Making Judaism Relevant in High School

Judaism offers a much-needed spiritual community and a place of belonging for high school students in particular. “How are you doing? What is new this week?” This is how I begin my class: with a short opportunity to debrief from the week. The responses are positive or negative—but, most importantly, they are honest. I ask this question because it is avoided elsewhere when it shouldn’t be. Every once in a while, I receive answers that remind me of its importance.

One class last semester, as I began with this question, one student was unable to hold back his/her/their emotions and responded honestly and with full clarity, “A lot is new, I am not doing well.” I pressed the student to elaborate, but the student was deliberately avoiding specifics. I asked to speak with the student after class.

After class, the student detailed some of his/her larger struggles outside of Hebrew school, both academic and social. The student’s social duress was most disturbing to me. The student felt an element of social disassociation and neglect from other classmates from day school. I took the opportunity to listen to everything the student told me. I needed to comfort the student. I also was very candid myself in saying that the student’s academic performance in our class had shown progress since the beginning of the year and that the student’s contributions in class had been invaluable. I also deliberately pointed out that the student belongs with us here at Kulanu. The student has a group of friends here, and we value him dearly.

High school teachers are not typically associated with supporting students who are experiencing bullying, social problems, dating problems, and academic fears. Yet supporting these students is a sacred responsibility that cannot be avoided in a Hebrew school. We cannot be impersonal. We need to act with communal responsibility, as a family.

Experiences like this at Kulanu have helped to change my understanding of why Judaism is important to high school students. To me, it answers the questions every Jewish high schooler asks: Why do I need Judaism? Why do I need to go to Hebrew school? High school students more than anyone else need religious and spiritual counsel. They need a community to call their own. Adolescence is one of the toughest times in a person’s life, and high school is a fond memory for only a few people. School, college preparation, cliques, dating, social groups both offline and online, bullying, and sexuality enter an adolescent’s consciousness in new ways.

Kulanu gives our students a community and place to belong. My experiences at Kulanu have convinced me that high school students can relate to Judaism in meaningful ways that console them during a difficult period of development. This is a terrifying time for most young adults. An adolescent’s search for his or her identity can be terrifying if he or she doesn’t fit in. Judaism is a marker that sets us apart from the vast majority of America. It has taught us valuable lessons through the values instilled in us from our identities as Jews. Judaism offers young adults a raft during these uncertain times. Judaism, like a loving family, is ready to meet them and embrace them in their adolescence with no questions, fear of rejection, or judgement. Judaism is ready to embrace high school students in new ways that both give them a deep sense of Jewish identity and help them to confront many of the struggles of adolescence. At Kulanu, we offer classes on Jewish-centered meditation, art, comedy, and more. Students grow in their abilities to be more confident in themselves and their identities. Jewish-themed art therapy, meditation, and comedy all eat away at the loneliness that a high school student may feel during these difficult years.

It is my hope that our shuls will become beacons of hope for our young adults and continue to offer them opportunities to embrace Judaism in new ways that challenge the loneliness felt by many high school students. Judaism is absolutely relevant to high school students.

Shmuel Polin is a second year rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). He leads services for Temple Israel in Paduca, Kentucky and teaches at Kulanu Hebrew High School in Cincinnati.

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