Everyone’s talking about teen engagement with Judaism. Or, better yet, the lack of teen engagement with Judaism these days.
Demographic and economic trends and technological innovations have caused a substantive realignment of resources and motivational factors that have left many programs wondering why their message and mission is attracting fewer kids than it did as recently as five years ago.
Part of the problem is language. What are the terms that we love to throw around in our materials? Jewish continuity. Jewish identity. Creating the next generation.
Are these terms now so overused and increasingly irrelevant to today’s teens that using them risks further alienating them from the products we are offering them?
What do kids want now? Activism. Saving the world. Leadership. New ways to engage with Israel. Challenging traditions and traditional interpretations. Technology.
Continuity and identity wouldn’t be splashed on the front of a t-shirt. Nobody would click on a Facebook ad that promoted Jewish continuity and Jewish identity. Kids hear those terms these days and their eyes gloss over. Can you imagine pitching your school, program, trip, or class to a teen by claiming that it will strengthen his Jewish identity and ensure Jewish continuity?
We need something new to sell, a new rallying cry and visionary idea for a generation of teens that has evolved well beyond the models of education and engagement that were developed as the 20th century morphed into the 21st.
The twit-o-sphere and blog universe are rife with ideas for what’s going to engage teens today. Len Saxe recently put a call out for the creation of a Jewish Teen Service Corps. Andrea Kasper Cheatham’s idea for a Jewish Vocational School won the Jewish Futures Contest this year. Gender-specific education is seeing incredible growth potential. Online learning keeps popping up in different places.
In trying to put a name on these new movements and trends, we have to move beyond the survivalist terminology of “Jewish continuity” and the catch-all ambiguousness of “Jewish identity education” and articulate a vision that captures the passion and excitement of modern-day Jewish education on the edge.
I don’t have the answer yet, and it might in fact be a different message for each program. But there is no doubt that we need to recast our language of engagement and evolve our outreach and messaging into something that speaks to this generation and the zeitgeist of the critical moment we find ourselves in.