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Raising Jewish Children: Research and Indications for Intervention

Recent research shows that the teen years are the most critical years for Jewish education, building on the foundations of supplementary or day school education leading up to bar/ bat mitzvah, and forecasting Jewish involvements–or lack of them–in the college years. Statistics show that in terms of predicting adult connections every year past the bar mitzvah year “counts” more than the year before. Receiving formal Jewish education from age 16 to 17 more accurately predicts adult Jewish connectedness than receiving formal Jewish education from age 15 to 16. Perhaps the most striking finding of research on the impact of Jewish education on teenagers and their parents is the interrelatedness of positive Jewish elements in the lives of teenagers. Quantitative and qualitative research suggest that having mostly Jewish friends in high school predicts marrying or partnering with a Jew and forging complex Jewish connections. In the interviews we conducted, teenagers described how their friendships with other Jewish teens influenced them to continue formal and informal Jewish education. Friendships affected Jewish connections and promoted additional Jewish education.

Jewish education influences not only teenagers, but also the ritual practices and other Jewish connections of the entire family. When teenagers stopped attending Jewish schools after bar and bat mitzvahs, both they and their parents (in separate interviews) reported that their family Jewish observances and activities such as Shabbat service attendance gradually declined without the reinforcing effect of Judaic discussion in classes and invitations for holiday celebrations with classmates‘ families. In contrast, when teenagers continued attending Jewish schools after bar/ bat mitzvah, family Jewish activities remained constant. The more conventional understanding is that the impact goes from parents to children– “parents make the decisions regarding Jewish education for their children.”24 Influence flowing from friendships to education to family involvements represents a new understanding of the power of social networks, particularly in the teen years. The two-directional influence is very useful in making sense of the statistical predictive power of Jewish population density in childhood for the Jewish connectedness of adults. One should not underestimate the enculturating effectiveness of simply spending time with other Jewish teenagers in both formal and informal Jewish educational settings. Formal Jewish education, no less than informal Jewish activities, provides settings in which Jewish friendship circles can be enhanced, and in which not only the friendship circles but also the emerging sexual interests of Jewish teenagers can be channeled toward Jewish peers.

Qualitative (interview) studies reveal25 what teenagers most liked about their Jewish classes and youth groups, was (1) studying, intellectual enjoyment; (2)
substance—they disliked classes with no rigor; (3) sports with COOL JEWS; (4) transdenominationalism—no barriers between different flavors of Jews; (5) being part of a group within a group—belonging; (6) related to that, but not identical, seeing their friends from various places. One very common pattern is that initially parents encouraged their teens to join, and later the teens themselves take ownership and internalize education as a value. Being part of a group was a big plus for students. Going to Jewish camps made one more likely to continue with Jewish schools.

Jewish teens come from many types of family environments, and all have a need for Jewish education. Students whose families are currently unaffiliated or who are geographically isolated find secular Jewish youth groups such as BBYO important opportunities for Jewish connection, non-pressured place to meet Jewish friends, as
do children from divorced or financially struggling families, because of logistical problems. (Jewish families who send teenagers to day schools and to supplementary Hebrew high schools are also diverse, and include many blended, divorced, or atypical families.)

Teens like a peer society, in addition to family, to share their rituals with. When they don‘t have proximity, they use technology to create a virtual society. Recognizing the importance of social networks does not imply a commensurate decrease in the importance of the parents and other family members in the process of educational decisions. On the contrary, parents comprise the primary social network, and add to the significance of social networks in Jewish educational decisions. Teens perceived their parents as being influential in the initial decision to continue—or not to continue–with Jewish education after bar/ bat mitzvah. Parental encouragement was especially important in getting youngsters started in post bar/bat mitzvah classes. Later the teens made the decision for themselves, but initially parental involvement and encouragement were key. Many teens reported that their parents had forced them to continue, and then, after a year or two, they had—grudgingly or graciously–come to enjoy the experience. While parents may feel that their influence is eclipsed by that of peer relationships, psychology of religion studies show that parental values and behaviors continue to exercise great influence in the teen years and beyond.26

Gender plays a huge role in the likelihood of continuing Jewish education after bar/bat mitzvah, with girls overwhelmingly more likely than boys to be the ones continuing, almost regardless of the type of program. The “Moving Traditions” program’s Deborah Meyer argues that the Jewish community should provide better services for educating and discussing gender with Jewish boys, arguing, “Ironically, boys are given fewer opportunities than girls to consider gender and the possibilities of adulthood, including what roles work and relationships will play in their lives.” For Meyer, the Jewish community is missing a “golden opportunity” to create a ―meaningful and lasting connection with Judaism” for teens through educating them and encouraging them in “making positive life choices.”27

Parents were divided on the subject of the guidance they gave their teens about college: some reinforced looking for a campus with dynamic Jewish life. However, for many–perhaps most–Jewish life on campus plays virtually no role in decision-making. Some teens—like their parents—feel ambivalent, not wanting Jewish isolation, but also not wanting a college campus that seems “too Jewish.” Patterns established in high school repeated themselves in college.