Friends, let’s face it. Our adolescents do not see the connection between Judaism and the activities of their daily lives. Many of them find holidays and services plain boring. I do not think this is the fault of any one individual or institution, but rather a manifestation of the way religion is seen in our times. Religion was never supposed to be just holidays and services. Our rabbis and sages wrote numerous valuable tomes showing how the words of Torah give meaning to our everyday practice and life. The problem may be that we have allowed our adolescents and, perhaps, our adults as well to view Judaism as religion instead of a way of life and worldview. It could be that helping teens connect to this core aspect of Judaism is the key to reigniting their embrace of Judaism.
We know that our teenagers are swamped by social and academic pressures at school and home and that they are spread thin by extracurricular activities required to build up their resumes for college applications. All this is in addition to the massive emotional and physical development they are going through as teenagers. According to the 2013 American Psychological Association’s “Stress in America” Survey, the stress levels that teenagers report during the academic year are far higher than what is believed to be healthy. Alongside this, 37% of adolescent women and 23% of adolescent men report feeling depressed due to stress. What is as alarming is that about half of these teens indicate they are unsure of how to manage their stress and are struggling to find ways to cope. As educators, we must give our students the tools they require in order to succeed in their daily lives. As Jewish educators, in particular, we should offer tools specifically grounded in Judaism and furthermore help students integrate this Jewish guidance throughout their lives. How can we achieve such a task?
On Sunday nights at Kulanu: The Cincinnati Jewish High School, we continue to explore how to provide students with Jewish content in a solid Jewish environment. We do this not only by offering courses that connect Judaism to their experiences at their high schools, but also through the ways we model, as educators, Judaism’s influence on our own lives. One example from my teaching experience continues to echo in my mind. Before a particular class, a student approached me with the burden of the schoolwork apparent on her face and the dread of going back to class the next morning heavy on her shoulders. She expressed her stress about her grades, upcoming exams, and worries about disappointing her family with regard to college acceptances. This was not an uncommon encounter, and many of us have had similar engagement with our students in a variety of settings. I took a few minutes to try and offer her some comfort and pastoral care, but as the time to start class approached I worried how this student’s stress and the stress the other students might be under would shape the lesson for that evening.
As students filtered in, I had them sit in chairs in a circle. I asked them close their eyes and to take a few deep breaths. As they sat breathing I offered these words: Hinei mah tov u’mah naim shevet achim gam yachad, How good and pleasant it is for people to come sit together. I asked them to let the distractions and worries from their school week drift away, to put those thoughts aside. After a few more deep breaths I asked them to think about what we can learn from one another in order to help the students connect the words of Hinei mah tov to the meditation exercise. Before I asked them to open their eyes, I shared with them my hope that we could be present with each other during the evenings class. When we all opened our eyes, I saw a group of more grounded and centered teens than I had when they first stepped into the room. As class proceeded they were able to connect the texts we were studying to the experiences and stresses that they had felt during the school week. In this new grounded space they were able to explore their experiences in a less stressful way and explore what Judaism had to offer to frame their experiences at school. As class drew to a close, I asked my students to reflect on the lesson and the new learning style. They were able to articulate the ways that sitting in a quiet space, breathing, and considering the Hebrew text had helped them to focus on being present in the lesson that night. They also offered that this practice was something they could do throughout the week to help them feel more centered and focused, not just while they were at Kulanu. Then they surprised me, as they connected the concept of saying blessings before meals and before activities was a way to take such a moment of pause to consider their greater purpose or greater sense of community as they go about their days.
Through modeling such practices in an authentic way and through helping our students reflect on the process, we can help students uncover the ways in which Judaism can help them to ground their lives with greater meaning and purpose. As a Jewish educator, I try to model and explore with students how Judaism can shape the way that they live their lives, the way they cope with stress, and the way they approach the choices they are faced with each day. If we create learning environments in which we allow students to build the bridges between Jewish tradition and practices to their everyday experiences, we can help our adolescents to recognize Judaism as being more than a religion. We can help them grow to understand that Judaism is a way of living. Perhaps through these practices, through modeling, and through helping our students become present and teaching them to reflect, we can further help them to grow in exploring the moral and spiritual guidance that Judaism has to offer each of us.
Dana Benson is a TJF Fellow who spent her year at Kulanu, the Cincinnati Reform Jewish High School.