The social action network

The social action network

When it comes to attracting Jewish teens, educators are banking on service learning

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Earlier this year, the JCC of Central New Jersey in Scotch Plains converted its teen lounge into an art studio for its camp. The teens just weren’t using it, and the space “has not really been missed,” according to Lindsay Napchen, JCC teen services director.

“I think the days when teens came to the lounge to ‘hang out’ for the night are gone,” she said. “Teens are much more driven toward service-based programming.” In fact, 40-50 teens gather monthly at the JCC as part of the Teen Action Service Corps for discussion and programs — and to perform 30-40 hours per year of community service.

Meanwhile, on July 15, over 40 people — many of them teens — showed up at the Jewish Relief Agency, based at the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, and in 15 minutes had packed and loaded 50 boxes of food and were heading out to deliver them to the needy throughout Morris and Essex counties.

“It feels good to help,” said Aaron Nessel of Randolph, a student at Golda Och Academy in West Orange who’s been volunteering with JRA since the fall. “There are a lot of people in need out here. The fact that we get to do it hands-on and actually deliver food to them makes it feel more rewarding.”

And at the Super Sunday event held on the Aidekman campus in Whippany last December, more than 150 teens and college students from different organizations turned out to make calls to potential donors, yielding more gifts completed by teens in the fund-raiser’s history.

Jewish programs all across the area are adapting to the changing tastes of today’s teens. Chief among these are activities that fall under the rubric of Jewish service learning, in an earlier time, known simply as volunteering. Today, it has morphed into a model incorporating hands-on work, learning, and reflection. Participants study Jewish texts to understand the Jewish values at the heart of a particular mitzva. After performing it, they explore together the impact it has had on them and their communities.

While some teen-focused programs are replacing a combination of formal learning and pure “hanging out” with social action, others are holding on to what they have and adding service learning programs to their schedules. The trend is finding its way into obvious places like religious schools and JCCs, but even into summer camp programs; Young Judaea’s teen leadership camp, Tel Yehuda, is offering an alternative summer break program this year for the first time, modeled on the alternative winter break of volunteer service.

‘Strengthening identity’

“This is a very idealistic generation,” said Jon Rosenberg, CEO of Repair the World, a national organization dedicated to youth service based in Jewish values. According to the Montclair resident, there’s a significant effort on the part of teens nationally to be involved in service and social action. Although the figures vary from state to state, he said, from 2008 to 2010, on average 25 percent of teens were volunteering; in New Jersey, 26.7 percent. Although the studies focus on all teens, not just Jewish teens, Rosenberg said he believes Jewish teens’ rates of volunteering is reflected in the whole. The numbers, he said, suggest an urgency for Jewish educators. “If we are not creating opportunities for them to be do-gooders in the Jewish world, they will do it elsewhere. That would be a missed opportunity.”

Stacey David, education director at the Summit Jewish Community Center, a Conservative synagogue, said its teen program has evolved from a discussion-based group to a service learning model. “My number one goal is to keep kids involved beyond b’nei mitzva,” she said. The program includes mini-courses of three-four sessions each, during which students explore Jewish topics in tikun olam, including environment, poverty, genocide, domestic violence, Israel, human trafficking, and the elderly. That is followed by such hands-on activities as visiting residents of a local nursing center, establishing a recycling program at the synagogue, working with organizations helping the homeless, sending gifts and cards to Israeli soldiers, and advocating for Israel. “Social action is very ‘in’ right now,” said David. “It has deep roots in Jewish values, and if that is the way I can keep kids strengthening their Jewish identity and involved in the Jewish community — then that’s how I will do it.”

A similar model has been implemented for 11th- and 12th-graders at Temple Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation in Livingston. There, students choose the focus and Rabbi Dan Dorsch, who runs the program, brings the text. Last year, they focused on hunger, studying Jewish texts, and then volunteering at two food banks.

According to Rosenberg, this model of teens having a voice in the design of the program is the next wave. “It helps to cultivate teen leadership. We are going to be seeing more of this in the next five years.”

Robert Lichtman, director of the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, an agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest based on the Aidekman campus, saw this trend emerging several years ago. He hired a full-time Jewish service learning coordinator — a first for an organization not entirely devoted to service learning. He views social action as “a new direction” for teen programming. “When the Partnership was created six years ago, one of the key things that sparked its creation was engaging teens. And community service clearly engages them. Our job is to make it holy — to make it Jewish, to put it in a Jewish context.”

The numbers speak for themselves. Whereas the Partnership’s straightforward learning programs attracts 120-150 kids a year, one-day community volunteer programs like JServe can attract 300-400 teens. Even in the summer, Mitzvah Mania, a two-week program in August offering a different community service project every day, is expected to attract a few dozen teens. Numbers have jumped this summer from the past few years, when there were five-seven teens participating in each project.

The “more is better” approach has been adopted at several religious schools, including Congregation Beth El in South Orange and Shomrei Emunah in Montclair. While Beth El offers a choice of three separate options (service learning, discussion-based programming, and leadership training through serving as a classroom assistant), Shomrei Emunah offers a single option that changes from session to session (one night might be social action, the next pizza with the rabbi, the third a discussion). “I believe that a multifaceted approach to teen engagement is necessary to reach Jewish teens at different places on their Jewish journeys,” said Sherri Morris, director of education at Beth El.

‘Deepen the impact’

While many local education professionals place the explosion of interest in social action and Jewish service learning at anywhere from three to seven years ago, Rosenberg said teen volunteering actually began rising much earlier — in the early 1990s.

Some see the trend as driven by high school community service requirements, the pressure of college applications, and teens’ highly structured lives.

Rabbi Shmuel Greene, director of teen initiatives at the Partnership, explained, “Teens are more and more programmed. They have no free time for hanging out. Everything they do is very thought out, and it’s always about getting into college.”

Napchen, from the Central JCC, added, “There is a ton of pressure and competition for high school students approaching the college application process. With such packed schedules, teens need to pick and choose where they can focus their involvement. They feel like their time is better spent with a program that can help with the application process.”

Lichtman points to a confluence of factors, including parental influence, general media messages stressing the importance of global awareness and “giving back,” and current educational practices. For Reform Jews especially, tikun olam — literally, repairing the world — is at the center of the movement’s philosophy and programming. “If you had to come up with a tagline for the Reform movement today, it would be tikun olam,” Lichtman said. And educationally, many religious schools and secular schools have embraced the experiential education model over strict frontal learning. As Rosenberg put it, “Service learning is a form of experiential education that marries idealism and a desire to make a change with effective models of Jewish learning. When programs are well designed they really deepen the impact of the action.”

The result? “Jewish educators are putting the pieces together. And that’s why Jewish service learning has become so important,” said Lichtman.

At Temple B’nai Jeshurun, a Reform congregation in Short Hills, all the students from kindergarten through 12th grade undertake social action projects mixed with formal learning. “From a practical perspective, it’s nice to do and it looks good when it comes to getting into college; I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t a component,” said TBJ youth educator Sarah Silversten.

But, when it comes to the younger children, there is no such motivation. “Kids want to volunteer. It speaks to them. It resonates with them.

“If you ask kids what being Jewish means, I highly doubt they will say they are developing a relationship with God,” said Silversten. “But doing tikun olam speaks to the values of Judaism they understand.”

‘A safe haven’

Of course, not everyone has turned to Jewish service learning and social action as a panacea for the seeming problem of youth engagement. At Adath Shalom in Morris Plains, one example of many, social programming still seems to offer what teens are looking for. The Conservative synagogue has one of the most successful United Synagogue Youth chapters in the area. “They really like the organized youth group,” said Marla Katz, head of youth programming. “We tried social action, but it didn’t work. The first year we had maybe eight kids, the second we were down to two.”

But, Katz said, 50 kids attend a typical USY social event (to be fair, USY does include a social action component). The one thing her kids have in common with everyone else? “They do not want to be in a classroom even if the educators and the classes are cool and sexy,” she said.

Back at the Scotch Plains JCC, an agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, Napchen is still amazed at the numbers of teens drawn to her program. Although the youth lounge is gone, she can get 50 kids applying for the teen leadership program, 30 kids helping out at Super Sunday, and 20 volunteering at “Family Fun Fest,” an annual spring fund-raiser.

“I’ve never had such a large concentrated level of participation among high school students,” Napchen said. “I’ve tried running purely social programs and events, and have found that my participation has been greater when offering community service hours for the programs.”

She does look for opportunities to offer the social and relaxation time she feels young people so desperately need. “I want them to enjoy their time spent in the JCC with their JCC friends. One of my favorite moments was during Come ALIVE in the Community — our huge teen community service event in April — when I stumbled across a group of 15 or so teens sitting together in the corner of a hallway laughing together after they had finished their project.

“I didn’t mind that they weren’t doing something productive because they were together, in the JCC, having fun with each other. To me, that was a success.”

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