articulate aspects of the meaning of their faith and identity in a way that two years of preparation for a bar or bat mitzvah could not achieve in the same way. At the end of our class, our guests joined us for the mid-evening break, to enjoy latkes and apple sauce with our students.
I am well aware that there has been a vicious campaign attacking ‘All-American Muslim’ in recent weeks. I wish those who attack from a place of ignorance and fear could have been present in my classroom last week. Our exposure to and interactions with each other strengthen the bonds between us, and strengthen our own individual sense of identity and faith.
At Congregation B’nai Israel, Bridgeport, CT, I’m blessed with a class of almost 30 eighth graders and we meet weekly on Monday evenings.
Last week, we began a conversation with them that emerged from a desire to highlight the upcoming Reform movement biennial conference. I haven’t attended a Biennial for several years, but they are always exciting opportunities for me to hear how visions are being articulated and what kinds of new ideas are being incubated. Some of that comes from the official program but, as is so often the case with these large conferences, its the one-to-one conversations that we get to have with old friends, and new people that we chance upon that provide some of the great food-for-thought. And praying on Shabbat with approximately 5,000 people (the estimated turnout this year) is a unique experience.
This year, Teen Engagement is one of the key areas of focus, with a special track of the conference dedicated to this work. The old models of top-down movement-led design of a program to be launched and rolled out across the country is gone. Instead, a vision of a much more fluid and dynamic project that involves teens in conversations to co-create new opportunities is the direction we are heading.
I wanted my teens in my eighth-grade class to know about this, and gain a sense of being part of something bigger. We began with an initial trigger video, playing this:
While the context for this video is Israel, and the miracle of returning to the land, we extended the conversation to ask our teens how they respond to an idea of carrying a heritage and being part of ‘the hope’ for what might still be to come. The core of our conversation turned to the challenges they identified to their being engaged in Jewish life and activity and, finally, to some of the creative ideas they might have to respond to those challenges.
I don’t think I can truly do justice to what emerged during the conversation, but it was indeed very hopeful and helpful. We only had limited time, and I’m sure the conversations will continue, but the two areas they focused on was the communal worship experience, and ways of engaging in Jewish culture and ideas that tapped into some of the cultural forms and technologies that they are utilizing in the rest of their lives.
On the worship front, they sought more diverse expressions and experiences, and a musical style that had the energy of the music that some of them knew from Jewish summer camp. While this music has been a major influence on the evolving music of prayer in the Reform movement from the mid-1970s, there is no question that the newest sounds still emerge from camp, and a multi-generational service is not going to be the same experience as an age-specific experience. But the generation-specific sounds are not the only reason why young adult independent minyanim and 20s-30s services in large city-based congregations are proving to be increasingly popular.
My teens also pointed to the way that they are engaged in creating the prayer experience when they are at camp, weaving contemporary themes and readings into the core prayers. This is very much in tune with what we are seeing among our engaged younger generations – a desire for more of a ‘do-it-yourself’ kind of Jewish community, where a Rabbi may offer guidance and support, but is not expected or even wanted to be crafting and leading the whole experience. This kind of inclusive engagement in creating communal prayer experiences is working for teens and young adults beyond the Jewish community too. Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran minister in Boulder, CO, leads an emergent Christian community that uses this approach to shape the worship experience. She says that it is important that the worshipers are producing and not consuming. ”Sometimes things are a little ‘clunky’ but its completely worth it because the people are really owning it,” she says.
Beyond the world of synagogue and Jewish worship, my teens had expressed the ‘otherness’ that they sometimes feel in their public school context, where they could name countless examples of ignorance of Judaism or ways in which their sense of Jewish identity was so different to outsider perceptions. But their pride in their identity was strong, and they sought more opportunities to be with teens who ‘get it’. Not necessarily through more face-to-face opportunities – these kids already have heavily scheduled lives – but they brainstormed things like a Jewish Facebook for under-18 Jewish teens who wanted to talk about ‘Jew-stuff’ or a Jewish kind of Second Life where they could experiment with different kinds of virtual Jewish experiences and explore more of Judaism for themselves (these kids haven’t discovered ‘Second Life’ yet, otherwise they might know that there is already quite an extensive area of Israel, synagogues and more already there!).
They also loved getting ‘Jewish answers’ to the everyday things … how about a ‘Jewish Siri’?
So much of what I heard in this brief conversation and brainstorm reinforced what we with Rabbis Without Borders have been discussing for some time now as we seek to better understand the contemporary cultural contexts in which we passionately share paths to Jewish life. There are start-up organizations, online communities, and worship communities already responding to the next generation, but ‘mainstream’ Jewish institutions and congregations have a ways to go. I’m encouraged by a Biennial conference that is opening to new conversations and forms of engagement. As we respond and co-create an evolutionary Judaism together, within and beyond Jewish movements, we need only ask the questions and we’ll find that our youth have plenty to say.