Jewish Teenagers Want to Engage, Just Ask Them

NEW YORK — Welcoming teens into Jewish life is both one of the most important and seemingly challenging endeavors of the Jewish community.

The rapid decline in teen engagement in Jewish life post-b’nai mitzvah is well documented and depressing. It’s also an entirely reversible trend, but only if the Jewish community approaches teen engagement in a new way — one that recognizes the whole teen and values her or him as an equal partner in creating experiences that add meaning to her or his life.

Jewish teens today are deeply thoughtful, inquisitive and ambitious. They can also be narcissistic and attached to technology. Most of today’s teens are vastly different than a generation ago, and in many ways different than a decade ago. These changes are due in large part to the central role of technology and the nearly endless opportunities for personal customization a click away.

We know this because The Jewish Education Project led major research to learn about Jewish teens from Jewish teens. We heard directly from them about their lives, their views on spirituality, their ambitions, their fears, their feelings toward friends and family, how they form their identities and more. We’ve compiled and analyzed the findings into a new report, Generation Now: Understanding and Engaging Jewish Teens Today.

The report’s insights are a wake-up call. Our community needs to work with teens to create experiences that address all aspects of their lives.

Just a few insights from Generation Now show the depth of Jewish teens today:

› Jewish teens want programs of substance that add value to some facet of their life.

› While many teens still see Judaism as a religion, many more relate to being Jewish in language commonly associated with ethnicity, culture, heritage or tribal affiliation.

› Being a minority group in the U.S. is something that many Jewish teens highly value and feel pride in, but they do not view themselves as being special for this reason. In fact, many Jewish teens enjoy involving non-Jewish friends in “Jewish activities.”

The challenge now is to take the report’s insights and have them inform our community’s approach to Jewish teen education and engagement. We must move beyond thinking about teens as passive recipients of Jewish learning experiences. Instead, we must begin designing initiatives and programs with Jewish teens, for Jewish teens.

David Bryfman, Ph.D., is the chief innovation officer at The Jewish Education Project, which is a beneficiary agency of UJA Federation of New York.

How a United Community Can Still Work Miracles

Passover is a time for family, for tradition and for festive celebration. It’s also a time to fix a paradox. While we read the haggadah earlier this week, we reflected on our past travails and miraculous redemption as a Jewish people. But if we look only at the past we risk overlooking the incredible ways in which the cycle of Jewish history continues today.

A poignant reminder of this was the clandestine final rescue and immigration to Israel, or aliyah, of 19 Yemenite Jews completed on March 20. This wasn’t the first or the last time, given the dangerous era we live in, when unified, collective action through a strong and effective federation system meant the difference between life and death for Jews in peril. In this case it was the Jewish Agency for Israel — an organization funded and governed by almost 300 Jewish community federations worldwide in partnership with the government of Israel — that took the lead, with help from Israeli intelligence and the U.S. State Department.

Our liturgy says of the Exodus, which we celebrate at Passover, that God rescued the Jewish people “with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.” When it comes to rescuing Jews from jihadist terror and Muslim sectarian war in Yemen, from discrimination in Ethiopia or from a gathering storm of anti-Jewish violence in Europe, we know it is our duty to lend our own strong hands and outstretched arms.

Thank God we have the strength, unity and Jewish independence needed to take our fate into our own hands to the extent that we can. The rescue of the Yemenite Jews is one case in point.

Which brings me to another Passover paradox: What is the meaning of the “wicked son” — the person who stands aloof from the story, separating himself from the collective — in this time of fraying Jewish unity?

To me, today’s wicked sons are the men and women who, knowingly or not, dismantle the very unity that enables the noble work of Jewish rescue to continue. If there is one lesson we need to learn from the recent Yemeni rescue, it’s the need to preserve that most at-risk Jewish value and asset: communal unity.

In the final moments of Passover, let’s remember that the work of redemption is not complete and that the work requires not only divine grace but also our own strong hands and outstretched arms.

Dr. Steven B. Nasatir is president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and an associate member of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors.

‘Traditional’ Women Not Immune to Rape

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, N..J., is no stranger to controversy. His statements have been condemned by the Orthodox Union, the Rabbinical Council of America and the Anti-Defamation League. As a former judge on the Beth Din of America, he has held some of the most prominent positions in modern Orthodoxy.

Pruzansky recently authored a blog post asserting that in many cases, women who report being raped on college campuses are leveling false allegations because they felt spurned by their romantic partners or were intoxicated at the time.

“If indeed there was a ‘rape culture’ on American campuses,” writes Pruzansky, “no intelligent woman would want to attend college. The fact that more women attend college today than men itself belies the accusation.”

Pruzansky failed to acknowledge that one in five women will report being assaulted during their time on a college campus. Rape and sexual assault are happening. While Pruzansky might want to pretend his words only apply to those engaged in the “hookup culture” or that those who adhere to “traditional morality” are immune from assault, Orthodox women might disagree.

Sarah Robinson, a Stern College alumna and a student in Yeshiva University’s graduate program in advanced Talmudic studies, boldly spoke out on the issue in The Observer, Stern’s newspaper.

“Our campus culture [at Yeshiva University] does not support victims of sexual violence,” she said. “It is immature and ignorant to think that consent doesn’t apply to students who are “shomer negiah” (someone who refrains from physical contact with members of the opposite sex.). Marital rape happens all the time. There are so many women who want to say no but don’t know how.”

Robinson added: “Rape can happen to anybody. Generally, rape occurs between two known parties. Shomer negiah doesn’t protect against rape.”

As Passover approaches, we are ready to say dayenu, enough.

On June 26, Pruzansky’s synagogue will host a daylong conference of Jewish educators with participants from more than 30 Orthodox yeshivas, day schools, publishers, youth groups and synagogues.

The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance is asking those attending to make clear that their sponsorship and participation is contingent on Pruzansky not speaking at the conference. We are asking people to reach out to partnering organizations with which they are affiliated.

Pruzansky’s insensitivity and failure to understand the violent and vicious nature of rape, confusing it with unsatisfying sex and “unrequited love,” indicates he should not be in a position to preach about values we want to pass on to our children.

Sharon Weiss-Greenberg is executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.

Criticism Against Israel Amazingly Disproportionate

This year marks the 100th anniversary of one of the bloodiest and most protracted battles in modern history — the Battle of Verdun. In February 1916, a year and a half after the beginning of World War I, in an effort to break a stalemate, the German armies launched an attack on French positions at Verdun, in the northeast corner of France, where the two nations’ forces faced each other along miles of trenches.

At the end of 10 months of unremitting carnage, the battle came to an end. Evenly matched, neither army accomplished much of anything. When the battle ended, the front had barely moved. More than 500,000 young men lay dead. Instead of either side achieving a decisive victory at this epic battle, the war would grind on for two more years, and millions more would die.

Had either army had the capability to inflict disproportionate casualties on the other, the battle might have ended, quickly and definitively, and so might have the war. Sadly, it can even be suggested that it would not really have mattered which side had won so long as the conflict had ended decisively.

Proportional warfare between implacable foes, as the terrible Battle of Verdun so clearly illustrates, simply postpones the inevitable — ultimate victory or defeat by one of the combatants — and does so at enormous cost.

It is currently popular to cry that the response to attacks should not be disproportionate. That position, however, is not only unrealistic, it is dangerous. When it is clear that the aggressor will not stop at anything short of destroying its target, then the targeted nation must simply and as quickly as possible put an end to the threat by destroying its enemy.

The State of Israel faces just such an existential threat. There cannot be any doubt that if the terrorists of Hamas had the ability to do so they would annihilate Israel and its citizens.

Israel’s “mow the grass” approach to Gaza — the need to go back and reduce Hamas’ capacity to attack Israel on a periodic basis — is actually quite proportionate. The fundamental problem is that, due to its proportionality, it is not effective enough. Hamas terrorists, just like the Nazis before them, will not be deterred by restraint and caution; they must be removed.

Sometimes, regrettably, morality demands the use of force and of a great deal of force. Insistence on proportionality in defending against aggression can be disguised as an exercise in morality, but it is assuredly not that at all. Rather, it is simply a false premise, and for Israel in its confrontation with its mortal enemies, it is a very dangerous one.

Gerard Leval is a partner in the Washington office of Arent Fox LLP.

A New Kind of ‘Safety’ School

On March 31, a number of colleges announced their admissions decisions for the class of 2020. As colleges and students seek the best fit, I have suggestions for both that take account of rising campus anti-Semitism.

For those who haven’t been watching, anti-Semitism is back in fashion at an increasing number of American universities. Some of it takes the form of “traditional” anti-Semitism. In other cases, it appears in the guise of anti-Zionism.

Drawing swastikas on fraternity houses, impugning the qualifications and loyalty of Jewish student-government candidates, promoting anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in the classroom, hounding professors who write Facebook posts supporting Israel against Hamas, shouting down scheduled speakers supporting the right of Israel to exist, demanding a (non-Israel-related) speaker withdraw on the grounds that Hillel co-sponsored her talk, all seem part of the new normal.

These events aren’t happening in the backwaters, but at prominent schools, and the dishonor roll gets longer every month.

By contrast, several American colleges have worked hard in the last 15 years to raise their rankings by luring Jewish students. Impressed by Jews’ reputation for intellectual vitality or simply seeking “diversity” and a national reputation, schools such as Southern Methodist University, Texas Christian University, Vanderbilt University, Washington and Lee University, Case Western Reserve University, Franklin and Marshall College and Susquehanna University set about making their campuses more attractive to prospective Jewish applicants.

To make themselves more appealing, the schools have adopted strategies such as creating Jewish studies departments with endowed professorships, setting up Hillel programs and offering kosher meal plans.

Recent events have offered schools that want to attract more Jewish students a simple tool they can use to increase their appeal: adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward anti-Semitic hostility, whether it is in the guise of Jew-hatred, anti-Jewish conspiracy theories or of demonizing, delegitimizing or applying a double standard to Israel (the three Ds of the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism). Treat swastika-incidents with the seriousness they deserve. Stand up firmly and promptly for Jewish students whose qualifications are challenged on the basis of their religion. Sanction faculty who teach anti-Semitism. Feel free to advertise the hospitable climate you maintain for Jewish students. Eventually, they will notice.

The resurgence of anti-Semitism is a sad reality that Jewish students need to face. Hopefully, adding concern about anti-Semitism to the college shopping list will create pressure and incentives for schools tolerating anti-Semitism to clean up their act. Meanwhile, schools that welcome Jews and Jews looking for a welcoming environment have a common interest.

Johanna Markind writes about the Middle East and anti-Semitism for various outlets.

Passover a Reminder to Live a Life of Purpose

ftv_KasichJohnI’ve had the wonderful privilege of meeting thousands of people from all different faith backgrounds out on the campaign trail. It’s been both a humbling and awe-inspiring experience.

At every event, I try to convey that I have a realistic plan to get people back to work and keep our country safe. But it’s even more important that I share this simple message: The Lord made you special, and He has a plan for your life that’s bigger than you.

I’ve seen this truth lived out again and again in the Jewish community, and in this time around Passover, I’m reminded that God uses ordinary people to show mercy and justice to those who live in the shadows.

I recently visited Shema  Kolainu, a school in Brooklyn, N.Y., where children know they’re cared about and  respected. This unique school offers an environment that nurtures young Orthodox boys and girls who have autism and other special learning  challenges.

During Passover, there is no better way to celebrate the freedom that God brings than to offer up our talents for His purposes.

 

The Jewish tradition, which brings such great strength to America, teaches from an early age to live life dedicated to helping others. You learn to be the hands and feet of a God who hears the cries of those who suffer like he heard the cries of His people when they suffered in Egypt. Passover commemorates when the Jewish people escaped slavery in Egypt and celebrates the exodus of God’s people to a life of  freedom in the Promised Land.

In New York and in my home state of Ohio, I’ve met so many Jewish people who choose to live their lives in pursuit of helping the hungry, the poor, the sick and other souls who are suffering.

As a Christian, I worship the same God who brought the Jewish people out of bondage. I worship the God who hears the cries of people who are hurting, the God who commands us to help each other.

As governor of Ohio, I’m in a position where I can lead the state’s effort to prevent human trafficking and help victims  rebuild their lives. We’ve been able to expand community-based treatment for the mentally ill and drug addicted. We’ve made sure that Ohio health  insurance plans cover autism treatment.

In your own life, answering the cries of the hurting will look different than mine. Maybe you’re a nurse who spends a little extra time comforting a family who’s just  received bad news. Maybe you’re a teacher who spends your own money to buy supplies for a student whose family can’t afford them. Maybe you’re a business executive who chooses to donate time and  resources to the community rather than pocket extra profit. Whatever your situation, you have the opportunity to bless people in ways you may not even realize and, in doing so, fulfill God’s purpose for your life.

I left Shema Kolainu with more than the beautiful artwork students made for me. I left with a deeper appreciation for the Jewish life, lived in community for a greater purpose. During Passover, there  is no better way to celebrate the freedom that God brings than to offer up our talents for His purposes. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, God calls us to “set the oppressed free”  and “loosen the cords of injustice.”  I hope that as you commemorate Passover this week, you experience the love and grace of the God who brings freedom.

John Kasich is the governor of Ohio and a Republican candidate for president.

Fighting Oppression, Inequality and Injustice on Passover

(Renee Jones Schneider/Minneapolis Star Tribune via ZUMA Wire)

(Renee Jones Schneider/Minneapolis Star Tribune via ZUMA Wire)

I didn’t grow up celebrating Pesach. But over the years, I’ve attended seders where I was inspired by the remarkable story told in the haggadah — a tale of a people who, sustained by fortitude and faith, escaped slavery and reached their freedom.

As Jewish people around the world prepare for this festival,  I wanted to offer a few of  my own thoughts on ancient lessons that still hold wisdom for today’s world.

The first is the importance of religious freedom. The book of Exodus recalls how the Pharaoh denied the Israelites the right to worship as they chose. Today, there are new threats to religious liberty and an alarming rise in anti-Semitism. In many parts of Europe, we’ve seen synagogues vandalized and gravesites desecrated.  International efforts to malign and isolate the Jewish people — like the alarming BDS movement — are gaining steam.

We must confront these forces of intolerance. As New York’s senator, I sponsored laws to support restitution for victims of the Holocaust. And I joined with the Helsinki Commission to help protect and preserve Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe.

As secretary of state, I stood up for oppressed religious  minorities in China, Iran and around the world. If I’m fortunate enough to be elected president, I would ensure that America continues to call out and stand up to anti-Semitism. And just as Jews have always stood up for other communities, we must push back on the  rising trend of anti-religious sentiment in any form.

For the security  of Israel and the world, we need America to remain a respected global leader and be ready and able  to block any international  effort to isolate  or attack Israel.

 

The second lesson is the  importance of caring for one another. After a hasty departure from Egypt, as the Israelites wandered for 40 long years in the Sinai, they developed a covenant with God and each other, so that no one in future generations would be left out or left behind.

I believe that same sort of social contract exists in America. We must fight any effort to weaken or privatize Medicare and Social Security, and we must finally expand benefits for widows. We must improve housing for low-income families; at their best, public and affordable housing gives families a chance to get back on their feet, afford other essentials and give their kids a safe and healthy place to grow up. We should provide $25 billion to build more affordable housing, and up to $10,000 in down-payment assistance for families looking to buy their first home.

The third and most important lesson of the book of  Exodus comes at the end. So that they would never again be subjugated, the Jewish people are set to arrive at their own homeland. I’ve proudly stood with the State of Israel for my entire career, making sure it  always has the resources it needs to maintain its qualitative military edge. I also worked to  ensure funding for the Iron Dome missile defense system and saw its effectiveness firsthand when I worked with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to negotiate a cease-fire in Gaza. Since its installation, this technology has saved countless lives.

Protecting allies and partners like Israel is one of the most solemn duties of any commander-in-chief. Yet others in this race suggest we must remain neutral in order to  negotiate. But Israel’s safety is simply non-negotiable. And it would be a grave mistake for the United States to cede the mantle of leadership in the peace process to anyone else.  For the security of Israel and the world we need America to remain a respected global leader and be ready and able to block any international  effort to isolate or attack Israel.

There’s one final lesson in the story of the Exodus: the  reminder to keep telling the story. To connect the past with the present, participants in every seder are taught to imagine that they themselves were still enslaved in Egypt.

In today’s world, many don’t have to imagine. Every year, more than 20 million people are trafficked or sold into slavery by modern-day despots and Pharaohs. In my travels as secretary of state, I met many who have escaped the contemporary forms of enslavement that continue to plague our planet. And I believe that our shared traditions — Jewish and American — give us a moral  obligation to bring help and hope to those in need.

At a trafficking shelter in Kolkata, India, I met remarkable women and girls who had suffered horrible abuses and were getting their lives back on track. I’ll never forget meeting one young girl who was born into slavery in a brothel but managed to escape with her mother. It would never be easy, but with the help of others, they were finally out of harm’s way and able to reach for their God-given potential.

This Pesach, let’s continue fighting all forms of oppression, inequality and injustice.  Let’s take a page from Moses and Aaron and speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. And let’s never forget to keep drawing attention to the plight of millions of people still in need of their own form of deliverance.

They are out there, waiting for us.

Hillary Clinton, a former U.S.  secretary of state and senator from New York, is a Democratic candidate for president.

Conversions Ruling Is Israeli Religious Freedom Victory

The Israeli Supreme Court’s recent landmark ruling on conversion is a truly historic decision — for Israeli and American Jewry.

While the case only concerns a few individuals, the general rules and unequivocal language have wide significance for both Israeli and American Jewry. The ruling represents another blow to the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on religious affairs; it strengthens a pluralistic approach to Judaism; and it upholds the principles of religious freedom and the rule of law.

In the narrowest sense, the ruling affirmed that Orthodox conversions taking place in Israel outside the official framework of the Chief Rabbinate are considered legitimate for the purposes of allowing an individual to become an Israeli citizen under the Law of Return. But everyone understands that it paves the road for further recognition of modern Orthodox and Reform/ Conservative conversions. It also reaffirms that converts to Judaism, whether converted in the Diaspora or in Israel, are equally eligible to enjoy aliyah rights under the Law of Return.

That would explain the all-out, immediate assault on the decision by the Chief Rabbinate and Orthodox politicians, who are now demanding legislation that would undo it.

Deputy Minister of Health Yaacov Litzman and Knesset member Moshe Gafni, leaders of the Ashkenazi Haredi Orthodox party United Torah Judaism, responded immediately to the decision.

“We will not allow for the Justices of the Supreme Court to decide who will be accepted as a Jew in Israel, against the Jewish tradition throughout the ages,” they said.

Those in Israel and the Diaspora who support pluralism shouldn’t celebrate just yet. As significant as the ruling is, it is limited only to civil aspects. It does not infringe upon the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over marriage and divorce.

Until freedom of marriage is legislated — allowing Jews in Israel to marry without the literal blessing of the Chief Rabbinate — these converts and many others, including all non-Orthodox converts from the United States and elsewhere, will continue to be treated as second-class Jews and second-class citizens, denied the basic civil right of marriage.

The time is now, in Israel and the Diaspora, to build on the court’s decision. In addition to safeguarding the court from attempted castration by its Haredi opponents, we need to call on Israel to move forward and ensure that converts to Judaism not only enjoy civil recognition, but also the right to legally marry and enjoy the full dignity of their Jewish identity.

Rabbi Uri Regev heads Hiddush- Freedom of Religion for Israel, a transdenominational, nonpartisan Israel-Diaspora partnership for religious freedom and equality.

Trump’s AIPAC Speech Brings Respect Within

ftv_weinblattstuartThere was a great deal of buzz and discussion at this year’s annual AIPAC conference about what to do when Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump showed up. The controversy centered on whether it was right to invite him or not in light of all the insidious comments and disparaging remarks about minorities he has made. People questioned if AIPAC was making a statement by inviting him, and if so, was it appropriate to do so?

On the one hand, the mandate of AIPAC is bipartisan, and the organization does not take a position on issues unrelated to its primary mission, which is to strengthen the Israel-American relationship. On the other hand, the circumstances were a bit different, because there were those who felt a Jewish group has a responsibility not to be seen as condoning or giving a platform to someone who has espoused such hateful bigoted and divisive statements. As we all know by now, he was invited to speak.

Now the next dilemma for rabbis and individuals attending the conference was a personal one: to attend or boycott the speech. I heard from some congregants and friends on both sides of the issue. And I was amazed that regardless of who I spoke with, and regardless of what their personal position was, each expressed respect for the other side.

When I spoke privately to leaders of AIPAC, expecting to hear from them why I should not walk out, they responded with a courteous, “You need to do what you think is right.” And when I sought to understand the other side, and spoke with rabbis who were organizing the protest, and expected them to try to encourage and pull me to their side, they responded in a similar fashion, and said, “This is what I am doing, but I cannot tell you what to do.” Each of the people I spoke with went on to say that they understood the dilemma and appreciated the position of those who disagreed with them.

Granted I did not speak with everyone involved in the discussions, but I was genuinely surprised and pleased to see what could be a model for discourse in the Jewish community when disagreeing on issues of conscience. Although I chose to stay, I did not stand or applaud his comments. It was my small protest of showing how I feel about the way in which he has pursued the highest office in the country and to show respect for the two opposing views about how to treat a divisive figure — by not allowing him to divide us.

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt is the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac.

Join the Conversation

ftv_Herman,Barak_NEW_40816Last year, I was honored to be accepted as a Schusterman Fellow through the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. This international leadership development program is  designed for individuals who are committed to growing their  capacity to exercise leadership in the Jewish sector. The foundation invests significant  resources in their fellows with the goal of tackling weak  organizational structures and  addressing the long-term needs of the Jewish people.

Early on, I determined that for me this fellowship needed to be about community organizing, long-term strategic thinking of the JCC and how to lead and supervise effectively. As CEO, I am consumed with being fiscally responsible, goal centered, having the right staff and creating great JCC experiences.  I wanted to step outside these daily concerns and think more strategically about Jewish identity. Working with an  executive coach (funded by the Fellowship), I was able  to identify one of my major areas of focus. I realized that  I wanted to think bigger  about the role the JCC can  have in strengthening Jewish  communal life.

I asked myself the following hard questions: Are we inspiring people to live and understand Jewish values? Are we fostering more meaningful connections with Israel? Are we celebrating Jewish holidays effectively?  Is there an opportunity to leverage resources as a Jewish community to be an even more meaningful community? What role can the JCC have in tackling negative trends in American Jewish life? By being a Jewish organization that  unequivocally welcomes the non-Jewish community, are we strengthening relationships between Jews and non-Jews?

Working with our board of directors and professional staff, I have begun to deeply explore how to effectively tackle these questions.

What type of Jewish lives do Jewish people want to live in 2016? How can we help them?

It is time to leverage our communal assets and find relevant ways to provide Jewish education and immersive  experiences.  As we increase our partnerships with synagogues, Associated agencies, Jewish day schools, Jewish  organizations and others who support our mission, we can become an even more collaborative Jewish community that strengthens Jewish identity by adding more meaning to people’s lives.

Tell us what you think. What ideas do you have for enhancing Jewish meaning at the J? Please email them to info@jcc.org.  Stay tuned for updates on new programs and services that will enable the J to enhance Jewish engagement in Baltimore for years to come.

Barak Hermann is CEO and president of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore.