Photo courtesy BBYO

By Hannah Dreyfus

How do you keep today’s Jewish teens engaged? Keep them happy, urges David Bryfman, chief innovation officer at the Jewish Education Project.

While in the past, Jewish education has stressed the transmission of knowledge, skills and literacy, that approach “no longer works,” said Bryfman. The Jewish Education Project, a nonprofit that works with Jewish educators and clergy, released a study in April highlighting that members of Gen Z – the cohort right behind millennials – prize personal happiness above all else. (The study profiled 139 teens between the ages of 12½ and 17 from four cities – Atlanta, Boston, Denver and Los Angeles.)

“Teens and millennials today are looking for more direct meaning and relevance in their lives,” Bryfman told The Jewish Week in a phone interview.

In Jewish educational settings, from day schools to Hebrew schools to youth groups, that means providing teens with practical takeaways that can improve their lives, said Aaron Dorfman, president of the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, a nonprofit that works to make Jewish teachings relevant to students today.

“We need to pivot away from content mastery – like does the child know the Bible stories or can s/he navigate a siddur – and focus on how the student can apply the lesson learned back to their actual life,” he said. Dorfman suggested a classroom application: Rather than learning the stories in the Book of Genesis, for example, students can use the stories in Genesis to help navigate their own sibling relationships. The biblical story of Abraham arguing with God over the fate of Sodom can teach students how to challenge authority in a respectful way.

The trend is rooted in an increased focus among educators on positive psychology, a relatively recent field founded on the belief that people can use psychological techniques to help them lead more meaningful and fulfilling lives. Today, more than 200 colleges and graduate schools in the United States offer classes on happiness and positive psychology. The introductory positive psychology class at Harvard University, taught by Israeli instructor Tal Ben-Shahar, remains the most popular class at the school, according to a recent New York Times article on happiness.

The trend has trickled down from colleges and graduate schools to high schools and day schools, said Dorfman. “If happiness is something that can be learned, Jewish educators believe it is something that can be taught,” he said.

At a recent conference, “Happiness Hacks: Feel Good, Do Good and Stop Obsessing about Jewish Identity,” the Jewish Education Project partnered with the Lippman Kanfer Foundation to teach more than 400 educators and lay leaders how to integrate positive psychology into their curricula. The conference included a lecture by renowned Israeli positive psychologist Dan Ariely and group exercises in “laughter yoga,” a series of exercises that induce laughter to promote healing.

“In the past, the purpose of Jewish education was to [allow students to] fully participate in American life without giving up their Jewish identity – now, that’s not enough,” said Aryeh Ben David, founder of Ayeka, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit that focuses on “soulful” Jewish education – teaching Jewish subjects with more “personal meaning and impact.”

“Teens today don’t need a classroom to access information – they can get anything they want to know online,” said Ben David in a phone interview. This changes the need for school “in a profound way.”

“Jewish education needs to become a vehicle to enhance students’ lives, rather than just transmit content.” Ayeka is currently working with four schools in the U.S. to train Jewish educators in “soulful education.”

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