Creating safe spaces for teens in the synagogue is one of my top priorities as a teacher and future rabbi. For the past few years, this idea has framed what and how I teach. From the respect that I give a student who is speaking to the respect I give a student who interrupts, my goal is to create an environment within the synagogue in which preteens and teens (the age group I primarily work with) feel safe to express their thoughts and feelings without judgment.
No question about life, Judaism, or God is too small, so I wanted to create a class that allowed for questioning with the security of everyone going on this new journey together. I decided that the Israeli television show Srugim was an opportune platform for questioning students. As the drama follows the lives of a group of national-religious friends in Jerusalem, viewers explore the characters’ everyday struggles in an Israeli-Jewish context. Dealing as it does with family life, religious exploration, work, ethical dilemmas, and dating, this show provides a synagogue-appropriate basis for safe conversation and exploration about what it means to interact with others in a meaningful way.
In one particular episode, the interactions between two of the main characters led to a discussion about the meaning of healthy relationships. Two of the shows main characters, Avri and Hodaya, begin to kiss for the first time but suddenly realize that the moment does not feel comfortable and they stop. They immediately discuss their feelings and comfortability with intimacy
As a class, we discussed what the characters did well and how their communication could be improved. This scene led to a larger conversation with the students about what it means to be in a healthy relationship. The students pointed out that there are many complicated relationships throughout the television show but, as a class, we identified how these relationships can remain healthy and discussed ways in which the characters could improve their interactions with one another. I brought up several factors that provide a foundation for healthy relationships: communication, mutual respect, trust, honesty, and support. We also discussed what was unhealthy about various aspects of the relationships in Serugim. The students were willing to participate because they identify with the characters and see parallel relationships in their own lives.
These conversations are important to have in the synagogue because we never know how often our teens have these discussions at school, with their friends, or with their families. As Nachmanides wrote in his thirteenth-century work Iggeret HaKodesh, “One should know that sexual union is holy and pure when it is done as it should be, at the time it should be, and with proper intent.” If we do not insure that our teens have space to talk about what it means for intimate relationships to be in their proper time and with the proper intent, then we have missed an opportunity to foster their questioning and explorative minds. Allowing the students to explore what it means to say “no” to unwanted advances and how to engage in healthy conversations with friends or significant others helps them begin to feel more comfortable in their own skin and recognize that the synagogue is indeed a safe place to talk about all aspects of their lives.
Although most of the students could not imagine talking about their relationships with rabbis in the synagogue, even hearing that this was an option was a new realization for many of the teens. They forgot that I was becoming a rabbi. The setting, weekly interactions, and their feeling comfortable in our classroom space encouraged them to be able to have these conversations with a future rabbi. In our classroom the students did not bring up personal examples, but there were giggles and smirks between friends that indicated how relevant the conversations were and how important it was to create this environment. We also discussed the synagogue as a safe space for talking about our successes and struggles. Our teens can be constantly reminded through discussions and activities that the synagogue can be a positive environment to explore themselves as they mature. Perhaps these interactions are an indication of the changing role of the rabbi — not only do you do not come to speak to the rabbi in his or her office, but the rabbi can also be found in the classroom and hallways having these conversations. If we, as teachers, establish trust and continually work to create this environment in our classrooms and throughout the synagogue, our teens will have the opportunity to find guidance, help, and support as they search for safe spaces in these formative years.
Rachael Klein Miller is a Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow at Isaac M. Wise Temple.