Jewish and Christian communities have long struggled to make religion relevant to youth and teens. One of the ways that both communities have attempted to combat the problem of disaffected youth has been to offer alternate programming for young people.
But a recent survey has shown that this approach is not working.
The National Center for Family Integrated Churches found that the reason Christian youth groups were not successful might be because they fail to inspire participants. An article on the study in Charisma Magazine argues that taking children away from the parents and the senior religious figures at church may be what is harming the church’s ability to impact the youth. What the article shows is that parents and clergy are the best resources for religious instruction and inspiration. Therefore, outsourcing to junior clergy or third party mentors takes the best resource out of the equation.
There is an established norm at Orthodox synagogues across America to provide youth groups and teen minyan (prayer quorum) services on Shabbat, based on an assumption that these groups are beneficial to the youth and teens in attendance. But if we consider NCFIC’s findings, we understand that this conventional wisdom may actually be inaccurate. Children belong in shul with their parents and shuls must be places that welcome youth.
Youth programming is more prominent in synagogues that are less than ultra-Orthodox. In Haredi shuls the kids stay in shul for the most part. In most Modern Orthodox shuls only the adults pray in the main sanctuary. Childcare is a selling point at many shuls and not just for babies and toddlers, older children are cared for as well.
I think we are making a mistake in segregating our shuls by age. Children should participate in the shul experience. They should see their parents as prayer role models. Shul must become ingrained in their religious psyche. Children must feel welcome in shul. Everyone needs to learn how to pray and participate in the prayers. It can’t feel good to be shooed out of the sanctuary as though one is unwanted or undesired in shul. Every time we send our youth out of shul, we create negative associations in their minds.
Further, the criticism of youth groups and failed attempts to inspire our teens tends to focus on programming. People think that the right person, or with the right amount of money, or with the perfect program everyone will be turned on by their Judaism.
Now it seems there is some evidence that poorly programmed youth groups are not a problem. Perhaps we can extrapolate from the Christian survey that the very existence of youth programming can be a problem.
Some parental duties are non-delegable. We can hire people to teach our children math, how to kick a soccer ball, or even to accumulate Torah knowledge and wisdom. But passion for Judaism and spirituality must come from the home. It comes from mothers and fathers who care about their children and also care about their Judaism. Passion and inspiration cannot be taught. They must be handed off.
It is no wonder that the Torah reiterates that Torah should be taught by parents to their children. “Ask your father and he will tell you” (Deuteronomy 32:7) is not mere advice; it is the way Judaism passes from one generation to the next. Passion and inspiration require deep, long-term, personal relationships, like the relationship between parent and child.
One of the most important places parents can demonstrate this passion and impart it to the next generation is in shul. Let’s not miss out on this opportunity. We only have one chance to raise our children. We can’t afford not to get it right.
Mother Teresa famously said, “The family that prays together stays together.” Part of staying together in Judaism is keeping the Jewish flame alive and burning strong. Praying together is a vital tool in this endeavor and we should seek to maximize these opportunities. Instead of relegating our children to side rooms and shallow programs, and delegating our parenting role to less qualified counselors, we should embrace the few hours we can spend with our children in shul. Let’s pray together.
Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, J.D., is the rabbi at the famous Pacific Jewish Center | The Shul on the Beach in Venice, CA. Connect with Rabbi Fink through Facebook, Twitter or email. He blogs at http://finkorswim.com.