The Value of Our Teens’ Time
For a unique teen perspective on the pressure to achieve, check out “School” a documentary made by Sophia Anderson, Beth Am teen and the inspiration for this article.
This is the paradox of youth professionals everywhere:
We want to help our teens de-stress from their very busy lives by participating in enriching and restoring activities at their synagogue. How do we get them here without making their lives busier or adding more to their already over-programmed schedules? Is that even possible?
We are all grappling with this question. We work with a high achieving population who start building their resumes from a young age. How can we be a supportive force in the lives of our teens as they navigate the pressure to achieve? And, how can we build relationships at the synagogue when teens aren’t physically here?
Five years ago, the leadership of Congregation Beth Am realized that the once-strong community high school program was no longer a draw for teens, which precipitated concern about declining engagement overall. Since then, we have been reimagining our teen programming with a guiding purpose. We formed a Teen Task Force–with actual teens, parents, clergy and educators—to craft a vision for youth programming at Congregation Beth Am. The vision they came up with has four pillars:
- Teens have a voice.
- Teens build relationships with peers and staff members and feel a part of the Beth Am community.
- Teens build their Jewish identity.
- Teens have a sanctuary away from the pressures of Silicon Valley.
In my role as Director of Teen Engagement, I inherited this vision as a guide in trying to answer the question: How do we ensure that we are not part of the problem but rather that we are creating solutions for and with our teens?
When I arrived at this new position last summer, I had the awesome and foreboding task of executing the four pillars of the Task Force’s vision. I started by meeting with as many teens one-on-one or in small groups as I could. If our teens are supposed to have a voice, then I figure it is my job to be the ears that listen to it. I asked them:
- What do you love about your Jewish experience at Beth Am?
- What do you love about your life?
- What are you hoping to do next at Beth Am?
I received a variety of answers, but to my great surprise the answer that came up the most consistently was that our teens wanted a serious Torah study class just for them. I would have never thought of that on my own. When our senior rabbi, Rabbi Janet Marder, heard that our teens were thirsting for this, she stepped up to teach the class. Thirty students registered and we were off and running. This success was a powerful first example for us in understanding how to design for our teens.
Have I solved the paradox? Of course not. But we have, perhaps, glimpsed a first step. At Beth Am, we’ve hit upon a key element that works for us: Respect our teens, and honor their busy schedules by offering the highest quality possible. We can’t expect them to have time for everything we offer or ask of them, but we can offer the highest quality, every time. We are uniquely positioned in synagogues to offer something they can’t get on their own, and we have to design with that in mind.
As the youth professional, I work to be a cheerleader for every young person, both in what they are doing at the synagogue and also beyond it whenever I can. I listen closely to them and try my best to understand their whole identity, not just the Jewish pieces of it. I firmly believe they will have a positive relationship with Judaism if they have a positive relationship with us.
My biggest advice as a youth professional is this: We work for valuable, amazing teens exactly as they are today, not who they are going to be in ten years. We can invite and offer, rather than expect. Sometimes, too, it’s not the getting them here, but the knowing where they are that can be the most valuable. By incorporating teens into our visioning, we know that their voices are always at the center of what we do, regardless of where our teens may physically be.
Becky DePalma is the Director of Teen Engagement at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, CA. This year will be her second at Congregation Beth Am and her ninth as a youth professional in the NFTY Central West Region. She is an alumnus of HUC-JIR Certificate in Jewish Education for Adolescents & Emerging Cohort 1 where she learned many of the techniques in this article. When she’s not out for ice cream with students, she’s spending time with her almost-2-year old Danny and her spouse Sam.