Engaging Teens Through A Jewish Service Corps


Over the last two decades a host of commissions and task forces have assessed how the Jewish community can reach out to post-bnai mitzvah teens. The bar and bat mitzvah ceremony is an inflection point in the lives of contemporary American Jews and the question that has bedeviled adults has been how to engage teens once they step off the bima at age 12 or 13.

In a new report, commissioned by UJA-Federation of New York and The Jewish Education Project, Amy Sales and colleagues at Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies consider the problem anew. They studied New York-area parents, teenagers, and youth workers, trying to understand how teenagers think about their Jewish lives and how their views jibe, or not, with the views of their parents and professionals. The focus was on the most engaged teenagers — those who are connected with a synagogue. If we cannot figure out how to engage this group, we will not solve the puzzle of how to engage the less connected.

The graphic drawn from the report (see chart) summarizes what’s important to teens in comparison to what their parents want for them. The evidence seems clear-cut: Almost universally, teens want to have good friends, they want to do well academically, and they want to get into a good college. Having a strong Jewish identity, being involved in the Jewish community, and leading a religiously observant life are low on their priority list. 

Interestingly, teens and parents mostly agree on the secular priorities. They disagree, however, on the importance of Jewish identity and engagement: Teens see Jewish connections as far less important than do their parents. 

Sales concludes that the time for commissions has passed — we need to be more activist.  In the language of the report, we need “big ideas” to implement — ideas that will become as dominant as the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony and have the reach of a mega-project such as Taglit-Birthright Israel. The data suggest that we need to abandon the assumption that we can engage teens in Jewish life simply by creating a teen-focused adult system. Our adolescents are telling us that they want to be involved in the secular world. They are social networkers and they seek universalism, not particularism.

As the next step in adolescents’ Jewish journey after their bar/bat mitzvah ceremony, I propose creating a Jewish service corps, which culminates in a meaningful experience of service learning.  The goal is to provide a Jewish context to engage high school students with the “real world.” The program would have universalistic elements and, for example, teach study and leadership skills, but it would also illustrate the relevance of Jewish thought. Being a member of the service corps would involve a series of short intensive programs that would culminate in a two- to 12-month experience at the end of high school.

Creating a Jewish service corps as a normative expectation of late adolescence would make clear that Jewish values obligate us to work as a community to make the world a better place. As Einstein once wrote, commitment to “the democratic ideal of social justice” is a bond that has “united Jews for thousands of years.” Adolescents, as they transition from childhood to adulthood, need experiences that allow them develop skills to succeed in the world-at-large in a value-based context.   

Although preparation for the service corps would take place throughout high school, its culmination would be an experience that enables teens to function with high independence and to participate in a socially useful project. My preference is that this experience be a year-long experience and serve as the Jewish post-high school gap-year program. Most high school graduates, no matter how intellectually prepared, lack the worldly knowledge and maturity to take full advantage of college opportunities.

Ideally, the culminating program should include travel and study components and link Jewish youth from communities across the North America with those in Israel and elsewhere. The goal is to make it a major inflection point in the lives of adolescents, as significant as the bar and bat mitzvah. To prepare for the service corps, religious-based youth groups and secular youth movements would take on the role of recruitment and training centers.

To succeed, the service corps has to be so exciting, engaging, and universalistic in its focus and training that every Jewish teenager and parent of a teen will see participation as a necessity. The service corps will need to provide them with the skills and experience that increase their attractiveness to colleges, while immersing them in study of Judaism’s rich tradition of ethical and practical thought.  

The project is larger than any one existing institution and will need to leverage existing programs as well as spawn new ones. Funding will also be required, in particular to stimulate the development of programs. Potential sponsors include the federation system and denominational movements, as well as private philanthropies. It is an opportunity for Jewish philanthropy to apply itself to confronting one of the most daunting communal issues.

Despite stereotypical descriptions of adolescence as a time of turmoil, estrangement from parents, and rebellion, contemporary Jewish teens—exemplified by those who Sales studied—are high achievers and have good parental relationships. But even those teens from the most committed Jewish homes are, for the most part, engaged on a journey for success. It’s often a trek disconnected from Jewish life. The Jewish community has multiple priorities, but making Judaism relevant for our teens is a priority that is essential for our future vibrancy.

Len Saxe directs The Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and The Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University.