Confronting the Religious Apathy Crisis: A Schoolwide Program for Religious Growth

Melissa Perl and Aaron Horn

“I just don’t get it,” Shira muttered and flung herself dejectedly into the chair. Prodding a bit, I tried to understand what, exactly, she didn’t get. “Judaism, the rabbis, Halakhah, everything!” she exclaimed as her cadence quickened and her pitch rose. “I just can’t relate to any of it. I don’t buy into this system!”

Shira’s religious crisis was only one in a series of events that led to the creation of the religious guidance program at Kohelet Yeshiva High School. After repeated conversations with disheartened students and discouraged faculty, it seemed as though more and more students were floundering as they mindlessly went through the motions of a religious lifestyle and yet failed to find meaning. Frustrated with Judaism and disillusioned with religion, these students were struggling with deep questions while longing to connect to someone and something beyond themselves.

The Research

Rather than rely on our own instinctive responses to this problem or on solutions we had seen others try, we turned instead to the research literature on religious development in adolescents in the hope of shedding light on the developmental, cognitive and emotional factors at the core of the issue. In 2005, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist published the results of their National Survey on Youth and Religion ( The study aimed to measure what young Americans thought about religion, how they practiced their faith, and to what degree parents, peers, religious institutions and other factors influenced their beliefs. This report found that more than 70% of American teens were apathetic to organized religion and relegated it to “benign whateverism.”

Smith and Lundquist were surprised that, despite their dislike of religion, the majority of teenagers nonetheless believed that there is a God who created the world and who watches over mankind. In the mind of these adolescents, this God wants people to be kind and to feel good but neither concerns Himself with the day-to-day actions of man nor prescribes specific actions for man to do. Smith and Lundquist coined the term “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” to encapsulate this perspective. They explained that a “moralistic” religion is one that expects man to be honest, kind, ethical and responsible, and a “therapeutic” religion focuses more on how man can feel good than on how man can avoid sin. Unlike the deism of the 18th century that posited a Creator who does not interact with the natural world, deism in this context suggests that God has the ability to intervene if mankind wants His help but that He does not make demands on people in return.

The authors found that the majority of adolescents in America believe that there is a God who wants them to be moral and happy but who does not care about anything else that they do as long as they do not hurt other people. Although we didn’t feel that 70% of our students embraced the notion of Moral Therapeutic Deism, upon reflection we realized that these findings do mirror a growing trend in the day school system. With each passing year, there seem to be more students who articulate the notion that they do not believe that God actually cares about whether they follow Halakhah as long as they are moral and ethical people. We wondered whether a better understanding of this research could help us to gain insight into the thoughts and feelings of the students who seemed the most disillusioned.

Whereas the majority of respondents in the survey viewed religion apathetically, the research also indicated that there were a small percentage of adolescents who did, in fact, possess what was termed a “high faith commitment.” These individuals believed in a more traditional view of God and found organized religion to be meaningful. Further research attempted to tease out what was different about these teenagers and what factors contributed to their more conventional viewpoint. Identifying these factors gave us critical direction to help our students who were currently lost and disengaged. The data indicated that the adolescents who were most likely to practice their religion and embrace its teachings were also most likely to have the following:

Parent role models. Those adolescents who had parents who modeled religious beliefs and actions were most likely to possess a high faith commitment.

Non-parental adult role models. Even absent parental role models, relationships with other adult role models supportive of their religious development resulted in a high likelihood that they would attain a strong faith commitment.

Connection to Text and Prayer. The next most significant factor in creating high faith commitment was the degree to which teenagers had positive experiences with prayer and with the learning of sacred texts during adolescence.

Personal convictions and sense of self. If a teenager could articulate a “creed to believe,” consider himself to be part of a community, and feel as though he has a religious mission or purpose in life, he too is more likely to follow the path of those with a high faith commitment.

There was a striking similarity between Smith and Lundquist’s findings across adolescents of all religions and our anecdotal experiences in Modern Orthodox high schools. While there are clearly a number of elements at play in helping students develop a high faith commitment, some of which are beyond the scope of what a high school can do, the Youth and Religion survey has strong implications for what schools should do to position their students for the greatest likelihood of religious engagement. The research stresses the critical role that relationships with adult role models can play in the formation of the adolescent religious identity, it provides a roadmap for how to achieve religious engagement through positive experiences with prayer and text-study, and it identifies the important contributions that community, faith and purpose play in the religious evolution of the adolescent.

At the core of a Jewish day school is the mission to facilitate a connection to the past through the study of ancient texts and a connection to the present through the fostering of a deep connection to the divine in prayer. The research certainly affirmed the need to shore up that foundation so that adolescents encounter textual learning and prayer as both positive and relevant. However, the more radical notion that emerged from this research was that schools need to ensure not only that they create opportunities for meaningful relationships to flourish between their students and their faculty but that they also help their students articulate their beliefs, join together as a community, and understand the mission and purpose that Judaism gives their life.

We knew that if we could successfully create a program that accomplished these goals, the research indicated that our students would be less likely to follow the mindset of Moral Therapeutic Deism and would be more likely to become engaged individuals who found the practice of Judaism relevant to their daily lives.

Our next step was to determine how to construct a program that would accomplish these goals in a school setting. After investigating a number of approaches, we decided to train a few teachers in how to implement the methodology used by life coaches. Our intention was that doing so would provide our teachers with concrete tools to not only cultivate relationships with their students but also to help their students reflect deeply on their beliefs, explicitly identify their goals and values, and begin the process of creating profound opportunities for meaningful reflection. This, in turn, would enable students to develop the personal convictions and sense of self that Smith and Lundquist determined were correlated with a high faith commitment. Tony Stoltzfus, a life coach who has worked with clients in both the secular and religious worlds, explains that coaching is different from counseling, teaching or mentoring because it is about building relationships that transform the way people view their lives. He maintains that coaching builds an individual’s “character and capacity as a leader and as a person” (Coaching Questions: A Coach’s Guide to Powerful Asking Skills). Stolzfus’s coaching methodology hinges upon the power of asking questions. He writes that “questions cause us to think, create answers we believe in, and motivate us to act on our ideas.”

The Program

The program we established revolves around fostering relationships between teachers and students, as well as providing opportunities for adolescents to cultivate their beliefs, articulate their purpose, and join with others in a growth-oriented community. However, it is important to note that one reason why our religious guidance program has experienced success is because it was not created in a vacuum. Since those initial conversations with Shira and the limmudei kodesh faculty, there has been a conscious effort to focus our energy on cultivating a culture where religious evolution and development is the norm. Over the past two years, in addition to the implementation of the religious guidance program, our shabbatons, yemei iyyun, advisory and special programming have all focused on creating this reflective community. The synergy between these programs has resulted in a culture where our students are continuously encouraged to contemplate their own religious beliefs and ideology and where many of our students have started to re-engage.

The religious guidance program is predicated on the notion that when there is a strong, multifaceted connection between a student and an adult, there is also a willingness for that student to open up, reflect and think critically. As such, all students at Kohelet Yeshiva High School are asked to choose the limmudei kodesh staff member with whom they believe they can best connect and who is in the best position to help them grow. When describing to our students the goals of the program and the importance of this choice, we ask them to make their determination based on who they think they can be open and honest with, who they view as a religious role model, and who they imagine would be supportive of their religious growth. Since student buy-in is such an integral element of this program, it is imperative that they are paired with someone with whom they feel comfortable. In our program, students are asked to select their top three choices out of 12 possible candidates and are told that they will be matched to one of their top choices.

Over the course of the school year, each student is required to meet with his or her counselor a minimum of four times, although many of them meet much more often. Cultivating and nurturing the personal relationship is just one part of what Kohelet staff members do during their religious guidance sessions. The goal is not to be a therapist or to give advice but rather to help a student recognize his or her own strengths, desires and motivations as well as to articulate his or her own thoughts, ideas and beliefs. In these conversations, faculty use Stolzfus’s methodology to assist students as they examine their own personal Judaism. They unpack tough religious questions and discuss issues surrounding religious beliefs. They push the students to consider who they are, who they want to be, what is realistically possible and what is holding them back from achieving their goals. In these conversations, students are asked to visualize, contemplate and formulate some of the foundational elements of their religious persona.

Before setting specific goals, the counselor will spend time talking to the student to gather background information and learn about the student’s current religious beliefs and practices. When interacting with the students, the counselor will consider this background information and will work with the student to set a specific goal based on that particular student’s interests, passions and beliefs. Counselors enter into each session with a list of over a hundred powerful questions that are designed to ease students into a more reflective frame of mind and to help open them up to the possibility of religious growth. These questions range from “Who do you admire most in the world?” to “What are you passionate about pursuing, and what are you eager to leave behind?” and “If you had unlimited resources and knew you couldn’t fail, what would you try?” Once students begin opening up, the religious guidance counselor’s role is to meet students where they are, to listen intently, and to carefully encourage them to identify and pursue a next step within their zone of proximal development. One student may set a goal about increasing her kavvanah in tefillah, another may want to determine how to improve his interpersonal relationships within the framework of Judaism, a third may wish to set a goal to improve his kibbud av va’em, and a fourth may desire to understand her place in the universe vis-a-vis an all knowing God.

An important element of the program is the documentation, communication and follow-up that takes place after each session. Counselors carefully document both the goal that the student has set as well as the plan that has been outlined for how to accomplish that goal. They discuss each student with their program administrator at least once a quarter, and they make sure to pass along any relevant information to the appropriate teachers and administrators for follow-up. Counselors are encouraged to reach out to parents and to meet with them during parent-teacher conferences as a means to bolster the partnership and to encourage open communication.

Initial training is certainly a necessary component when preparing teachers to serve as religious guidance counselors. We designed our own training program based on the work of Stolzfus and other life coaches and required all counselors to participate in the day-long seminar before they started working with students. These sessions taught teachers how to ask open questions as opposed to closed questions, provided them with models for coaching such as the GROW model, the coaching funnel, and the life-wheel, and gave them the tools to probe without judgment and to generate action steps. Participants learned how to document information and when information should be kept confidential or be passed along to the administration and school counselor. All religious guidance counselors were also asked to participate in ongoing professional development where, on a quarterly basis, the various counselors discuss specific scenarios, role-play difficult conversations, and extend their knowledge and understanding of how to be a life coach.

Even with the best of training, if the counselors do not have enough time to meet with their students, the program will not get off the ground. In the first year of the program, our ratio was 1 counselor for every 23 students, and each counselor was compensated for five periods of counseling per week. While for many students religious guidance was a powerful experience, the faculty felt that the ratio was too high. In the second year, we have reduced the ratio to 1 counselor for every 9 students. Although this is certainly a major financial investment on the part of the school, the program seems to be working more effectively.

The goals we have set for this second year are modest in nature. As we indicated, Smith and Lundquist found that 70% of adolescents follow benign whateverism as an ideology and Moral Therapeutic Deism as a philosophy, and only 30% have a strong faith commitment. At the bare minimum, we would like for that ratio to be flipped, for at least 70% of our students to have a high faith commitment. We certainly recognize that there may be 30-40% of students for whom religious guidance is not the answer and who don’t yet enjoy the relationship they have with their counselor. However, for the remaining 60-70% of students, we would like at the very least for all of them to form a relationship with an adult who is supportive of their religious growth and development, for 30-40% of them to significantly improve their relationship with God, and for 15-20% of them to truly grow as individuals and to increase their religious commitment in tangible and measureable ways.

At this point, we have not yet collected data to support whether we are reaching these numbers, although a survey is planned at the end of this year. Anecdotally, students and faculty alike have commented that there has been a noticeable shift in the tenor of the school’s culture. Stronger relationships between students and staff have emerged, and a significant number of students know who they are, where they are headed, and what they believe. We are confident that in the coming years the program will continue to grow stronger as our teachers become more adept facilitators and as the culture of reflection becomes even more pronounced.

Shira is a few years older now. These days she speaks openly about her own evolution and growth, alongside her renewed commitment to Jewish beliefs and practice. She still has questions. But through the religious guidance program at Kohelet Yeshiva High School, she found an avenue in which to ask her questions and, in the process, she found her voice.

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HaYidion Jewish Inspiration Spring 2017
Jewish Inspiration
Spring 2017