December 23, 2004
Ending the Post-Bar Mitzvah Exodus
On a recent gloomy Sunday afternoon in L.A. Family Housing's recreation room, 13-year-old Julia Harreschou laughs with 5-year-old Lara as they take turns drawing on a Magna Doodle. At another table covered with beads, paint and other art supplies, Juliana Klein, 14, helps 4-year-old Carmen decorate a small wooden cutout house. Across the hall, a group of boys bobs for apples, while outside, until the rain descends, other kids play football.
This is Keeping Kids Company, a community service project in which 15 teenagers participating in the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE)'s Netivim program brighten Sunday afternoons for children living in this North Hollywood transitional housing center.
"The teens are not only helping the kids, but they are also learning Jewish values," said Dan Gold, coordinator of Netivim's Institute of Jewish Service, who engages them for the last half-hour in a discussion on homelessness and Judaism's position on the dignity of permanent housing.
In its third year, Netivim is one of several new or revamped programs begun by Los Angeles-area synagogues and Jewish organizations to help stem the tide of teenagers severing their Jewish connections after they celebrate their bar or bat mitzvahs.
Educators are hoping the lure of free food, the opportunity to spend time with friends, provocative programming that breaks out of the behind-the-desk model and the strong presence of clergy will entice kids to continue well into their teenage years.
"The Jewish community has traditionally looked at bar and bat mitzvah as an endpoint. Rather we should say that bar and bat mitzvah is a very important lifecycle event along the pathway of our children's Jewish education," says Morley Feinstein, senior rabbi at University Synagogue in Brentwood.
But it's a tough battle. According to the 1997 Los Angeles Jewish Population Survey, of the 29,300 Jewish 13- to 17-year-olds living in Los Angeles, only 3,700 currently attend Jewish day school and another 4,100 attend religious school. And while other teens might be involved in informal education, including youth groups and summer camps, for which no accurate numbers are available, educators estimate at least 20,000 unaffiliated Jewish teenagers live in the Los Angeles area.
Judaism is often a low priority for teens who are already overburdened and overextended with homework, extracurricular activities such as sports, drama and music lessons and a full social life. The focus, for many, is building the college resume rather than building Jewish connections.
Plus, the parents of those teenagers, many of whom are uncomfortable themselves with Judaism, don't force the issue, according to Lisa Greengard, youth and camp director at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles and a member of BJE's Youth Professional Advisory Council. "Parents actively tell me that this is a battle not worth fighting," she says.
But Jewish educators are not ready to give up a fight that has the potential to determine the teens' Jewish future.
While 43 percent of those with no Jewish education intermarry, the rate drops to 29 percent for those who attend even a one-day-a-week program, according to the National Jewish Population Study 2000-01. In the same survey, there was a direct correspondence between the number of years a person spent in a Jewish educational setting, and the strength of their Jewish identity -- attachment to Israel, having Jewish friends, observing rituals, marrying Jews.
Many of the re-envisioned programs to get teens to stay in the fold have been successful.
At University Synagogue, Feinstein and Religious School Director Janice Tytell have retooled the confirmation and post-confirmation Monday Night Program for eighth- through 12th-graders. After a pizza dinner, the eighth- through 10th-grade students attend back-to-back minicourses, choosing, among others, "Theology and Spirituality," "Do Jews Believe in Heaven and Hell?" or "Hot Topics: School Violence," led by the synagogue's cantor and rabbis.
Eleventh- and 12th-graders meet with clinical psychologist Richard Weintraub, where, while sitting casually on beanbags, they discuss life, death, sex, drugs, school and parents.
"The class becomes its own community, both magical and mystical," said Weintraub, who also teaches at Temple Judea in Tarzana.
And while he doesn't "hit them over the head with the Jewish stuff," he does weave in stories from the Talmud, from Rabbi Joseph Telushkin's books and from his own Orthodox background.
At Wilshire Boulevard Temple's Audrey and Sydney Irmas Campus in West Los Angeles, more than 100 eighth- through 12th-graders show up every week for the Wednesday Night Program, developed three years ago by Rabbi Dennis Eisner and full-time youth professional Ellie Klein. After a pizza dinner, the teens participate in a one-hour elective, such as art, dance or improv. Tutoring and study hall are also available.
During the second hour, the students attend three- or four-week seminars on topics such as "Sex in the Text," "Who Wants to Marry a Teenage Jew?" and "Cult and Culture."
For 12th-grader Jenna Berger, Wednesday night is the highlight of her week.
"I rely on this night of peace, of Judaism, of fun and of friends," she said.
For Rabbi Sally Olins of Temple B'nai Hayim in Sherman Oaks, "It's about making them a second home. And it begins with the rabbi."
Olins has a 90 percent post-bar mitzvah retention rate for her four-year confirmation program, beginning in seventh grade, with all classes taught by her and Cantor Mark Gomberg,
Once a month, the fourth-year class spends a Tuesday evening with Olins, eating pizza and viewing an episode of "Desperate Housewives," trying to figure out how many times the characters break one of the Ten Commandments (they watched "Friends" before it went off the air).
"Four years is the maximum," said Michelle Sharaf, 15, "but I hope we keep going."Olins credits much of her success to personally knowing all the kids: "I've baby-named practically every child who's having a bar or bat mitzvah."
She also incorporates Jewish material in a way that is relevant to her students.
"I think it's a big mistake to think you can teach them Talmud -- and I'm sorry to say this because I'm a big lover of Talmud -- but the moment I offer them something about themselves, I have a winner."
Some educators worry that community service projects and less-structured post-confirmation classes are not as effective in transmitting information as traditional models, but Greengard strongly disagrees.
"There's huge misunderstanding about informal education," she said. "Those kids are actively learning about Judaism; they just don't realize it."
Outside the synagogues, other Jewish organizations are reaching out to teens in the community. BJE's Netivim offers three pathways for involvement, including the Institute for Jewish Leadership and the Institute for Jewish Culture and Values. But the most popular is the Institute for Jewish Service, which gives teens credit for community service they perform on their own in addition to organizing an array of community service activities, with reflection and Jewish learning incorporated into each one.
"We don't tell the kids what to believe," coordinator Gold says, "but we do tell them to follow their Jewish hearts."
Last year, 240 kids participated in Netivim. This year, Stacey Barrett BJE director of youth education services, expects the number to more than double, with about half those kids unaffiliated with formal education programs. "Our goal is move the teens from a one-shot community service project to a full-year program."
Another organization, Jewish Student Union (JSU), was founded two years ago by Rabbi Steve Burg to reach out to unaffiliated teens in the public schools. JSU, whose clubs meet weekly for lunch in high school classrooms, is strongly connected to the West Coast National Conference of Synagogue Youth, an Orthodox organization, but is open to all denominations and, in fact, even attracts some non-Jewish students.
On a recent Wednesday at Van Nuys High School, adviser Devorah Lunger greeted the JSU members with boxes of extra-large pizzas. They sang the Hebrew alphabet song, learned new Hebrew letters, planned a holiday party and heard a synopsis of the week's parsha.
"I came because I was curious," explained Brandon Baker, 16. "It feels good getting back into my religion."
Currently JSU has 15 clubs, and Shoshana Hirsch, director of administration, estimates that JSU touches at least 1,000 teens a year.
"The hope is that after being exposed to the vast number of opportunities available to them in the Jewish community, they may get more actively involved," she said.
That's the goal for all these programs. It's also a worthy one. The Search Institute, an independent nonprofit research and training organization in Minneapolis, has found that an hour or more per week spent in a religious institution is one of the developmental assets that help foster "healthy, caring and responsible" adolescents.
And the right combination of food and friends, positive role modeling and compelling, though often subtle, Jewish content might be what it takes to get teens in the door.
As Emily Sufrin, 14, of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, said, "These programs let you know that Judaism is part of who you are in everyday life."