HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Emphasizing Process over Product: Reaching Postmodern Jewish Youth

by Yonatan Yussman Issue: Nurturing Faith
TOPICS : Students Pedagogy

How can Jewish educational leaders reach teens who are often distrustful of institutionalized religion and highly individualistic, with contradictory and fluid personal identities? A recent article described a young Jewish girl as “a hetero, eco-feminist, vegan, Jewish, history major.” Another article refers to “Grande Soy Vanilla Latte with Cinnamon, No Foam” Jews.

Many students in community Jewish high schools a version of “Sheilaism,” after Sheila, a young woman interviewed by Robert Bellah for his book Habits of the Heart who named her religion after herself. Sheila took whatever gave her a sense of spiritual identity, and added it to her spiritual toolbox; when something did not speak to her, she got rid of it.

“Sheilaism” is a vivid description of a trend that has been researched and documented in young Jews. They feel that religion is essentially an internal matter, without any feeling of external obligation from the Torah, tradition, school, synagogue, teacher, rabbi, or parent. Who are these “New Jews”? How are we supposed to nurture faith in this postmodern paradigm?

We need to know what our students believe before we can talk about how to nurture them spiritually. Perhaps the seminal study explaining these recent trends in Judaism is Arnold Eisen and Steven Cohen’s The Jew Within, which analyzes the “moderately affiliated Jews who make up the bulk of American Jewry.” The authors’ key finding is that the construction of Jewish meaning in America is now personal and private, and that communal loyalties and norms no longer shape Jewish identity as they did several decades ago.

Recent research supports this. A 2005 Reboot study (OMG! How Generation Y is Redefining Faith in the iPod Era) concludes that Generation Y “is characterized by open mindedness and tolerance, believing that people should do their own thing, even if it seems strange to others. For many, pursuing the American Dream simply means, ‘doing whatever I want’.” The study confirms that Generation Y sees religious commitment as only one possible route to find meaning in Judaism. A 2006 Reboot study (Jewish Identity and Community in a Time of Unlimited Choices) finds Generation Y Jews incredibly self-confident about their Jewish identities, but also defined by many other factors in their lives, including their social networks, geography, gender, and sexual orientation. The study reveals that young Jews feel existing Jewish institutions have become increasingly irrelevant to the way they are living their lives. These Jews tend to experience Judaism informally rather than through formal religious practice, and they do not distinguish between “American” and “Jewish” values.

Most schools currently focus on transmitting traditional Judaism and motivating their students to adopt an existing religious construct. Relatively little time is devoted to helping students develop the skills to construct their own identity, and how to sustain this process once they are in college and beyond. While teaching content knowledge, behaviors, beliefs, and skill sets is of course indispensible, schools should also devote time to teaching our students how to construct a meaningful Jewish identity. I am advocating that we focus on teaching the process of spiritual development, and not worry as much about the product of being a certain type of religious person.

To illustrate, take the example of teaching our students about keeping kosher. How can we engage them in a meaningful process of postmodern spiritual identity development on this topic? The first step in the process is to simply learn about the subject in a non-indoctrinary manner; often, knowledge and understanding are all it takes to make something meaningful.

But what happens if students learn about a ritual like kashrut, and it remains irrelevant? The second step in this process is critically analyzing exactly what they find meaningful about the ritual, and what struggles they have with it. Help them see both sides of the argument, and consider all perspectives.

The final stage in this process encourages students to move beyond simple rejection of a ritual, and to take ownership of it. How do we inject new meaning into old rituals? For example, perhaps a student will decide that vegetarianism is a way to introduce relevance, spirituality, and connection to Judaism into food consumption. Vegetarianism becomes this person’s way of keeping kosher.

As the parent of three children in a Jewish day school, and someone who has devoted his career to being a teacher and administrator in Jewish community schools, I often wonder if the type of Judaism I describe will work. I am confident that I can teach a process of meaningful identity construction and the importance of making good choices. The outcome may be different from my own Judaism, but ultimately I will be happy with whatever Jewish choices my children (both my biological ones, and my students) make. This is because I am committed to the process, and believe that my children are the next generation in an ever evolving tradition that will not only help them live purposeful lives, but will be enhanced by what they, in return, have to offer. ♦

Rabbi Yonatan Yussman, Head of Jewish Studies at The Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson Educational Campus in Las Vegas, NV, is conducting case studies of Jewish community high schools for a doctorate in educational leadership. He can be reached at yussman@gmail.com.

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Nurturing Faith

Faith is the most elusive quality to inculcate, the hardest to measure. Yet at some level, everything Jewish day schools seek to achieve depends upon it. The sense of belonging and connection that is fundamental to Jewish identity resides, at heart, in a sense of emunah, of trust and belief in something larger than ourselves. This issue considers factors that nourish Jewish faith of different kinds.

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