The following is a transcript of Episode 136 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.
Yehuda: Hi everyone. Welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer, and we’re recording on Wednesday, April 19th, 2023.
So I only did some basic cursory research on this subject, which means I don’t know if what I’m about to say is fully verifiable, but based on what I’ve read, it seems like the idea of quote, the teenager, is basically an early to mid 20th-century invention. There have always been developmental human stages, of course, but for most of human history, it seems that we humans were primarily interested in the question of a threshold between defining a person as a child and then them crossing over to becoming an adult.
In Jewish context, the bar or bat mitzvah is our most obvious example. Upon reaching the age of obligation, you go from being a kid to becoming a full-fledged adult, exonerating your parents from the burden of responsibility for your sins, and becoming entirely capable of fulfilling, or falling short of, Jewish laws and requirements.
The rabbinic tradition imagines some sort of blurry pre-bar mitzvah phase that it calls the age of chinuch, the age of education. So that means sometimes there are habits in practices like kids start fasting for Yom Kippur, for instance, starting the year before their bar mitzvah to practice. But the category change in Jewish law is explicitly structured as a binary. A child is a child and then they instantly become an adult.
To any parent of a bar or bat mitzvah kid, this claim is, let’s just say amusing. Bnei mitzvah kids today are self evidently not adults. My favorite pop culture rendering of this absurdity is the amazing recurring character Jacob the Bar Mitzvah boy on Saturday Night Live, played by Vanessa Bayer.
Sometimes, I’m not even sure whether it makes sense that we should assume that bnei mitzvah kids are Jewish adults. Maybe in pre-modern times, when by age of 12 or 13, you might already be working when the age of marriage adhered more closely to the age of puberty, maybe independence then meant something different.
Our societies today know a lot more about teenagers, their brains, and their capacity and their predilections, and I tend to think that even when our systems treat teenagers fully as adults, as is sometimes the case in the criminal justice system, it probably shouldn’t.
Last year, a colleague of mine and I who were responsible for planning our synagogue’s high holiday services, debated the question of whether it was appropriate for a skilled 14-year-old in our community to be entrusted in leading services for the community on Yom Kippur.
Halakhically, sure, it was totally fine, but how would it feel for older adults to have their atonement and their repentance put in the hands of a teenager? I definitely felt that there was a meaningful sense of transition for my boys at their bar mitzvahs, but it felt a little bit more like a manufactured milestone of adulthood than an actual transformation. It needed the magic that’s provided by Halakha, by Jewish law, which challenges us to envision new realities through ritual to help overcome what seemed very obvious. These were people who were maybe not quite children anymore, but definitely not yet adults either.
There’s some fascinating historical reasons why the teenager emerged in the 20th century as an independent identity. These factors, like compulsory high school education, the ways that the automobile created a new era of independence and mobility for young people, and a host of economic factors.
One article I read suggested that teenagers were essentially created by businesses seeking to market products to this new demographic. That makes a lot of sense to me. Teenagers seem like a big business and their capacity for economic transformation through the power of networks, through media, through peer pressure, is enormous. And really, since the birth of the teenager, we have seen over the past several decades, even more and more segmentation in how we understand human development.
There isn’t just one category of teenagers anymore. There are preteens, there are tweens. Even post-teenager. There’s categories called emerging adults and young adults, and it’s not just among young people. People my age start to refer to themselves now, I’m in my late forties, as in quote, the sandwich generation, between adult children on one end and aging parents on the other. In other words, it seems like we, our societies are looking for more and more ways to customize and cater for different stages of human development.
Now, here’s a not particularly original observation. Teenagers as a phenomenon are kind of polarizing to adults. There are a lot of movies about this phenomenon, if you’ve never experienced it in real life. Teens are the ways that adults can visualize our own continuity. After all, you see a whole emerging generation on the threshold of seizing our society from us and taking control of our institutions. And for the same reasons, they feel like a threat to many adults.
I often feel in the Jewish community that Jewish leaders mismanage that tension and lean much more into the fear of the future than they do in the inherent optimism that the presence of any emerging generation should imply.
We also stretch out the phases of handing over to the future to the next generation way too much. I think the current category of classifying a young leader for any Jewish institution goes through about age 50.
Now, pessimism about the future is never falsifiable, and it’s usually self-fulfilling. And what a profound disservice it is for the next generation of Jewish life, which will arrive on the scene whether we are ready for them or not, and will one day replace us whether we want that to happen on our timeline or on theirs.
But the pessimism persists. Now I don’t wanna make light of it. We do have a pipeline crisis for Jewish institutional leadership and for the future of having enough rabbis in North America. We have a mental health crisis among young people, a subject we’ve covered on the show, and we have real reasons to fear that it’ll be harder for young people today to become financially independent ever, and to live in relative peace in climate security compared to even one generation ago.
And even so, I think our job as Jewish leaders and Jewish educators is to prepare the corridors and pathways for all those who are coming next. So maybe the Bar Mitzvah is not the exact right threshold, but one way or another, with or without a DJ and a new suit, the newest generation of Jewish adults is arriving and we owe them the gift of a pathway towards our collective future.
So I’m talking tonight with three teenagers who are participants in the first cohort, the first ever cohort of the Hartman Teen Fellowship, a program that we launched this past fall with 60 terrific kids from around North America, and that we’re hoping to grow by this coming fall to reach at least 200 for the next academic year.
These teens take on a huge commitment, especially because teenagers today are quite busy. We’re gonna talk about that. They took on a big commitment. It includes two in-person weekend retreats, weekly Zoom elective classes, monthly seminars on big topics in Jewish life as well, and we try to offer them something serious in return. That includes access to a Jewish conversation in which we’re trying really hard not to differentiate between adults and kids. We’re offering them Jewish learning on the hardest questions facing Jewish life, a pedagogy that seeks to trust them and to take them seriously, opportunities for their own training and growth, and a network of exceptional young people in which to find friends and fellow travelers, maybe for life.
In my own upbringing, my access to Jewish leadership was made possible by teachers who took me seriously when I was much too young and undeserving. But at its core, education requires a little bit of trust and a lot of grace, and I think that’s the basic business that we’re in.
I should also disclose that I’m not only the head of this organization that runs the teen fellowship, but I am the parent of a teen fellow, and the uncle to another. And it has been an incredible joy to watch this program come to life, both at work and at home. My three guests tonight are Sofia, a senior in high school from Oregon, Rivka, a junior in high school from New York City, and Daniel a sophomore in high school from Ohio.
Let’s start in that order. Thanks for coming tonight and I guess I wanna start with this. I’d love to understand from you all a little bit about your Jewish lives, what your commitments are, and a little bit of like, either what was missing that even as busy high school students with complex Jewish identities and commitments you took on something like this.Or if it wasn’t what was missing, what opportunity you saw in a commitment to Jewish learning that you thought would, could be enriching or additive to all your commitments.
Sofia, we’ll start.
Sofia: Yeah. So as you said, I’m from Oregon and I’m part of a pretty small Jewish community here. So I started getting involved with more global or international groups, I’d say my junior year. I started with the Rising Voices Fellowship through the Jewish Women’s Archive. And then from there I went to the Bronfman Fellowship. And then from there I went on to do the Shalom Hartman Teen Fellowship.
And what I was really looking for in this fellowship was kind of a continuation of learning that I had done at Bronfman. And I really loved Bronfman, but I wanted something that transitioned into the year as well. So that’s when I decided to apply for it.
The thing about living in a really small community, it’s really lovely, but at the same time there’s just a lack of resources. And I really wanted the resources that the Shalom Hartman Institute could provide for me.
Yehuda: That’s kind of, that’s really interesting on two levels. One is that you, you’re acknowledging for our listeners that there’s a kind of collaborative economy or ecosystem of all these different organizations who are doing outreach for teens. We don’t work together with those organizations, but teens who can figure, I can do this, I could do this, I could do this, can actually build a whole Jewish education and community through that.
And it’s also interesting to note the, the small-town thing and what has been made possible, like a program like this, if it doesn’t have Zoom as part of it, which wouldn’t have happened were it not for the pandemic, makes possible building networks and community around the country.
And has that happened for you? Has it felt that beyond just your own learning, your sense of the Jewish community or the Jewish people to whom you belong has expanded?
Sofia: Yeah, absolutely. It’s pretty amazing because I really did not grow up with a very large Jewish community. And then as soon as I did the first program, it was amazing cause it was just like a whole entire world that I had no idea about really opened up. And the amazing thing, like you were saying, this like structure where you get into one and then all these other opportunities come flowing in. So it definitely has been amazing.
And in my community there’s not a huge diversity of different observant levels. And so it was really shocking to me to go into these places and Orthodox people and people with yeshiva backgrounds and then more secular people and conservatives. So it was really amazing to explore all those different levels of observance.
Yehuda: So I guess if we jump from small-town Judaism in Oregon to New York City, Rivka, you’re here in New York City, I believe that you’re a Jewish Day school student. So maybe I’d love to start with the same question. What was missing or what did you feel was needed in terms of complimenting or challenging what was part of your Jewish identity and your Jewish education that led you to a program like this?
Rivka: Yes, of course. I think, quite differently to Sofia, there’s no lack of Jewish community or Jewish experience or Jewish diversity in New York. I grew up fairly religious and in a fairly close-knit community. And I found that the community felt, I think, it was very passionate about Judaism.
And there’s a lot of spirituality surrounding Judaism and a lot of emphasis on community. And the community that I grew up in focused less on Jewish intellectualism or seeking out context in the larger world, but focusing more inward on sources and rabbis and ideas that had already existed.
I think part of the reason I began seeking out an opportunity like Hartman was something Sofia spoke to, which is more context, except I think to me it was less about Jewish diversity and more about Jewish diversity and world experiences. I find that because Hartman takes from all over North America, you find people with very different life experiences who apply their Judaism to the way that they see the world.
And when we discuss sources at Hartman, we spend a lot of time with Jewish values and then applying it to modern day contexts.
Yehuda: So in some some ways a reverse story, it’s the move from a different type of insularity to the search for a different kind of collectivity and belonging. I’d love to hear an example from you, Rivka.
I know that you studied on miracles in Judaism. I know you studied on Jewish ethics and Israeli law, on communities and disagreement. I’d love to get an example for you, something that you learned in this program that you felt helped you stretch or think beyond the parameters of the more insular Judaism that you felt you were experiencing at home. A moment that maybe you were like, oh, either I haven’t encountered that before or that’s gonna make me think differently or even live Jewishly differently than I had been prepared to do.
Rivka: So one of the courses you mentioned, which I took, was community and disagreement. And essentially the question we focused on was to what extent can a community disagree or diverge without completely separating, which I think is a topic we touch on a lot at Hartman, which focuses so much on pluralism.
I think relating to me growing up in a very insular community, the idea was that you don’t conflict and that you don’t diverge and you’re either in the community or you’re not. And I think playing around with the idea that it, there is okay to be disagreement and it is understandable to have differences, especially when you understand, we focused on differences in the Jewish community, and we found that a big divergence was people who were focusing on preserving Judaism in what it was originally and then those who are working on ensuring the future of Judaism, which I think is particularly pertinent when speaking with teenagers about the future of Judaism.
I found to me that being able to have a discussion, realizing that balancing both perspectives was something that was, I think, very useful to me. And that conflict, even for the sake of conflict, to let people be their own selves and bring what they have to the table and understand that two people can be working for the sake of the broader wellbeing of Judaism. Even if they’re working at it in different ways, understanding that as long as there’s a larger overarching goal that’s the same disagreement would be okay.
Which I think is very helpful, especially because Hartman focuses so much on chavruta work and group conversation.
Yehuda: Yeah. That’s right. So, yeah. Daniel, let me turn to you. Same question as, you know, what was missing or what were you looking for in terms of your own Jewish background or your own Jewish identity that led you to a program that had these elements that both Rivka and Sofia have spoken about already, but also that was experimental. Like it didn’t exist prior to the email that we sent out back in, I guess it was August of last year.
Daniel: I grew up in the northern suburbs of Chicago, which is not necessarily one type of Judaism, there are more religious and less religious and in between. But I’d say the biggest push factor for me was my parents, who, neither of them really had very in-depth educations, like regarding Judaism.
My mom grew up in a rural town in the Catskills. And my dad, he grew up more secular in the northern suburbs of Chicago. And the one thing that they both really agreed on about our Jewish education, both me and my brothers, was that we should really take it upon ourselves to seek out different ways where we can learn.
And generally, I’ve gone to Jewish day school in my entire life, and I’ve generally been, not cloistered in my community, but more with the same people year after year, even though the schools do change and a few people come in, a few people come out. Really, it’s just been the same people. And I’d say my biggest change was I go to camp in Ramah Darom, which is in the South.
And that really opened me up to how different and similar Jews from around the country are. Because even though there were differences, there were so many similarities that, between us, that I, it made me feel really comforted that it’s not just my tiny little, well not very tiny, but the community of Jews that I’ve been around my entire life is actually bigger and that there are more people who are always gonna be there.
And I really felt that I wanted to have more of that. And Hartman has uniquely provided that opportunity for providing not just the Jews from my community or one other small or one other closed community, but from all across North America. And to see how each different person from each different community interacts with the texts and what their backgrounds lead them to believe is really insightful. And I find that very meaningful, that there are so many similarities, but like small minute differences. And those differences change a lot, but a little at the same.
Yehuda: Mm-hmm. It’s interesting, all three of you have made reference to this interesting phenomenon of olam katan olam gadol, small world in a big world. I think maybe that’s inevitable when it comes to teens. If you’re still in living in a household that is of your parents in which you have some autonomy, but it’s more limited, your world is construed and constructed for you.
But, and all of you have kind of described the search for something larger, for some sense of belonging. So Daniel, I’ll stay with you for one second. What does it mean to you to belong to something larger in that sense? I mean, this, it’s like a, it’s like a really big Jewish question.
It’s not just, I know that there are now Jews in Oregon. I know that I may have a friend in New York if I find my way there. That’s nice. That’s fine. What does it mean to you in terms of your understanding of Judaism, or the Jewish people to feel a sense that I belong to a larger world of Jews all over the place.
Daniel: Well for a general community, my civics teacher would tell me that it’s responsibilities that I have to the community and rights that I get back. And that same teacher who is also now my Jewish history teacher, would tell me that wherever I go, I am always gonna be able to find another Jew and I can always share a meal.
Jewish history, that’s what made Jews such great merchants because we could travel all around the world and we’d have a common language, a common culture, and we could interact with people in those different cities across the world in such a unique way that it was conducive for economic activity, but not just economic activity because it aided in cultural diffusion. And for me in the modern day, that means that wherever I go, when I eventually go to college and then maybe moved from the city, if I ever want to go anywhere, I know that I can find people that I can rely on, and that will always be there for me.
Yehuda: I am curious for the rest of you. Like what, okay, so let’s say you now can journey on and find other Jews. So Daniel put on the table one idea of Jewish peoplehood is, you know, I don’t think you said this exactly, but there is a kind of instrumentalist and economically self-serving, it’s like useful, I can speak to Jews in other places. I can have a mercantile economy of Jews traveling around the world.
That’s one piece of this story is, I can have community wherever I find myself. And as a parent, by the way, of someone who’s now looking at colleges. Looking and listening for, what will it feel like to belong to a particular Jewish community, that’s its own version of that experiment. I feel my Jewish community’s like this, I want to envision what’ll belong to a Jewish community elsewhere.
What else do you feel like a sense of a bigger Jewish world affords you, when you think about your Judaism? What does it make you gravitate towards? What’s either exciting for you about that? What’s concerning to you? What ways does it change what you think Judaism is or Jewish peoplehood means? Maybe I’ll come back to you, Sofia.
Sofia: For that I would say, you know, I just think that the community, the Jewish community at large has a lot of resources and I think that once you tap into networks, um, kind of like the Shalom Hartman Institute or, you know, like Bronfman different places, you have the ability then to just reach a lot more people.
Like for example, I’ll say in my community, I’m working to try and start a Jews of Color, Sephardi, Mizrachi group in the mid-Willamette Valley, which is where I’m from. And all I had to do was email like certain people at Hartman. And then I emailed certain people at the Jewish Woman’s Archive and I emailed a couple people at Bronfman and I just said, Hey, I am in need of someone to help me start this group. I need those resources.
And within two days I had multiple emails back helping me and giving me those resources. And I think that’s really lovely that once you have access to that and that larger Jewish community, there’s just a lot of people there to support you and help you with different projects or things that you’re interested in. So I think that’s really lovely.
Yehuda: It’s like the version of when you start a new school, you gotta find your people. And if you’re limited based on geography, it’s sometimes hard to find your people. And there’s some way of, if I belong to the Jewish people, I might be able to find points of access, that the people who I want to be people with may not be exactly in my backyard, but might be in other parts of the world that I can connect to.
Rivka, what about you? You had used the terminology of insularity before, and I’m curious, like what do you feel the promise is of belonging to a larger peoplehood? What might that do for, as you think about building your own Jewish identity that’s not within the constraints of your household or the choices that are made for you?
Rivka: I think belonging to larger peoplehood and more specifically, as very important to me, like a pluralistic and diverse larger Jewish peoplehood, I find there’s something very appealing about how fluid and dynamic I came to understand Judaism to be. The more Jews I met and the more I learned about Judaism, the more I realized that it fits into people’s lives in very different ways.
And they use it as a way, I think they, they bounce their Judaism off other parts of their identity, as Sofia was saying about Jewish women of color. I think the beautiful thing about Judaism is that it adapts and it shapes and it moves with its people. And it doesn’t necessarily need to move in the same way.
So I think being part of a larger peoplehood is understanding the similarities of how Judaism applies to people’s life, and also understanding the ways that people are actively interacting with Judaism as a religion, I find almost as interesting as understanding Judaism as a religion in the text.
Yehuda: Okay, so let me ask you a different question entirely to the three of you, which is this, and you can use, you’re kind of, you’re welcome to rant about this one. In fact, I’d love for you to.
Most of the people who listen to this podcast are not teenagers. But many of them are in the positions of leadership in the Jewish community who shape the offerings that are made to other Jews. They could be rabbis, they could be people who work in Jewish organizations or philanthropy. What do you think the Jewish community gets wrong, doesn’t know, doesn’t understand about younger people? What are they screwing up all the time? What do you wish that they would know about what it means to be a Jewish teenager in America now?
Go ahead, Sofia.
Sofia: You know, I think that’s a difficult question just because all of the adults that I’ve interacted with have been very supportive of me and of my Judaism. But I would say as far as what they’re getting wrong, not from my personal experience, but I guess from what I’ve observed from other people, it’s like not allowing room to explore different areas of Judaism.
Like with my family, it’s been very much, you know, like, go out, explore different levels of observance, do whatever you want. But from what I’ve noticed from other teenagers and their parents, it’s very much like, oh, when you go out into the world, you are going to continue doing Judaism exactly as we have done in this family.
And I think that’s harmful to the teenagers, just because I think if you kind of keep people into one box, they’re going to break out of that. And I think that if you allow for more flexibility, it’ll allow for the people themselves to choose really what works best for them and really be able to kind of fit into a better mold. So that’s what I would say for that question.
Yehuda: So do you think that you, the reason that you wound up being connected to adults and institutions who did help you break out or identify what you wanted, I’m gonna put you on the spot, was that because of you?
Sofia: Absolutely. And I, I think, yeah.
Yehuda: Okay, so that’s powerful, right? So that’s, that’s data in and of itself. It’s not that we are building a system that’s really easy for teens to navigate and to find their way, but if you’re really entrepreneurial and you know what you want, you’re seeking out Jews of color and you know that you’re limited by your own community, you can find these things.
So maybe part of the answer, Sofia, might be, we need to curate the resources much more effectively to help people who don’t have to go searching and seeking to find their people.
Sofia: Yeah, and I’d also say that you know, the people in my life who I know who are the most passionate about Judaism, and I don’t wanna generalize, but those people had to really actively work hard for the Judaism that they have.
And so I think that, you know, allowing people to work for like what their spirituality is or giving those resources, but at the same time, allowing them to choose makes in turn your spirituality and your religion a lot more powerful.
Yehuda: Go ahead, Daniel. What do you think?
Daniel: Well in Chicago the JUF is very involved with its teenagers. There are a plethora of programs and they all are slightly different and attract a different subset of teenagers. But one of the things I think is missing, this is especially true for youth groups, there’s been a decline in how many people participate, and I think that’s mainly because of, the youth groups aren’t presenting an opportunity that is unique.
Because a lot of times it’s, let’s go to a laser tag or bowling, but you can do that, now that we’re teenagers and we have cars, we can drive to those places with just our friends. Why do we need the middleman? So I think there has to be a more unique aspect to each program and to why I should go to it instead of doing something with just my friends.
Yehuda: I will say personally that I appreciate that comment and part of the reason I appreciate that comment is because there is a prevailing language in the Jewish ecosystem that says you just have to give people exactly what they want. And that assumes that what teenagers want are the same things that any teenager wants, which is activities that they might do with their friends and very Judaism light. It’s not only Judaism light, but it’s spelled lite. It’s really light. It’s Judaism Lite.
And you’re arguing Daniel, that like, well, that’s fine. But what’s particularly compelling about doing random activities with other people who happen to be Jewish, as opposed to more powerful or unique offerings that actually lean into that Jewishness?
Would you say that your experience, Daniel, in describing that is characteristic? Do you think there’s a much larger market of Jewish teenagers who would say, if the Jewish community was serious about giving me really serious Jewish stuff, I would participate more?
Daniel: I know I would. But I think there still needs to be this like fun aspect, but the Judaism Lite, as you put it, is definitely not providing the uniqueness that a lot of people and a lot of teenagers want. Because yes, we can go and go bowling with our friends but there’s the specific aspect of learning together or doing an activity for a reason. There’s like a, a goal, a message that we can take away from this that I think is missing for the broader Jewish teen community.
Yehuda: What about you, Rivka? If I was giving you a chance to kind of describe what you think the Jewish community gets wrong about teenagers or what it needs to do differently, what they don’t understand about what it means to be a Jewish teenager in America, what would you say?
Rivka: I would love to hop on something similar to what Daniel was saying. I think some difficulty that I see in the way that Jewish organizations and institutions are appealing to teenagers is that they’re appealing to teenagers with new and revised and teenager-focused programs that isn’t really working to revise Judaism to fit teenagers.
And so they’ll take them on trips and do activities to get them into the same communities without working to possibly reform the communities or reform the way that Judaism is practiced to fit the way that teenagers want. I don’t think the issue is that teenagers aren’t invested enough in their community. I think maybe, I think sometimes the answer is to make space for them in a preexisting community, and sometimes I think it’s enough to make a community for them and themselves.
I think Judaism is constantly evolving. I, I think a lot of the older generation believes that the younger generation is a lot less religious or a lot less religiously involved. And to an extent that’s true. But I wonder if it’s because they’re not giving the teenagers the space to make the religion their own.
Yehuda: So let’s say you, Rivka, were in position to shape the Jewishness of the very institutions that you’re in and maybe trying to break out of. What would that look like for you? What kind of changes would you want to, like, let’s say you were given a real, and I I, I’m gonna ask this of all of you. Let’s say you were given a real seat at the table in Jewish life. It wasn’t, I have to do fellowship after fellowship in order to eventually be a Jewish student on campus, then eventually, eventually, eventually really be in charge.
What kind of changes would you wanna lead in Jewish life, if you had the positions inside your own institutions now, or even in the future, what would you wanna make different about Jewish life in America?
Rivka: Honestly, I think I would focus on having the younger generation work to reinterpret parts of Jewish texts that we found like large programs and large traditions on and have them take a look at it with fresh eyes. And then of course, once they’ve had their first impressions, to inform that with tradition and precedent and pre-existing culture, I think that’s wonderful. I think obviously it would be a mistake to forget all of the history that’s behind us, but I think there seems to be a certain point where it’s no longer upper interpretation, which bothers me because I think the beauty of Judaism is that it’s so interpretive and therefore so deeply personal.
Yehuda: Okay, so Rivka’s Big Play is going to be in the realm of primary access to the text to be able to offer first firsthand and new interpretations of this material so that when we talk about the cultural inheritance of the Jewish people, which is our text, it is informed by the perspectives of young people.
Sofia, what about you? You get to shape the agenda for Jewish life in North America. What looks different?
Sofia: I would say, I think that there’s obviously a lot of patriarchal views in Judaism, and I think I would want to change that because I definitely think that, you know, the younger generation is leaning more liberal. I won’t say for everyone. And I think also these young women are growing up in a world where they have access to almost as much as a man does, and they, you know, have the power and the strength to go up and do everything they want to do. And they also have ambition.
And those ambitions might also be that they want to be a part of a really Orthodox Jewish community and they wanna partake in all those beautiful traditions. But at the same time, as a woman, it can feel very difficult when you love this religion and it’s given you so much and you enjoy it so much, but at the same time, there are certain systematic things that are really pushing you down and going against your values.
And I think it’s a very difficult path to navigate when you really want to explore the more observant side of Judaism, yet you feel like you are being pushed out.
Yehuda: Mm-hmm. And Daniel, what about you? You get the keys to the kingdom.
Daniel: Oh, that’s a lot of responsibility. I would say that one of the biggest missing pieces of the puzzle, at least in my community, are the Jewish kids who don’t go to the Jewish high schools or middle schools, and I think they’re missing out on a lot of these Jewish opportunities because there’s a lack of information and there’s a lack of programs specifically tailored to them.
And even going to a public school here is like 60% Jewish, probably more. But it’s missing that Jewish learning aspect, as Rivka said, in order to engage, not just the Jewish teens who are learning at a Jewish day school, in which they already have set classes for religious studies, the public school kids are missing out on that and that there should be more programming directed at them and by them.
So teens, at least in my experience, generally respond to other teens telling them to do something more than they do adults telling them to do something. Teens are generally rebellious, and when an authority figure tells you, go do this, the first instinct is, I’m gonna do the opposite, even though it’s not necessarily the best idea.
So I think by getting teens to seek out other teens and to include them in this, in their Jewish learning, in their Jewish study, I think that will provide for a more vibrant Jewish teen community and overall a more vibrant Jewish community.
Yehuda: It’s interesting, in this program that you’re all participating in, if I’m not mistaken, it’s about a third day school students, it’s about a third public school students, and about a third non-Jewish private school. It came out that way. There wasn’t like a grand plan that that would be the case, but it’s really interesting to notice what needs are being met by those very different type of profiles, right?
Some cases, as you, as you mentioned, Daniel, there are some kids who are in public schools and feel like they either had a Jewish education that ended at a certain point, or they’ve been kind of looking for something like this for a long time, or their parents have been looking, or their rabbi.
Day school kids are sometimes looking for something different or breaking out a little bit of insular categories, looking to network differently. So there’s a lot of different kind of profiles and I heard what you said, the kind of peer modeling of these types of opportunities could, and maybe even concierge-ing for the larger field could actually help build those bridges.
Let me ask you a different hard question. You know, the thing that makes the thing that most makes Jewish adults anxious about Jewish young people, like a far away second on the list is Jewish continuity. Will they be Jews? The thing that makes adults most anxious about the future of Jewish life is on Israel.
With a perception that the climate for young people around Israel is so poisonous and so toxic, largely because of the way that social media has become the main vehicle by which people encounter Zionism in Israel. Largely because there are genuine reasons in the world right now to be concerned about Israel’s democratic character and so forth.
I’d love for you to share some perspective with our listeners about what it actually is like to be a teenager forming your own opinions and your own relationship to Zionism and to Israel. What’s it actually like and does it correlate to the things that feel like they are the huge fears of what the organized Jewish community has about what quote unquote young people are being exposed to?
Maybe I’ll start with you, Daniel.
Daniel: So from my experience and my relationship with Israel, it’s mostly been based on what my parents and what my teachers and what my siblings have experienced, because sadly my eighth grade Israel trip was canceled because of Covid. And I think that’s actually one of the most important parts to ensure that there’s still a continuing love for Israel.
It’s to go physically to Israel. And I know there are a lot of programs like Birthright that sponsor that. And I think there’s just something magical about the land of Israel, like forgetting about the politics and all the messy international relations that come up when you talk about Israel, the first thing that you need to find is a love for the land itself and for the people and for the culture and for the language. And I think that that is essential, and at least in my school that has been promulgated.
Every Friday in Hebrew class we have Culture Day, Yom Tabut, which is about Israel. So students research a specific aspect of Israeli society or about Israel, and then they present it to the rest of the class. And I think by sharing Israel from each person’s perspective, they really form a love for Israel.
And beyond that, when you get to the messy politics, yes, people take different sides, they fall on different arguments, but once you have that love for Israel, the criticism is only constructive. There isn’t any, Israel doesn’t deserve to exist. There isn’t any of that hateful rhetoric that tends to blur into antisemitism. And I think at least among my friends, that’s all true. And again, I’m speaking from a pretty tight-knit Jewish community. But from my experiences, Israel is definitely connected and deeply intertwined with Jewish teenagers.
Yehuda: What about you, Rivka? What are you seeing about your peers and the community that you’re in, in terms of the climate or attitudes on Israel?
Rivka: So, I think in the communities that I’ve been in, I think Zionism is seen as, or it’s taken for granted in the sense that it isn’t really posed as a question often. I think Daniel was speaking on people questioning Israel’s right to exist, which is a conversation that happens. I find that it happens almost never in the Jewish community.
I find it really interesting to understand the ways in which people interact with. Daniel was speaking about people going to the land and that being an important connector. And I think there’s this interesting way in which people connect to Israel and some of it is through history. Some of it is through people who have lived there or have had family there. And it’s a nation, it’s more a nationality to them than it is a religious site.
I also think there’s something difficult with how political Israel is, especially recently and especially what’s been going on with their democracy where because Israel is a Jewish state, I think it’s difficult for young people to reconcile when the state may do something that either is or isn’t following Jewish values.
I think it’s interesting because Israel is so dynamic, to see people apply Jewish values to something that is changing. In Hartman we speak a lot about the different ways that something, a person or a community can be Jewish. And I think in the same way when you say Israel is a Jewish state, it’s really interesting to see what people mean by that.
Yehuda: Sofia, but what about you? And you may have a slightly different perspective on this. Having spent last summer in Israel on the Bronfman program, which does try to kind of foreground diversity of perspectives, multiplicity of views, and nuanced view about the conflict.
I’m curious whether that experience lives comfortably with what else you see among your peer community or whether that was also like a really anomalous experience.
Sofia: Yeah, so growing up I had a very different experience. So I go to public school. I’ve been going to public school since elementary school, and I’d say there’s maybe five Jewish kids in my entire grade and I’m probably the only practicing one. So really, whenever the topic of Israel comes up at my school, it’s very much, you know, the majority of people are against Israel, do not like Israel, have very negative views, which is very difficult, you know, for me to kind of sit there and experience.
I’d also say that, you know, with social media, especially whenever there’s kind of a flare-up of fighting in Israel, definitely, I see a lot of slightly anti-Semitic posts on social media pop up from people at my school. So that’s difficult.
My experience last summer was incredible. It definitely, you know, made me question a lot of things, but in a really good way. Growing up I had a very idyllic view of Israel. My family’s very supportive of Israel and so I think just growing up I kind of thought that it was this perfect place, you know, where all the Jews live happily.
And then kind of getting older, I realized that that wasn’t necessarily the case. And then last summer I visited, I lived, well, I was in Jerusalem for five weeks and that was really great. And I actually, I spoke to three Israeli settlers. And then the next day I went to Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem and spoke with three Palestinians.
And that was really a lovely experience just because you know, you get to hear these just completely different views. And what I really noticed was that while their views were different, they were saying very similar things. You had the Palestinian people saying, you know, we have a right to this land. You know, our people are here. This is where our community is. And then you also had the Jewish settlers saying the exact same things.
And I think what I really realized throughout that experience was that each side has so much trauma from past generations. You know, we have the Holocaust on the Jewish side, inquisition, crusades, all that different Jewish trauma.
And then, you know, you have the Palestinians who are taken out of their homes, and different things like that. And so I think it’s a really difficult situation to navigate because once you see both sides of it, you know, it’s just humans, and it’s very heartbreaking to see all these different issues.
But you know, even with that said, even though I had, I dealt with that kind of cognitive dissonance of seeing different groups, I would still say that my relationship to Israel is very strong. And I’m supportive of them. So.
Yehuda: That’s a good, that’s a good proof of concept.
I’m excited for you all for the next weekend, which is coming up in a couple weeks because we’re gonna be engaging directly the question of, you know, simultaneously the Jewish people are living in a period of a kind of access to power that Jews really have never had, both in the American Jewish context and in the state of Israel, and at the same time, we’re living through a period of pronounced historical sense of vulnerability and vulnerability that we’re currently experiencing.
And we have the ability, as the Jewish people, to do more with respect to goodness and justice through our framework of power than we’ve never been able to do before.
And all of those issues come into tension with all of the questions we’ve talked about tonight, about what it means to be an American Jew, and what it means to be in relationship to Israel. And if, if your case is precedent, Sofia, I think it’s a good one, that you can take the most complicated view of all of these issues and still emerge curious, eager to engage, and actively wanting to be part of the Jewish people and our conversations.
It’s a school night. I’m gonna ask you one last question. You’ve all been really generous with your time and I’ve loved talking to all of you.
I want you to think back a little bit over the course of this year and, and give us one, either idea that you learned over the course of this year, a text that you encountered maybe for the first time. Or a big Jewish question that’s still sticking with you, after this year of your own learning.
You know, my dream is that whenever anybody comes out of a Jewish educational program, they don’t feel whole. They feel curious. If someone feels whole, okay, so you gave them something and they left. Like, that’s not, what are we, a gas station? That’s not what this is. Right? People are supposed to leave inflamed, like passionate and curious with something.
So what are either curious about, or something that’s a text or an idea that one of your faculty shared or that you came up with or one of your classmates brought up that’s still rattling around your head after this year of learning,
Sofia: I guess, I took this one class on miracles and kind of what constituted a miracle and I believe that I was in havruta with Daniel actually during this class. And that was a great havruta and I think it was really interesting to me because there were kind of two perspectives on miracles that you could take.
You could either take the idea of, you know, I wake up every morning and that’s a miracle in and of itself. You know, seeing the, having a mundane miracle. Or then you could take this other idea of like, you know, this grand beautiful miracle. And I guess what I’m just thinking about is in modern day we don’t necessarily have those super big gigantic miracles anymore. Not like the Biblical times.
And so I’m just, you know, thinking about in this day and age, kind of what constitutes a miracle and what we should value as a miracle. Is it, you know, waking up every morning? Should we value that as a miracle or, you know, would it be something else? So, yeah.
Yehuda: Great. Rivka?
Rivka: I had this super interesting class, actually at the first Shabbaton, so this was part of my introduction to Hartman, which focused on women in the text and specifically places in which women weren’t mentioned in the text or really like defining Jewish commandments that weren’t assigned to women and were only assigned to men.
And the conversation that I had with a couple other of the fellows was what it means to care so deeply about a text and to care about a religion, and then also what it would mean to interact with the religion when you weren’t necessarily put in the conversation from the beginning.
Sofia spoke a little bit about women in Judaism and I think some of the underlying patriarchal values. I think that’s something that I have been focusing a lot. The more people I speak to and the more I find, I’m encountering a lot of text and I think trying to find merit in the text, trying not to shift the text to the point where it loses its integrity, but also making space for all types of people in Judaism, to practice Judaism, even on an Orthodox level. I find that the most inclusive groups tend to be those who shift the text the most or, or practice maybe less. And I find that there’s an important conversation to be had about inclusion of women in Orthodoxy.
Yehuda: Hmm. Daniel?
Daniel: So also at the first Shabbaton, I wasn’t in this class, I was just walking by, and I kind of, not eavesdropped, but I listened in on the class that was going on that was finishing up. It was about AI and robots.
And I thought that was really interesting because even though like with ChatGPT and I think Snapchat just came up with an AI feature, but specifically with ChatGPT schools have reacted in different ways to this like quote unquote AI threat.
And then Judaism also has its own take, and that’s kind of what I love about Judaism, that it has a take on everything. It has a position on any conversation you could possibly think of. And there’s multiple different positions within Judaism on each of those different arguments, different discussions.
And I think that specifically relating to AI or kind of this modern or post-modern transition that we’re now kind of beginning as a global society is how Judaism is going to adapt and kind of change with the times because as we’ve seen before, like if you look into history, there was the split of the Reform and the Conservative movements from the Orthodox movement, which kind of rose up in that opposition.
And I think that, that, I find it interesting or find it puzzling how Jews can together even if we have these kind of denominational divides. And that even though someone might be Reform or someone might be Conservative, someone might be Orthodox, someone might be Renewal, there’s kind of this energy that kind of permeates all of the every single Jew that we’re all Jewish. We’re all one people. And I find that be so interesting and at the same time a little puzzling as to how that’s gonna continue on to the future, where we don’t really know how technology is going to change how we interact with each other.
Yehuda: Mm-hmm. Well, thanks to all of you tonight, for being on this show, Sofia and Rivka and Daniel. And thanks to all of you for listening.
Identity Crisis is produced by David Zvi Kalman and was edited by Gareth Hobbs at Silver Sound NYC. Our production manager is M. Louis Gordon.
This show was produced this week with a lot of help from the Hartman teen fellows team, specifically Daniel Braunfeld and Amalya Sherman. And as well with help from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz and music provided by Socalled. Maital Friedman is our vice president of communications and creative.
Transcripts of our show are now available on the website, typically a week after an episode airs to find them to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, and specifically to learn more about the Hartman Teen Fellows program, which is taking applications now for next fall, visit us online at shalomhartman.org.
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