In this era of school violence and body piercing, teenagers, never the most applauded demographic segment of our society, have been getting some amazingly bad press. To hear the media tell it, adolescents who aren't destroying themselves or others are just too lazy and apathetic to be bothered.And if Jewish teens aren't filling up juvie hall, they're not filling up the synagogues, either. After Bar and Bat Mitzvah, we're led to believe, you never see them again. Why would Jewish kids hang out at shul when they can be cruising around in their parents' Beemers, downloading porn from the Internet, turning their brains into Swiss cheese with drugs?
Are you scared yet?
Well, take a deep breath and relax. As the poet says, it ain't necessarily so.Remember, bad news always drives out good; that's why the evening news opens with murders and natural disasters. Hostile, alienated Jewish teenagers are much more fascinating than good, focused kids who do their homework, serve their communities, and go off to college, strong Jewish identities intact.The saving remnant is alive and well, and part of it is about to graduate from high school.
Concerned and committed
The 18-year-olds you're going to read about are not Everykid, or even EveryJewishkid. They were contacted for interview through college counselors and the Hebrew high school programs run by the Conservative and Reform movements, so they skew toward youngsters who are bright, ambitious, bound for four-year colleges, and committed to Jewish learning and practice. But if you think of them as future Jewish leaders, well, we could do worse.
For one thing, they are not apathetic. The list of social and political issues that concern them includes racism, gun control, capital punishment, gay rights, homelessness and hunger, school prayer and human rights worldwide, to name just a few. "There are too many people walking around today who fail to care about anything, and it is not only degrading to them, but to the whole world," said Millicent Marmer, a member of Milken Community High School's chapter of the Junior Statesmen of America, a political debate club.
For most of the students, their interest is personal. "As a Jew growing up in a very Christian society, especially my area, I am very sensitive to the issue of church and state," said Jackie Bliss, who is graduating from Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach after organizing a Jewish Cultural Club at her school. "I do not believe that prayer of any kind belongs in a public classroom& and think that it is imperative that the separation be upheld."
Beverly Hills senior Shelly Rosenfeld has a grandmother who lost her family in the Holocaust. Now Rosenfeld is a volunteer guide at the Museum of Tolerance. "I am driven by the awareness that the generation that can give a firsthand account of the Holocaust is diminishing in numbers and memory," she said.
Rosenfeld sees her mission as larger than educating people about the Shoah, however. "Our society is a human kaleidoscope of color and culture," she added. "The important factor is that one sees the differences as opportunities not to segregate others but as occasions to learn from one another.""There are many issues that concern me, but the ones that affect me the most are the shootings at schools, such as Columbine," said Yevgeny Plotkin, a senior at Fairfax High School. "As a Jew I've been taught from birth the importance of trust and responsibility, and it hurts me to see how many teenagers have now lost this trust from parents, teachers, media, and others."
No need to get a life - they've got them
The students also showed a high level of awareness about events in Israel and other Jewish issues. "Last summer, I went to Israel, which had a tremendous effect on me," said Reina Slutske of Westlake High School. "My opinion is that my Bat Mitzvah never happened until I went to Israel.& I'm always concerned about Israel, because when I went, I adopted it as my home."
"Israel does concern me in the way it is covered [by the media]," said Sam Rosenthal, who is graduating from Valley Torah High School, a yeshiva in North Hollywood. "I'm continually seeing Israel holding the red trident and & Palestinians repainted as downtrodden underdogs."
"I think assimilation concerns me the most, because so many Jews have become High Holiday Jews, or they do not have any Jewish identity besides a Jewish mother," said Melissa Orkin, a senior at Calabasas High School. Slutske concurs: "I think living in American culture makes you assimilated, and [you] forget who you are in the melting pot."
These kids aren't nerds. Many are involved in sports, from water polo to track to baseball. Jackie Bliss surfs, "although not as often as I would like." Orkin has participated in the Maccabi Games. Jeremy Monosov, who is graduating from Calabasas High School, got his pilot's license in December. "Flying, in my opinion, is the cure-all for anything from anxiety to depression to stress," he said. "As you lift off the ground you leave all your problems on the ground for a couple short hours."
Hanging out with friends and listening to music are also high on the list for these almost-graduates. "Almost all my friends whom I've grown up and gone to yeshiva with are into hard rock," said Valley Torah senior Eli Julian.
Far from the stereotype of kids who don't have two words to say to their parents, many of these teens expressed a close relationship with their folks. And they're not rootless; most of them appeared to have lived in the same communities and gone through school with the same kids since way before high school.Maybe that's why so many of them have mixed feelings about leaving high school and (as most of them are doing) leaving home to attend college. "Leaving school is an oxymoron: happy sadness," said Plotkin, who was born in Belarus and plans to pursue a joint engineering program at Occidental College and Caltech. "Externally I'm excited, but inside I'm sad, because I'll be leaving everything I worked so hard to get used to."
"I worry that I won't fit in or I won't make friends or that I'll shrink all my clothes and turn them pink," Orkin said of her imminent shift to USC.
"I'm excited because I feel I have earned the opening of a new chapter in my life, and I can't wait to see what I'm going to do with my life," said Emily Rauch, a Harvard-Westlake senior who will attend George Washington University in Washington, D.C., this fall. "But I'm scared because the safety net - my house, my parents, my routine - won't always be there."
Ready to share their blessings
From all appearances, the teenagers who contributed their insights and opinions to this story (and the accompanying sidebars) are a lucky bunch of Angelenos. Few of them, in their comments, so much as hinted at trauma, grievous loss, or even serious disappointment. Blessed with brains, supportive families, and, for the most part, relative to absolute affluence, headed for some of the nation's best universities, they have a leg up on the ladder of success. And many of them expect to be successful; no fewer than three mentioned that they'd like to be named to the Supreme Court.
Yet very few come off as spoiled, self-centered, or self-congratulatory. If they're skittish about leaving home, it's because they value their parents' involvement in their lives. Many of them said they want to make the world a better place. There's little sense of entitlement; they seem to understand how lucky they are. Their hopes for personal happiness and success are rooted in hard work, self-respect, and respect for other people.
They are Jewish kids with Jewish values, and they give every indication of carrying a conscious, active Jewishness into their adult lives. There's a message here for parents of younger children: What do parents need to do for their kids to turn out like these kids, to have the same optimism, the same work ethic, the same tolerance for the rights and opinions of others, the same commitment to Judaism?
True, these teens may not be representative of all American Jewish adolescents, but they are not unique. There are many more like them in Southern California, west of the Mississippi, across the country. If they represent the best of our people's future, we probably have a future.
Meanwhile, Solomon Mizrahi, graduating this month from Valley Torah, has summed up their anxieties, their dreams and their confidence. "Right now the world seems too big for me to leave a mark, let alone a difference," he said. "I know, however, that the world conspires to help [people] in their endeavors, so whatever I choose to do, all I need do is work hard and work diligently, and I will succeed."
Some Jewish teens are willing to interdate, but a Jewish home and Jewish kids are nonnegotiable.
With intermarriage rates a matter of paramount importance to American Jews concerned with Jewish continuity, Jewish leaders, parents and teens are trying to balance two conflicting dynamics: commitment to Judaism on the one hand and a universalist ethic of tolerance and respect for diversity on the other.Not surprisingly, interdating isn't even a blip on the radar for Orthodox teens. "Dating a non-Jewish girl is something completely foreign to me," one Valley Torah student said. "It saddens me to think that it is already so commonplace among Jewish teens that you would have to ask the question."
Among the other 12th graders who contributed insights, attitudes toward interdating ranged from a firm stand against, at least for themselves, to a willingness to date people from all cultures, usually in the name of experimentation and commitment to multiculturalism - and because they don't see the dating they do now as serious.
"Yes, I date non-Jews. I don't think about it; I just do it," said Milken senior Cynthia Glucksman. "I feel I can learn a lot from non-Jewish people."
"It's hard to be raised knowing that all races and religions are equal and simultaneously reject romantic relationships based on religion," said her classmate, Millicent Marmer.
"I am currently dating a beautiful, sweet Jewish girl and have always dated Jewish girls," said Jeremy Monosov, who grew up Conservative. "However, I am not against dating a non-Jew.& Our different backgrounds might add fire and substance to the relationship and would encourage my growth as an individual."
Melissa Orkin says she's never dated a non-Jew, in part because she's in a Jewish environment - which includes her public school, Calabasas High - so much of the time. "I guess part of what attracts me to a guy is that he is Jewish," she said. "It is one of the things that I look for. I'm not against other people interdating, but up to this point in my life, it has not been a possibility for me."In an interesting twist, Reina Slutske, a graduating senior at Westlake High, said, "I believe that unless you are confident in your Jewish identity and in who you are and where you are going, you can't date non-Jews, because it's too strong of an influence and would possibly end up in intermarriage."In fact, almost all the respondents, from the most to the least observant, said they want to marry Jews, and the majority ruled out intermarriage as an option. And for every single respondent who dealt with this question, the creation of a Jewish home and the rearing of Jewish children in the future was nonnegotiable, even if he or she could entertain the notion of a non-Jewish spouse.
"When you're young you have to experience the world and all different kinds of people," said Rebecca Lehrer of Harvard-Westlake, who dates gentiles now. "But I am going to marry a Jew. I just know that's something important to me. I want to raise my kids Jewish, and I think having a Jewish spouse makes that a lot easier."
"My religion and its continuity are important, so I would only make a life commitment to someone who understood the importance of my religion and the importance of raising any children we were to have as Jews," Lehrer's classmate, Eric Rosoff, said. "I think it is important to distinguish between someone who is Jewish and someone who understands the need to continue Judaism."Jackie Bliss, a Mira Costa senior, grew up with a non-Jewish dad, and although he participated fully in the Jewish life of their home and finalized a conversion to Judaism last year, she doesn't see herself following her mom's path.
"I would love to say that you should marry whomever you fall in love with and you can overcome any problems," Bliss said. "But if you truly want to raise a practicing Jewish family, you have to have a Jewish husband or wife. Some people are willing to take that risk, but I don't think I will. My mom overcame a lot of obstacles to raise my sister and me with a strong Jewish background, and I don't intend to end it with my family."
Not all teens flee Jewish life after Bar and Bat Mitzvah.
In contrast to the conventional wisdom that most teens make a quick exit from Jewish life at age 13, almost all the students interviewed for this story have active Jewish lives, most of them on the institutional level. Even the respondents who aren't temple-involved said being Jewish plays an important role in who they are.
Rebecca Lehrer, a Harvard-Westlake senior who will attend Columbia University, hasn't spent much time in synagogue since her Bat Mitzvah at Temple Israel of Hollywood, but her extended family has Shabbat dinner together every Friday night. "Just because I didn't go to Hess Kramer [summer camp] has nothing to do with my Jewish identity. I strongly identify with being Jewish, and I think my peers identify me that way too." Like many of the students interviewed, she said she intends to get involved in a Jewish organization such as Hillel once she's at college.For the students graduating from Orthodox schools, of course, traditional observance is a given. Many will move on to yeshivot in Israel or in U.S. cities. Sam Rosenthal, who will spend a year at a yeshiva in Jerusalem, said he'll start a Chabad unit at whatever college he attends for his B.A. if there isn't one there already.
One yeshiva student credits his school with putting him back on the right path. Reared "strictly Orthodox" in Brooklyn, he went through a rebellious spell starting in eighth grade and "decided that I didn't like religion, not really because of any deep questions or the like, but because it just was a pain and I didn't want to bother."
After flunking most of his sophomore classes and getting thrown out of summer camp for smoking marijuana, he asked his father for a change of scene, and his dad arranged for him to live with his grandmother in L.A. "[My school] has been the best thing for me," he said. "I've gotten back into religion, haven't touched a cigarette or even thought about smoking a joint in two years. I understand much more about Judaism, which has allowed me to really want to be religious, instead of pushing it away."A Valley Torah senior, Solomon Mizrahi, is bucking the trend by going straight to UC Irvine this fall, but he believes it's the right choice for him. "Going to a university that doesn't have the greatest Jewish social opportunities will not detract from my level of religiosity or spirituality," he said. "My connection with the secular world is important. In some ways it helps me improve my spiritual devotion to God."
Most of the non-Orthodox students mentioned participation in Jewish youth organizations, Jewish educational programs for senior high schoolers, and involvement opportunities in their synagogues. Lisa Feigenbaum, Harvard-Westlake's valedictorian, has read Torah at Stephen S. Wise Temple's High Holy Days services since her Bat Mitzvah. Her classmate, Eric Rosoff, is a madrich (teacher's aide) at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, working with religious school students, while Judith Spiro, graduating from Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, plays a similar role at Temple Isaiah in Rancho Park. Jackie Bliss works three days a week at her temple, Congregation Tifereth Jacob in Manhattan Beach.
"Becoming active in USY [United Synagogue Youth] was the best thing I ever did," said Melissa Orkin, a regional board member and president of Temple Aliyah's chapter, who also spent six summers at Camp Ramah. "By attending USY events I was able to keep in touch with friends from camp and to make new friends. Spending weekends with other Jewish teens like myself was a great experience.& USY enabled me to stay involved in the Jewish community religiously and socially."
That doesn't mean these kids never ask questions, of course. Santa Monica High senior Rachelle Neshkes, who grew up at Adat Shalom on the Westside and just graduated from L.A. Hebrew High School, has been a bit alienated of late. "The void in spirituality hit me much later than most because I was always the most observant, and the most into it growing up," she said. "But seriously, I don't know a single Jew who is completely strong in [his or her] faith.& The faith has just seemed to roll out from beneath us.
"Judaism would keep more Jews if only it didn't project such a, shall we say, outdated image," said Neshkes, who is interested in Jewish mysticism. "Can't we keep the Hebrew, and our traditions, and our beliefs, without being 19th-century Poles?"
"I spend Shabbat with my family and friends, keep kosher and celebrate all of the holidays," said Milken senior Millicent Marmer, who attends Stephen S. Wise Temple. "However, I am also constantly challenging and questioning Judaism, not in a rebellious manner, but simply so that I can practice with kavanah [spiritual intention]."
"Too many Jewish people are only Jewish by culture, and they know nothing about their religion," Eric Rosoff said. "I have a Jewish soul, and I know this only because I learned about Judaism."