Helping Jewish Teens Step Into Their “Comfort Zones”
by Jonathan Hausman
During one of my graduate seminars we reviewed a book called: “The Leader Who is Hardly Known,” by Steven Simpson. Our discussion completely changed the way I think about teen and youth programming. The book is based upon the teachings of Lau Tzu, an ancient Chinese philosopher.
We all grew up hearing and teaching these phrases:
- Step out of your comfort zone!
- Try something new!
- Don’t be afraid, just try it!
Because of the seminar I concluded that these phrases are essentially asking people to be uncomfortable, with the hope that participants will learn something new and eventually be comfortable with that new experience.
From my experience, this approach does not always work well for teens. On the contrary, we need to do whatever we can to help teens feel comfortable right away, not “sometime after” the experience. Simpson discussed the concept of the “Gentle Push”– gently pushing people into new experiences, as opposed to shoving them right in. Now, when I program for teens, I always assume that everyone in the class/group, etc. is already uncomfortable, especially when presented with a new challenge or situation. So, instead of pushing teens further out of their “comfort zone”, I try to do everything I can to bring them into their comfort zone.
Before I begin a program, I ask these questions WITH the teens involved in the program:
- What do we need to do before, during, and after the program to keep the teens comfortable during this experience?
- What distractions can we eliminate right away, such as turning off cell phones?
- Is this program helping Jewish teenagers experience something new in the most comfortable way? Or are we pushing them further out of their comfort zone?
Don’t get me wrong. We need to continue to encourage Jewish teens to step into new territory and learn through new experiences, but we need to do this gently. Think of Jewish teen programming as a nature hike. Imagine yourself as a Jewish teen. You and your group of friends are on a guided hike through the woods when you come upon a creek. It’s obviously slippery, and the water is running pretty fast. You personally are not a fan of water and you’re not too excited about crossing this creek. The guide can give you two options. One, he or she can push you into the creek from behind and say: “Okay everyone. You’ve gotta cross this creek safely, so figure it out together.” Or, your guide can say: “I will cross the creek first. Then, it will be your turn. I will be on the other side waiting for you, and if you need, I will help you make decisions so you don’t slip.” This latter approach makes sense for teens because:
- The guide already demonstrated that crossing the creek can be done, instilling confidence within teens. They know the guide is there to help them, not do it for them, but help them.
- The teens crossing the creek still need to figure out how to do that together, and create new solutions. This process of doing things together with a guide to help them cross helps teens feel more comfortable as they try something new or something they were previously unfamiliar or uncomfortable with.
This approach allows teenagers to approach a new challenge more comfortably. They are stepping into their comfort zone.
I also use this approach when taking on challenging topics such as the Holocaust. Rather than diving immediately into a program involving a survivor, I try to build some group trust-building activities into the evening. Perhaps an art project in small groups so that the teens can get to know one another as they work. A project implies a goal: “Create a Judaic symbol that is meaningful to your group using the clay provided.” Note: the evening program is about the Holocaust, and the beginning activity has nothing to do with that topic, aside from the Jewish connection. I do this purposely, so as not to over-saturate the teens with the evening’s main theme. This type of activity requires cooperation and learning. It also allows for natural socialization. Participants can have fun with this project before they enter a potentially intense program. After the program, I keep the same groups together for the debrief, which makes the teens more comfortable because they already know one another from the beginning activity.
Helping teens step into their comfort zones as a way to take on new challenges and situations is a methodology that has worked for me. If you try this approach, let me know how it works for you and your teens.
Jonathan Hausman is the Director of Experiential Education at The Temple-Tifereth Israel in Beachwood, OH. He is passionate about helping teens explore their creativity and become Jewish leaders. Jon has a Master’s of Science in Experiential Education and Nonprofit Leadership from Minnesota State University – Mankato.