By Susan Holzman Wachsstock

The moment Ben Platt stepped on stage, the audience was electrified. For 60 Jewish educators in the theater, the thrill was two-fold: seeing Dear Evan Hansen just two performances after the Broadway show’s triumphant Tony Awards showing, and feeling an immense sense of pride in this unabashedly Jewish actor.

The Jewish camping and education world is abuzz with stories about Ben Platt and his connection to Camp Ramah and his personal sense of Jewish Pride. He is an example of our educational North Star – but why?

Let’s spend a moment contrasting Evan Hansen, the character played by Ben Platt with Ben Platt himself – or at least the perception I have of Ben Platt, acknowledging that I don’t know him personally.

Evan Hansen is a lost soul. He is a teenager struggling to feel connected and valued in the world. He views himself as “weird” and “broken.” Despite a mother who is trying her best, he is suicidal. He is alone and disconnected, struggling to answer the existential question that every teen faces: Who Am I?

Ben Platt has been on stage since he was a young child. His parents nurtured his interest in theater and so did Camp Ramah. Here, Ben Platt maintained his interest and love of theater with roles in the camp’s Hebrew-language productions. He was color war captain. He learned to define Judaism for himself; not necessarily as his parents experienced Jewish life, but as he wanted to experience Jewish life. And perhaps most importantly, it appears that he felt valued and connected. Now, years later, audiences are watching this thriving young adult soar – proudly reprising Hebrew musical numbers on viral late night talk show clips; the Jewish community is kvelling with pride.

Ben Platt’s proud Jewish identity is not a fluke, and underscores an important principle of how the Jewish community ought to be engaging with teens. We cannot promote a Jewish identity without also fundamentally helping teens form AN identity – a confident and whole sense of self that helps them answer the question, “Who Am I”? We must help teens find their place in this world and in the company of others, Jewish and other. That is the role of Jewish education today. Jewish wisdom, connection to God (or some other definition of something larger) and community can and should be fundamental tools in promoting a sense of self. But the end goal needs to be promoting whole and healthy young adults, not just teaching text or prayer for the sake of Jewish continuity. The goal of Jewish education is to help our children thrive. As Dear Evan Hansen demonstrates – not doing so can literally be the difference between life and death.

For the educators in the theater that night, the stark juxtaposition between Ben Platt and Evan Hansen highlights for all of us the power of connection. The show reminds all of us that we are obligated to figure out how to help our teens live and embrace the important lesson shared by Ben Platt in accepting his Tony award, “To all young people watching at home, don’t waste any time trying to be like anybody else because the things that make you strange are the things that make you powerful.”

Each of our communities has an Evan, and a Ben within its midst. What are we doing to help each of them to not just chose life, but to thrive?

Susan Holzman Wachsstock is Managing Director of Teen Engagement at The Jewish Education Project. Learn more about The Jewish Education Project’s TeensThrive initiative for youth professionals.

This article is cross-posted with The Jewish Education Project.