Staying Engaged after the Bar Mitzvah
One of the more challenging obstacles facing synagogues today is how to keep their post- bar mitzvah students engaged with their studies and connected to their Jewish identity.
Ellen Goldberg taught elementary school for 30 years and though retired from her secular position, she heads the Mitzvah Academy class at Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls. For the last six years, she has successfully engaged her students and found creative ways to keep them coming.
“I have found that talking to teens about current events can be incredibly enlightening,” she says. “Many of them are knowledgeable about the issues our world is facing. When they have an opportunity to have hands-on experiences, they connect on a much deeper level.
“For us, that looks like a beach clean up, making food for people with AIDS, visiting an assisted-living center and playing games with the residents, walking for the fight against breast cancer, helping out in a food pantry, or participating in a polar plunge to raise awareness for the opioid epidemic. Sometimes a specific act of service or social justice topic will strike a chord and ignite a spark in them,” she says.
“When students see that they can make a difference with their actions, it is very meaningful. The curriculum ties each off-site visit with a Jewish value which is introduced before the visit.
“This hands-on work they do with their peers helps to strengthen their relationships as well. The goal is for them to continue practicing Tikkun Olam into adulthood.”
Magda Reyes has been the director of Congregational Learning at Monmouth Reform Temple for the last five years and a Jewish educator for 25 years.
She believes one of the best ways to keep teenagers involved is by starting early.
“There are a few pivotal things that must be in place to have a successful post-bar mitzvah program,” she notes. “Giving them opportunities to form relationships both within the classroom and outside with social time, independent of the school, is very important.”
Another aspect is to keep the culture of “Bar mitzvah is not the end of Jewish education” alive within the synagogue. It’s just a point in a road that continues throughout their lives.
“In Mitzvah Academy young teens practice the skills they learned in elementary school, debate relevant issues, and apply a Jewish lens to current events and the world around them,” she explains. “They develop valuable relationships with temple staff and clergy along with the students in their class. Religious schools should never be in ‘competition’ with outside interests. It’s about collaboration between their secular world and Jewish identity.”
Seeing the value that comes from helping the community establishes a pattern of social service for the future and the realization that Judaism is not limited to studying books in the classroom. The program is not without its challenges.
“Today’s teens are pulled in so many directions that it can be difficult for them to see the importance and depth of their service,” she says. “The pull comes from living in a predominantly non-Jewish world and our teens’ desire to fit in, rather than stand out from their peer groups.”
A Smorgasbord of Events
One of the more important events is the social justice program known as L’Taken. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism funds this program where 10th graders across the country travel to Washington, D.C., and learn how to lobby senators and representatives. The emphasis on social justice bridges their Jewish and secular worlds in meaningful ways.
Monmouth County resident Cori Patterson sent her daughter on the trip in September and recalls how educational it was for her.
“The D.C. weekend was an important trip to remind teenagers that we all have a voice. My daughter enjoyed meeting Jewish teens from around the country and learning how our experiences are so similar. The Jewish connection is important to keep alive.”
Now more than ever Jewish teens need a safe place where they can connect and feel comfortable with their Jewish identity.
Gena Ansell-Lande is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine.