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Shavuot Feature Synagogues Try to Reverse Trend of the Post-bar Mitzvah Dropout

May 26, 2004
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Afternoons this past school year often found teenager Ross Weissman tutoring sixth-graders in Hebrew or leading third-graders in prayer.

Weissman, 18, and many of his friends became mentors for younger children at Congregation Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley, Pa., a Conservative synagogue whose religious school allows teens from eighth to 12th grades to earn high school credits or get paid for being “madrichim,” or counselors, between their Bar and Bat Mitzvah and the end of high school.

“If you work toward the goal of a Bar Mitzvah, then that’s it,” Weissman says. “But after Bar Mitzvah you can still have that connection with your friends, and you’re still part of the congregation. I was able to foster my connectedness with Judaism.”

Weissman is the product of one of several campaigns in the Jewish community to combat, and even reverse, a longtime tendency among young people to drop off the Jewish radar after their Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

With studies showing about half of children in the non-Orthodox religious denominations forgo any formal religious education after Bar Mitzvah age, these efforts signal new hope that organized American Jewry may hold onto their young.

The issue has particular resonance at this time of year, because Shavuot, observed Wednesday and Thursday this week, is when many Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist congregations hold confirmations for their 10th- or 11th-graders.

The confirmation ceremony, coming on the holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, gives teenagers the opportunity to affirm their commitment to Jewish life.

Synagogues “cannot rely on the notion that kids will remain with us simply because their parents pressure them to or because they want to retain their Jewish education,” says Rabbi David Wirtschafter, associate rabbi of Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame, Calif.

“We have to create another reason beyond that.”

Until recently few such choices existed.

Though day school ranks have mushroomed in the past decade or so, to nearly 200,000 students, the majority of whom are Orthodox, the vast majority of Jewish youths involved in Jewish education faced one path — Hebrew school, now often called congregational or religious school.

The most recent National Jewish Population Survey found that a majority of Jewish children receive some type of Jewish education.

At the same time, studies of the non-Orthodox streams show evidence of the post-Bar Mitzvah exodus. A 2000 longitudinal study by Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar called “Four Up,” for the Ratner Center of the Jewish Theological Seminary, followed Conservative movement students since 1995 and found only half stayed in religious school through 12th grade.

Similarly, a representative sampling of Boston-area Jewish teens in Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist synagogue schools in 2000 by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University found that participation dropped as teens grew older.

According to the study, participation dropped from 86 percent in 7th grade; to 72 percent in 8th and 9th grades to 69 percent in 10th and 11th grades, to 56 percent by 12th grade.

In addition, Reform movement surveys, conducted randomly and of communally active teens, found that within 18 months after Bar and Bat Mitzvah, 50 percent of those teenagers stop participating in educational programs, while by the end of high school only 15-20 percent of teens are involved, says Rabbi Andrew Davids, co-director of the youth division of the Union for Reform Judaism.

The Brandeis study suggested that parental influence plays a big role on that decline, and Davids agrees.

“So many parents had an unfulfilling experience, so they feel while the Bar or Bat Mitzvah is an obligation, once that obligation is fulfilled, they’re released from any responsibility,” Davids says.

Efforts to get young Jews to feel part of the community, however, seem to be bearing early fruit, though no one has yet researched their influence on a national scale.

Cyd Weissman, whose son participated in the Beth Am Israel’s “madrichim” program, was for a decade director of the suburban Philadelphia congregation’s school and found that effort yielded an 85 percent retention rate from ages 13 on.

“Eight years ago we had two or three kids in a confirmation class; now we have 25,” she says.

The idea was to take older students and have them help younger students in areas they excelled at, whether it was Torah or arts and crafts, she said. In the process, relationships sprung up between the generations, in a Jewish setting, and connections were made.

“The whole frame for Jewish education is, you have learning with meaning, in a nurturing, caring context; you start when kids are younger and you build on that when they’re older,” she says.

Now Weissman is working with 20 non-Orthodox synagogues in the New York area on a project called “Re- Imagine,” for the Experiment in Congregational Education. In it, each synagogue is asked questions such as what role family and community plays, and what’s the connection between learning and living.

The Reform movement is also launching new, informal methods of Jewish education outside of congregational school classrooms and youth groups but inside synagogues. These “alternate doors” to Judaism include teen healing services; rap groups or Jewish theater, Davids says.

In one rural Northern California synagogue, students are overhauling an old car, then debating the Jewish view of tzedakah, with a view toward selling the car and donating the proceeds, or the car itself, to a charity, says Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, director of youth and informal education for the movement’s Pacific-Central-West region.

At Temple Sholom, just south of San Francisco, students since last fall have been taking Stanley Kaplan preparatory tests for the college board SAT exams. They’d warm up by picking out key vocabulary words from each week’s Torah portion, doing the movement’s new “10 Minutes of Torah” study first.

The idea is to get teens involved in areas they already consider important, then envelop the activity in a Jewish setting in a form of “soft sell,” Wirtschafter says.

“We’re not going to throw hard-core Bible or Talmud or history studies at them. The first step is getting them back in the door,” he says.

But Rabbi Ed Feinstein, of the Conservative synagogue Valley Beth Shalom in the Los Angeles suburb of Encino, takes a different approach.

Feinstein, who wrote a book aimed at answering theological questions from a teen perspective, “Tough Questions Jews Ask,” says “kids know when they’re being sold something. They have a powerful nose for the phony.”

His synagogue take a tough tack with parents of teens entering their religious school.

“We tell them that if they leave after Bar Mitzvah, it’s a lie,” he says.

Instead, the school practices “good teaching,” he says. One teacher screens episodes of the classic TV show “Twilight Zone” and debates the Jewish ethical issues the shows raise. Another teaches a class that debates Jewish values arising from provocative court trials of issues such as assisted suicide.

“In the end, it’s the question, ‘Is this worth my time? ‘ ” he says of whether students will choose to stay on.

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