As educators working to engage teens in meaningful Jewish experiences, all of us in the Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative know the facts surrounding teen angst and concerns about young people’s mental health. We wring our hands over the impact of social media on our teens, providing “connections” yet ultimately often leading to loneliness and self-loathing. We have read countless articles, watched documentaries, and spoken with mental health professionals. We brainstorm with each other about workshop ideas, potential speakers, and ways to frame the conversation through a Jewish lens.
And then we saw Dear Evan Hansen together. Along with 25 Bay Area teen educators and 50 teens, members of the Funder Collaborative sat in the intimacy of a darkened theater and watched the statistics come to life. We forced ourselves to not look away when Evan Hansen struggled to get through the first day of school while harboring a painful secret. We watched as he tried to fill the holes in his life in unhealthy ways. We shared the gut-wrenching experience of listening to the sobs and sniffles of audience members all around us. We walked out of this experience with a shared sense of empathy for both our teens and their parents — along with a renewed sense of commitment to dig our heels deeper into this complex challenge.
As members of the Funder Collaborative, each of us strives to meet the needs of our unique communities. While there are shared goals and measures of success, the on-the-ground work in each community looks and feels quite different, as one would expect from 10 cities of various sizes and cultures. With this experience of Dear Evan Hansen, however, the differences fell away. Sitting side by side watching the drama unfold, we were empowered knowing we are connected in the sacred work of helping teens feel a sense of belonging.
Margie Bogdanow, Senior Consultant, Teen Education and Engagement in Boston, expressed:
The play touched on so many of the issues that we are addressing in our communities. By viewing it together we could connect to the universality of the issues. I think we all felt like it represented things happening in our communities. There are times when what we are doing (in the Funder Collaborative) feels very separate and different, and other times when it all ties together. This was one of those ties-together times.
Experiencing Dear Evan Hansen was a gift I wish I could bestow on all teen educators. One powerful element is the insight it provides into not just the lives of teens, but also of their parents. Audience members gain the valuable perspective of parents trying the best they can, aware of their inadequacies while feeling frustrated and scared. In the opening song, “Does Anybody Have a Map?” Evan’s mom captures the desperation of parents everywhere who are searching for something akin to Waze to help them navigate an unpredictable journey.
Another stumble as I’m reaching for the right thing to say
I’m kinda coming up empty
Can’t find my way to you
Does anybody have a map?
Anybody maybe happen to know how the hell to do this?
I don’t know if you can tell
But this is me just pretending to know
So where’s the map?
I need a clue
‘Cause the scary truth is
I’m flying blind
And I’m making this up as I go
It offers a strong reminder that often the role of our youth professionals includes guiding and inspiring the parents as well.
My colleague Melanie Schneider, Senior Planning Executive, Jewish Life at UJA Federation of New York, captured what many of us were feeling:
Indeed, Dear Evan Hansen was both incredible and a truly moving and enlightening experience, both professionally and personally. As the mother of young adults, with the teen years not too far back in my rear view mirror, I resonated with Evan Hanson’s portrayal of the needs and struggles of parents and teens in juggling full work and academic lives, parenting expectations, as well as the occasional fear of shame, isolation and just plain overwhelm. So while I joined my colleagues in some teary moments, and also laughed….the end result is that Evan Hanson is a piece of theater that will stay with me always and exposes a wide-spread American challenge.
Many of the Funder Collaborative communities are already immersed in addressing the challenges depicted in the show, with an emphasis on supporting the diverse adults who support our teens. Last spring, the Los Angeles Jewish Teen Initiative of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles hosted Building Resilience in Teens: A Wellness Conference for Parents and Educators. Over 200 parents, educators, and mental health professionals attended the full-day conference, which offered expert-led workshops and presentations on critical issues regarding parents, teens, and their relationships. San Francisco is hosting the February 2019 Teens Thrive Un-Conference, where, over the course of four days, diverse educators, clergy, and community stakeholders will experience workshops and keynotes from experts in the field on different angles of teen health — spiritual, emotional, mental, and sexual. Youth professionals across the communities are offered in-service programs with clinicians and experts that provide training and resources to guide their work with teens and their parents. And, inspired by the experience we shared, the Boston Teen Initiative is planning to take their educators to see Dear Evan Hansen this summer, with pre-show and post-show dialogues designed to maximize the impact.
Many communities also provide engagement opportunities for parents who are seeking strategies, practical tools, and support to know they are not alone facing the challenges of raising teens. As summer drew to a close, the Chicago Teen Initiative screened the film “Eighth Grade,” helping parents and youth professionals navigate the feelings it raised and prepare their children and themselves for the start of a new school year. In Los Angeles, our Federation offered Starting the Conversation: Talking to Your Teens about Vaping and Marijuana Use, where participants learned the current language around drug trends and gained tools to communicate effectively with their teens about the sensitive topic of substance use.
Following the convening and the Dear Evan Hansen experience, we all returned to our home communities fortified and reinvigorated. We are grateful to be able to engage in this critical, timely work and for this meaningful theater event that reminded us that we are not alone. Our 10 communities are in this together — supporting teens, parents, and ourselves.
Jessica Green is VP, Jewish Education and Engagement (former Director, Los Angeles Jewish Teen Initiative), The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles