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Engaging Jewish Teens (part 1): the Post-bar Mitzvah Dropout; Study Confirms a Dismal Record

June 15, 2000
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Elliot Maltz had a Bar Mitzvah two years ago, but says his Hebrew school experience was “really boring” and “discouraged me from future practice.”

Maltz, a West Hartford, Conn., 15-year-old who spends most of his free time playing sports, says being Jewish is important to him, but “since I cannot really see its positive effects, it does not make me excited.”

It has become a truism for many American Jews that the Bar Mitzvah is more a farewell ritual than a welcoming ceremony.

But now, amid national efforts in renaissance and outreach, Jewish organizations are looking for ways to reach the Elliot Maltzes.

What is at stake, say educators, is keeping teens in the community and showing them how Judaism can make their lives meaningful at an age many believe is key in cementing lifetime values and behavioral patterns.

Adolescence is “a stage of life in which young people are beginning to make really important decisions for themselves and create their own affiliations,” said Robert Sherman, executive director of San Francisco’s Bureau of Jewish Education, which ranks outreach to teens as one of its top three priorities. The other two are family education and professional development for Jewish educators.

The challenges in engaging teens are significant, with Jewish involvement — at least for non-Orthodox teens — dropping steadily throughout the high school years.

A recent study of 1,300 Jewish teens and their parents in Massachusetts — one of the only studies looking at a cross-section of teens, not just those who are active in Jewish life — confirmed that Jewish involvement steadily drops after the Bar Mitzvah.

According to the study, 86 percent of Jewish seventh graders participate in Jewish activities compared with 56 percent of 12th graders.

The study, conducted by Brandeis University, defines Jewish participation broadly — from participating in a youth group to attending a Jewish summer camp to using a Jewish community center at least once a year.

Although focused on one state, the study, say researchers, likely reflects the experience of most non-Orthodox Jewish teens in America.

Some of the key findings of the Brandeis University study, which has not yet been published, include:

The drop in Jewish involvement is simultaneous with increasing amounts of time spent on homework and part-time jobs;

Girls are more likely than boys to express interest in going on Israel experience programs, and they participate at higher rates in formal Jewish education;

Most report they did not enjoy Hebrew school as much as regular school. (The majority of participants in the study, like most Reform and Conservative Jews, attended congregational schools rather than day schools.) Approximately 25 percent said they never enjoyed being in Jewish school, and approximately 30 percent said they seldom enjoyed it, although the majority said they sometimes, often or always enjoyed regular school;

Parental opinion strongly affects teens’ attitudes on intermarriage: 73 percent of teens whose parents say marrying Jewish is not important also believe this is not important, while 78 percent of teens whose parents say marrying Jewish is very important believe it is somewhat or very important to marry someone Jewish;

The Holocaust, anti-Semitism and “being ethical” are the most important aspects of being Jewish, say teens, while volunteering for Jewish organizations, observing Jewish law and contributing to Jewish organizations rank the lowest in importance. Israel ranked somewhere in the middle.

“There’s no question that the data we have is depressing. We have lost one third of the population before age 13 and another large chunk by the time they graduate high school,” Len Saxe, one of the researchers in the study and director of Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies told the North American Association of Jewish Youth Professionals, after presenting the findings at the group’s recent conference.

Jewish teens are hardly being lost to the streets, however, with most reporting they spend a lot of time on schoolwork, part-time jobs and other activities perceived as helping them to get into college, said Saxe.

“These kids are highly motivated and success oriented,” he said. “After B’nai Mitzvah, their job is to be successful in school and they work hard at it. Also, they take jobs that earn money and obviously this takes away from involvement in other things.”

However, he said, the findings also point to ways the Jewish community might better reach teens, mainly by creating part-time jobs for them in Jewish organizations and selling the importance of Jewish involvement to their parents, who — according to the study — do influence their children’s attitudes.

According to Rabbi Art Vernon, the staff person responsible for teens at the Jewish Education Service of North America, Saxe’s research shows that Jewish programs have to be more sophisticated nowadays than in the past to appeal to teens.

“Kids are sophisticated consumers. They shop for what they want, like everyone else in America, and content is important,” he said.

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