“For Now…”
Balancing Values in Post-B’nai Mitzvah Engagement

By Michelle Shapiro Abraham, Lisa Langer, Rachel Margolis

The Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) Executive Master’s Program asks students to identify and grapple with an “enduring dilemma” – a dilemma that is simultaneously old and new, can only be managed and not solved, and is very much a part of our day-to-day reality. There is no “right” answer to these dilemmas. On each side lies a truth that cannot be ignored. Using enduring dilemmas allows us to recognize that there is no perfect, ever-lasting answer to the issues we face. Instead, we need to examine our own biases, understand the current situation we are in and its unique nuances and find the balance that works for now.

One way to understand approaches to post-b’nai mitzvah engagement programming is to map our dilemmas on a continuum. Toward which pole does your community lean for each dilemma? Which philosophy/approach feels appropriate for your community? What elements/personalities/realities of your community have you leaning in this direction? What assumptions do you need to challenge? Where would it be helpful to balance your approach with wisdom from “the other side”?

When crafting post b’nai mitzvah engagement programs, it is the art of balancing between the two “truths” of these enduring dilemmas that creates successful, dynamic programming.

Choice and Cohesive Group
Choice – This approach celebrates that different teens are looking for different things and that one size does not fit all. There is an assumption that the teens themselves are the best ones to decide what they need. It leads to models that welcome participants to “choose their own adventure” through your program offerings by inviting them to engage in classes, programs, jobs, or trips that interest them, and not attending those that don’t.

Cohesive Group – By keeping the teens together, you encourage the growth of social groups and relationships. Though your activities may be varied, the underlying philosophy of this approach is that together is better and that the program creators know what learning is needed. It often leads to “lock step” programing where teens move through the experiences as one cohesive group.

Leading with Education and Leading with Enculturation
Leading with Education – This approach begins with identifying the core knowledge that the congregation would like teens to know. At the base of this approach is the assumption that there is information that all educated Jews need to understand in order to forge a connection to our people, history, and sacred text. It is through the experiences of acquiring this knowledge (though classes, programs and worship) that the teens build relationships and ultimately feel a part of the community.

Leading with Enculturation – This approach begins with the assumption that teens will only go where they will have fun, enjoy the material, and have friends. It starts with what interests them – arts, sports, social activities, and leads to the education. It is through these social interactions in activities they enjoy that teens will learn the necessary knowledge and ultimately feel a part of the community.

Preparing for Jewish Life and Preparing for Life
Preparing for Jewish Life – This approach begins with the assumption that the primary role of post-b’nai mitzvah experiences in a congregation are to help teens create Jewish bonds, connect to the Jewish community, and see the benefits of remaining a part of organized Jewish life. The focus is on the Judaism. This philosophy leads to learning and programming that is overtly Jewish and leads with Jewish content.

Preparing for Life – This approach begins with the view that the true purpose of learning Jewish content and being in Jewish community is to help teens be happier, more ethical, and more fulfilled people. The focus is on the individual, and the Jewish experiences exist to help them grow and learn about life and themselves. Judaism is the vehicle rather than the destination.

Place to get away from the “Real World” and a Place to Prepare for the “Real World”
Place to Get Away from the “Real World” – This philosophy begins with the belief that teens need an escape from the stress of their lives. They are overworked, overtired, and pushed too often to think about their future. They are struggling socially and overwhelmed by technology. Based on this philosophy, congregations choose to create an approach that is low stress, focused on face-to-face relationships and opportunities for teens to unplug and unwind.

Place to Prepare for the “Real World” – This philosophy begins with the awareness that teens are trying to succeed, get ahead in life, and build their resumes to take them where they want to go. Instead of trying to create synagogue as a place separate from that reality, this philosophy embraces that Jewish knowledge and experiences can help teens prepare. This philosophy leads to the creation of mentoring programs where teens can work with adults who are already in the fields that interest them, resume building programming, and SAT prep classes held with synagogue friends.

Requirements and Free Form
Requirements – This approach begins with the core assumption that students must participate in a certain amount of activity so that they have varied knowledge and experiences. Whether it is a requirement that students earn a certain amount of points through a choice model, or that they attend a certain number of Confirmation classes, this approach helps keeps teens in a cohesive group, defines what “in the community” is, and assures varied experiences and knowledge.

Free Form – This approach begins with meeting teens where they are and not forcing them to conform to a structure you create. It assumes that any knowledge and experience is good, and that the teens should be empowered to do as much as or as little as they would like. It is preparing them for adult Jewish life and helping them learn to choose what they would like to opt in to. Similar to a choice-based philosophy, the approach assumes that teens are the best ones to choose what they should be doing.

Perhaps the greatest gift of the enduring dilemma framework is that it frees us of the notion that if we only could figure out the perfect program, we would solve the challenge of engaging teens in Jewish life forevermore. This framework invites us to reject that “forever” mentality and instead creates an opportunity to take a critical look at our current realities – who the teens are in our own community, the outside forces that impact our programming, the assets in our communities – and create the best possible program for now. It helps us look backwards and understand why a successful model may not work anymore; or look forward and realize that what we are currently doing (even if it is successful now) will need to change in the years to come. It recognizes the wisdom on both sides of the continuum and asks us to find the right balance in our approach for now. When that balance stops working (which it eventually will) this framework gives us a language for assessing our previous decisions and finding a new balance that meets our new needs. By approaching the challenges of post-b’nai mitzvah engagement with the enduring dilemma framework, we are released from viewing responses as “wrong” or “right” and instead invited to find a new equilibrium that will support our teens in embracing Judaism as a path for meaning, purpose and joy.

Cross-posted from the URJ Inside Leadership Blog

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