By Darren Schwartz

Darren Schwartz

NEW YORK — In my last column I identified a major challenge in Jewish teen engagement the stems from a disconnect in the values and traditions associated with bar/bat mitzvah. The ceremony that symbolizes a child’s commitment to live a Jewish life relies on an implicit notion that he or she will know how to do it.  This is not a judgment on Jewish education, nor the values and traditions imparted by families. It is a recognition of a challenge in preparing b’nai mitzvah students for their next chapter of their Jewish journey, one of self-exploration and solidifying a foundation of Jewish identity.

Imagine for a moment that you are a soon-to-be bar/bat mitzvah. Your primary connection to the Jewish community at this point has been one of formal Jewish education. Whether it is Jewish day school or Sunday school, you have spent many years learning customs, traditions and Hebrew that ultimately lead you to the bima for this coming of age ceremony. You may have participated in some informal experiences like Jewish summer camp but other than that you are unfamiliar with the rest of the community. When you participate in programs or at school, you are generally led by an adult and have little influence over what you learn or how you learn it. You are a participant or a learner.

This landscape completely changes in high school. Programming and experiences take on a new shape as one of the hallmarks for teen engagement involves the inclusion of teen input and leadership. Opportunities become available within institutions that were not previously accessible and independent groups take shape around coffee shops and high school clubs. Specialized programs create new intersections for teens with different interests and allow for varying types of expression.

What does this look like in San Diego? If you are a(n):

Surfer – You can join Rabbi Zevi New’s Resurf program where you can enjoy the ocean and do some good for at-risk youth.

Athlete – You can join the JCC Maccabi team and play in the “Jewish Olympics” against other Jewish athletes from across the country.

Musician – You can join the Kavannah Rock Band at Temple Solel or simply go to one of the Jam nights.

Traveler – You can join Mitzvah Corp and travel around the world to see new lands and perform acts of loving kindness.

Entrepreneur – You can join Eitnamim and develop innovative solutions and technologies to solve real world challenges while connecting to Israel and learning about Israeli social innovation.

These are just a few examples of how teens can choose to continue to explore their Jewish identity and find an individualized resonance.

The study I referenced last week, Effective Strategies for Educating and Engaging Teens emphasizes the importance of this particular window of identity formation for adolescence:

Efforts to engage teens are predicated on the fundamental recognition of the importance of this life stage. Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson famously conceptualized adolescence as a significant period when individuals struggle to define their identity in the face of role confusion. During this particularly malleable stage, religion can potentially play a positive role in teens’ lives.” (2013, Jim Joseph Foundation. Effective Strategies for Educating and Engaging Teens)

During this period of time, motivators begin to change as a product of environment and spheres of influence:

Adolescence presents a unique opportunity for the Jewish community. Unlike emerging adulthood (a life stage that is typically characterized by years of transience), adolescence more often occurs in a single locale. School, where teens spend most of their waking hours, strongly dominates teens’ daily lives. Consequently, adolescence is a time “when children move out from the primary sway of their families to the influence of peer groups,” according to Sylvia Barack Fishman. Yet teens’ lives also remain strongly influenced by their parents and the other adult role models with whom they connect through school, summer programs, extracurriculars and family.” (2013, Jim Joseph Foundation. Effective Strategies for Educating and Engaging Teens)

An ancient African proverb touts that “It takes a village to raise a child.” However, I once heard somebody say “Yet we hardly ever ask what it takes to create the village.” During such pivotal moment in time where identity formation is highly malleable, how do we as a “village” help teens navigate the diverse landscape of Jewish teen opportunities?

The question becomes incredibly complicated and cumbersome when looking at how our Jewish community is structured. Is it the job of synagogue educators and rabbis to make sure teen’s find connection anywhere within the Jewish community or should they dedicate their limited resources to ensuring teens find connection within their walls? The former requires a significant investment in fact finding and staying informed while the latter depends on creating engagement opportunities that can attract teens with diverse needs and interests – an extremely difficult if not impossible task.

As we learned from the quote above, parents still have significant influence as do peer groups. What resources or tools do they have to serve as effective guides? Unfortunately, we see both sets of influencers are impaired by not knowing what they don’t know. This is largely due to a significant shift in the number of opportunities for high school teens that are not available in middle school. There are no community orientations that allow families to see all that is available. If parents and peers do know about specific opportunities it is generally connected to organizations they are associated with independently of their children or benefiting from an older sibling/child.

This is the first major challenge the San Diego Jewish Teen Initiative will be taking on for the coming school year. We believe that it is our responsibility to create the “village” that serves Jewish teens. This summer we are building a website that will allow our community to connect teens to meaningful experiences based on their interests. It will connect them based on their interest in areas like sports, travel, entrepreneurship, volunteerism etc. It will give the community an opportunity to see a calendar of opportunities as well as access to special scholarships and internships. We will be actively working to eliminate “I didn’t know” as an excuse for not being involved and by doing so, truly understanding the value and relevance of our community’s teen offerings.

Stay tuned for the new website. To be placed on the notification list for the launch of this platform, please email me at

Darren Schwartz, now attending a conference in New York, is the director of the San Diego Jewish Teen Initiative. To contact Darren about opportunities for Jewish teens or in response to this article, please email*

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