Touching Our Teens’ Neshamos

by | in President's Message

A quarter of students who come to college as Orthodox Jews report that they  changed their denominational identity while at college, according to a six-year-old study by the Avi Chai Foundation (Amy L. Sales and Leonard Saxe, “Particularism in the University: Realities and Opportunities for Jewish Life on Campus” [Brandeis University, 2006], 17). Based on our own current experiences on the fifteen college campuses where the Heshe and Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) operates, that statistic has not improved.

It is no secret that many Orthodox teens do not find fulfillment, meaning and purpose in Judaism. Go to your local shul on Shabbos and ask yourself, “Where are the teens?” Sure, there are teen minyanim and always a few scattered teens who join their parents in the services, but where are the rest of them? (See “Why Aren’t Our Kids in Shul?” in the summer 2011 issue of Jewish Action at http://www.ou.org/jewish_action/05/2011/getting_kids_to_shul/.)

Many of our youth are convinced that Orthodox Judaism is too confining, leaving little room for individuality and self-development. They view the halachos of Shabbos and yom tov as restrictive, depriving them of “fun.” In seeking to fill their spiritual vacuity, they oftentimes reach out to poor, spiritually dangerous substitutes, such as alcohol or drugs.

We’ve already written in these pages about “Half Shabbos,” a phenomenon where young people text and surf the Internet on Shabbos, even though these same individuals wouldn’t dream of eating treif or driving on Shabbos.

I witnessed this phenomenon less than a year ago, when I saw a group of teens who were participating in a Shabbaton in my community walking to a shiur. Suddenly, one of the day school kids took out his phone and began texting. While I was taken aback by this blatant desecration of Shabbos, his friends seemed unfazed. I shared this experience with our NCSY leaders, who proceeded to enlighten me. Texting, they explained, is a mode of communication that is organic to teen culture. A number of teens view texting on Shabbos the same way their parents view talking in shul—everyone talks in shul, so what’s so bad about it?

A typical frum teen may send hundreds of text messages during the average weekday; many are addicted to texting, and for some, it requires significant control to stop on Shabbos and yom tov. Most distressingly, explains Rabbi Yaakov Glasser, director of education for International NCSY and regional director of New Jersey NCSY, some teens don’t see Shabbos as meaningful enough to make the sacrifice.

Our challenge is to penetrate the hyper-stimulation of the technological era and touch our teens’ neshamos.

I have been told that an underground teen Shabbos culture exists in many frum communities in which teens party on Friday night in an empty house or basement. Unsupervised, they go online, listen to music and hang out. Oftentimes, there’s drinking and drugs.

Is there a spirituality crisis afflicting our youth? Our educators in NCSY think so. At NCSY’s YouthCon, a convention held this past summer that brought together informal Jewish educators from across the country, one popular panel discussion was entitled “Spirituality Crisis: Does it Exist? Can We Fix It?”

The session made clear that no matter how much we educate our teens, no matter how we scrimp and save to put them through yeshivah, no matter what kind of atmosphere we try to create in our homes, shuls and schools, many of our teens are more likely to devote themselves to their smartphones, iPads, iPods and Facebook accounts than to Chumash or Tosafos.

Spending a year in Israel used to be an opportunity for a teenager to be turned on to Yiddishkeit. Now, however, he brings a portable world with him: his Facebook, his iPad and his YouTube videos. Yeshivah in Israel is simply another place where he can become absorbed in his own reality. He may be in another place geographically, but mentally and emotionally, he remains in the same place—static and unchanged.

Our children somehow seem to have lost their spiritual anchors while downloading the latest app. Our challenge is to penetrate the hyper-stimulation of the technological era and touch our teens’ neshamos. We need to help them see a world beyond the virtual one, to see the beauty of a Torah life. But conveying this to the disenchanted members of Generation Y takes time, commitment and, above all, a little expertise.

In the last issue of Jewish Action (http://www.ou.org/jewish_action/issues/fall-2012-5773/), we discussed JLIC, a project of the Orthodox Union in conjunction with Hillel International. Found on college campuses throughout North America, JLIC appoints professional Jewish educator couples to strengthen Orthodox communities on college campuses. Touching several thousand day school graduates, JLIC shows our serious commitment to inreach and to keeping our youth strongly connected to their heritage. Moreover, we intend to expand JLIC both by enhancing our presence on campuses that already have JLIC couples and by placing couples on additional campuses. By doing so, we hope to double our inreach over the next five years. We will also be charging the leadership of our flagship NCSY program to develop and expand initiatives that engage and inspire our yeshivah day school youth while they are still in high school.

NCSY is at the forefront of teen outreach. By making NCSY the “place to be” for teens and by using all that technology has to offer—Facebook, Twitter, apps, et cetera—NCSY is able to spread the message that Torah is not passé, that it is eternally vibrant, eternally relevant and eternally empowers the Jewish people.

NCSY offers a relaxed, nonjudgmental environment where teens are surrounded by role models to guide them. I am not referring to the senior rabbis or regional directors, but to the young, enthused advisors. These high-minded college-student volunteers travel to events all over the country, bringing with them their love of Shabbos and Judaism. From beginning to end, an NCSY Shabbaton is a deeply moving and emotionally powerful experience. If you have ever attended an NCSY Shabbaton, you know that it is veritably impossible to remain dry-eyed during the powerful Havdalah or the moving “ebbing” ceremony. The challenge is to turn these temporal emotions into lasting religious observance and passion.

This is where NSCY summer programs—or, in truth, any good religious camp experience—can play a critical role. NCSY’s summer programs, with such offerings as Kollel, ICE and JOLT, provide an experience for every type of teen: those who want to learn, those who want to volunteer and those who want to develop their leadership qualities. These programs have been remarkably successful in taking religiously apathetic Orthodox teenagers and reigniting their faith and passion for a Torah life.

But NCSY can’t do it alone.

NCSY can provide inspiration to our teens, but if there is no continuity or follow-through in other aspects of their lives, this inspiration will likely dissipate over time. Raising a child today requires a community—a deeply committed community.

While NCSY can ignite the soul, the prime responsibility to fan the flames lies with yeshivos, and especially parents. I suggest each school conduct an honest assessment of its successes and failures. To do so, a school needs to look at its graduates several years after graduation and ask what has become of them. Has the school equipped them to live full religious lives or has it merely laden them with dry facts, leaving them spiritually vulnerable? How can school leaders continue “business as usual” with the devastating statistic mentioned in the beginning of this article.

Few homes have not been impacted by this terrible crisis of spiritual apathy. I once discussed the plethora of off-the-derech youth with a prominent day school lay leader, and he told me to resign myself to the situation. Orthodox Jews are a minority, he insisted, and we will continue to be a minority through attrition.

My friends, this is not an acceptable response.

There are solutions, but we must be willing to pursue them. For one thing, schools must change their curricula and be genuinely open to “informal” education. “We need to put ‘God talk’ into our children’s lives,” a well-respected rabbi recently told me.

As for parents, the spiritual value system in the home should be authentic and impassioned. This is admittedly not an easy task. If you aren’t excited about going to shul, it is going to be difficult to get your teens to be excited about going to shul. However, Rabbi Aryeh Lightstone, regional director of New York NCSY, explains that if shul-going for whatever reason does not move you, most likely there are other aspects of religious life that do. You may be excited about delivering Tomchei Shabbos packages, or doing bikur cholim, or serving as a lay leader for a tzedakah organization. Whatever model works for you, share that with your teens. Visit the sick together, work on a chesed or volunteer project once a week. It is also critical to be “in tune” with your teen. We must customize our approach to Torah learning. Some kids relate to Chovot Halevavot, others to Gemara and still others to Jewish history. Find out what works for your son or daughter. Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet. To raise an inspired and connected child, you need to work on being an inspired and connected Jew yourself.

Many years ago, when my children were in elementary school, I observed Mr. Kaufman in shul learning with his adult son. Impressed, I asked him how long they had been learning together. The elder Kaufman told me he had been learning with his son, on and off, since the latter was in middle school. He gave me a berachah that I should be zocheh to learn with my then twelve-year-old when he became an adult. The younger Kaufman then mentioned that his father also learns with his oldest grandchild. The elder Kaufman bentched me again that I should merit to learn with my grandchildren as well. What a beautiful berachah! May we all be zocheh to learn with our children and our children’s children. To achieve this, we may have to reprioritize our values—not a simple feat—but that is what is necessary to ensure the continuity of our personal link in the chain of our tradition.

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