Combating Brain Drain in High School

The drain of young adults from our congregations has been the cause of great concern and much hand-wringing in the Reform Movement. From what I’ve seen on the ground, we have our work cut out for us. Starting immediately after b’nai mitzvah, we as parents lose our ability to coerce our kids into attending religious school. We have terrible fears that by making them attend Jewish events after eighth grade that our children rebel against synagogue involvement. We just want Jewish life to feel natural and rewarding for our children, and we have a sinking suspicion that their religious school experience might be neither natural nor rewarding. This is where we lose our first group, age 13.

Our second group is lost after tenth grade. They have cars, jobs and college prep. Their Jewish lives take a back burner to love affairs, later curfews, extracurricular activities, and friends. NFTY and other youth groups provide opportunities for many, but if teens don’t see themselves  as leaders or among the most committed, it is often difficult for them to find a place there. The lack of late high school programs, college prep credits sponsored by Jewish outreach programs, and employment opportunities for eleventh and twelfth graders means many teens are looking elsewhere.

These high schoolers are the group I’ve had the pleasure of working with here in Cincinnati through my TJF fellowship at Kulanu, the Reform Jewish High School. My fellowship has made me acutely aware of the enormity of our responsibility to fix this “brain drain” that begins immediately after b’nai mitzvah. Rabbi David Burstein has been engaged with this age group by offering a taste of higher education in the form of seminars and electives based on students’ interests.

In their secular lives, our high schoolers are managing school newspapers, tearing into Shakespeare, learning calculus, putting on full-length dramas with difficult adult subjects, participating in debate team, composing their own music, and learning about science and history on both the micro and macro level. They are high-energy, innovative risk-takers. They can spot a fake from a mile away, but they show respect for real experts who care about their subject matter. I’d argue that this is exactly the time in their lives for us to engage with them in this way so that they may realize that their Judaism isn’t an extracurricular activity to be dropped when things get  busy; Judaism is personal, relevant and all-encompassing.

This is a great responsibility. Our brain drain will only get worse if we don’t nurture our high school learners and give them a taste of what excellent adult Jewish education can be like. These students aren’t kids any longer in an academic sense. They are learning at high levels in their secular schools, and they expect the same difficulty and quality from Jewish subjects. They want to start probing the depths of what it will mean for them to choose to continue being Jewish.

By hiring Jewish teachers with passion for their particular subjects, we at Kulanu want to use the curiosity of our teenagers to help spark a love of Jewish life and learning within these students. The teacher/mentors they encounter with us are yoga experts infusing the discipline with Jewish understanding, rabbinical students who facilitate seminars in social media, text, sports, and identity, Israelis who help them develop a relationship with Israeli culture and news, and rabbis from the community who explore controversies and connect Judaism to their everyday lives. These are high schoolers who will leave for college knowing many rabbis and Jewish experts as mentors and friends.

Our program is based on the theory that if we reach these students in high school with brilliant scholars and high-level learning, they are much more likely to build a life which includes our JCCs, our synagogues, and our educational opportunities. They will know that there is so much more to Jewish life than holiday songs and Hebrew school, and when they outgrow the songs and graduate from the school, they will look to Jewish spaces to provide their minds and spirits with stimulation as adults, the way we once served them back in high school.

We are currently in the process of reflecting with a student panel on how this process is going and where we can improve the quality and depth of education we are facilitating for our high school students. By involving them intimately in our review of the curriculum, we hope to also learn from them. We know that just as their world changes quickly, so do their interests, and want to stay relevant and create a sense of investment in our students. Our students are experts in their interests and innovative thinkers, and this process promises to be an exciting venture.

Sara Eiser is a TJF Fellow teaching at Kulanu, the Cincinnati Reform Jewish High School.

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