Every weekday at around 6:30 a.m., Henry Muhlheim hits the snooze button a few times before getting up and driving from Hancock Park to Harvard-Westlake School, one of the country’s top private high schools.
The 17-year-old junior then winds his way through a grueling schedule of seven classes: Middle East studies, AP U.S. history, AP physics, calculus honors, English honors, lunch, design & data structures honors and AP Chinese. Most days of the week, he attends swim practice for a few hours after school, then works on homework until midnight or so. On Sunday mornings, he’s an assistant teacher at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.
One night a week, Muhlheim volunteers at Teen Line, a teen-crisis hotline run by Cedars-Sinai, where he offers help on “everything from, ‘my parents don’t understand, my girlfriend broke up with me,’ to things like, ‘I’m dealing with suicide and rape and child abuse,’ ” Muhlheim said. Often, though, teens talk about their stress related to college applications and social relationships.
“With classes and extracurriculars and stuff gearing up toward college, it’s getting crazy,” Muhlheim said.
For 16-year-old junior Ella Swimmer, life is equally complicated. Her day starts at 7:30 a.m. and often ends at 2 a.m. During that time, she takes classes at Santa Monica High School, goes to dance rehearsals, does her homework and helps her younger siblings with their homework. She’s also co-president of her synagogue youth group, Santa Monica Reform Temple Youth, and participates in other Jewish activities for teens.
“I’m constantly stressed out, constantly trying to, like, think hours and days in advance of how I’ll manage my time, how I’ll have time to eat and sleep in between all the homework and activities,” she said.
Adolescence has always been a challenging time of life. School, social obligations and hormones all make it especially hard to navigate. But some Jewish educators and clergy members have become worried that parents and teachers have reached a breaking point of piling on to kids’ lives.
“Most synagogues are ignoring that problem,” said Isa Aron, a professor of Jewish education at the Rhea Hirsch School of Education of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Los Angeles. “The Jewish community is very focused on having teenagers engaged in Judaism in some way, but they’re not really focused on helping kids with what their real problems might be, probably because they don’t see that as part of their mission.”
Aron co-directs the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution, a joint project of HUC-JIR and the Union for Reform Judaism. The organization is working with dozens of synagogues across the country to rethink the Jewish coming-of-age ceremony in hopes of keeping teens engaged in the Jewish community beyond the age of 12 or 13.
One recent effort included a series of panel discussions at IKAR synagogue featuring Dr. Abraham Havivi, a rabbi and psychiatrist in a practice that focuses on adolescents. Parents there expressed deep concerns over their children’s stress levels.
But parents, Aron said, are often the biggest culprits in contributing to teen stress. “Kids can’t do enough to please their parents. Whatever college they get into is not quite good enough,” she said. “The parents set enormous expectations and enroll them in a million activities from when they’re young.”
Aron scheduled a panel discussion about dialing down teen stress for Dec. 11 at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, as well as a screening of the documentary film “Race to Nowhere,” which shows the impact of over-stressed teens on families, colleges and the workplace.
One of the participating synagogues in B’nai Mitzvah Revolution is Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, which offers a program for middle-school students and their parents to talk about stress. The kids list what causes stress in their lives — and parental expectations are often at the top of the list. “We’re not teaching our children the basic concept of living in the moment. If they’re always looking down the road, they’re never going to reach their goals, because the goal is always going to be a mile down the road,” Rabbi Jonathan Hanish said.
Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, project manager of the Los Angeles cohort of the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution, has taken that lesson to heart. The mother of two sons, ages 22 and 17, worked with her kids to determine which after-school projects were the most meaningful to them. “There were times when I thought, ‘Oh my God, maybe I’m failing my child because he’s not doing X,’ when I realized at other times that, no, actually, it was a good thing that he wasn’t doing X, because he has down time at home,” she said. “We as parents have to help our kids learn to make decisions about what’s going to be good for them. And sometimes they need that guidance.”
Winer’s younger son, Max, is a junior at University High School in Fresno and teaches beginner-level Hebrew to fourth-graders at Temple Beth Israel in Fresno. He expressed interest in taking voice lessons to improve his singing, but determined he didn’t have enough free time. On a typical night, he has three to four hours of homework, “and I’m taking a light course load,” Max said. “Some of my friends start homework at 5 o’clock in the afternoon and don’t get done until 2 o’clock in the morning.”
It’s not hard to find a teen who believes they’re given too much homework. But many say that if students are feeling legitimately overwhelmed, teachers should be willing to give them a break.
“It’s really helpful if, say, I got totally loaded with homework one night and I couldn’t get my physics lab done for the following day, if I can talk to my teacher and say, ‘Hey, I’m so sorry, I will literally have it to you tomorrow, if you can just give me an extra day or even an extra three hours to work on it,’ that would mean a lot,” Muhlheim said.
Teachers too often operate in a vacuum, Swimmer agreed, and students can end up with several major assignments due the same day or week. But, she added, teens should also be careful to avoid taking on too many extracurriculars, as well.
“People will get more stressed if they spread themselves really thin, with a bunch of different, disconnected activities,” Swimmer said. “But I think if kids choose one or two things they’re really passionate about, and put a balanced amount of time into those things, they’ll have time to be more focused on their grades, because it’s not like you can do everything in the world.”
Aron hopes the Dec. 11 event will lead to a wider initiative on combating teen stress. She’s also eyeing a potential grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation, which funds Jewish educational projects. “It could be that this will go nowhere in terms of the funding, but I think it could build momentum,” Aron said. “Personally, I think it’s a really serious, urgent issue that we ought to be dealing with.”