Should Parents Insist That Their Teens Partake In Jewish Life?

What is the balance between giving teens individual control over their non-academic time commitments versus setting requirements, particularly around Jewish activities?...

By Emeri S. Handler


Emeri S. Handler is Parent Education Manager at Challenge Success/Department of Education at Stanford University. Emeri serves on the board of directors of Moving Traditions and the OFJCC in Palo Alto. She lives in Palo Alto with her husband, Brad and their three daughters, all of whom attend Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School. Emeri was a Wexner Heritage Fellow; a version of this post is published on the Wexner Foundation’s blog and eJewishPhilanthropy.

As a parent, I value giving my teenage daughters autonomy over their down time.  I believe that they need space to relax, reflect, and develop interests outside of school that will help them grow as individuals.  My children attend a Jewish day school; one that is rich with profound Jewish experiences that enhance their lives and helps them solidify their Jewish identities.  So what is the balance between giving them individual control over their non-academic time commitments versus setting requirements, particularly around Jewish activities?

As a member of the Board of Moving Traditions, I know the impact that our programs Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing! and Shevet Achim: The Brotherhood have on helping teens explore the central questions of their lives, such as “What does it mean to be a man?” “What does it mean to be a woman?” and “What does it mean to be true to myself?”  With an ongoing intimate group of peers and a committed adult mentor, the 4,000 middle and high school adolescents in our groups meet monthly, unpacking the social pressures that can limit them as males and females, and as human beings.  In the process, the teens in Moving Traditions’ create something powerful: a personally meaningful Jewish community that is all their own.

A study out of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University found that by the end of high school only 17% of boys and 24% of girls participate in some form of Jewish education.  For me, teens’ mass exodus from Jewish life is not simply about underwhelming Hebrew School experiences or parental exhaustion from transporting over-scheduled kids to yet another activity.

I see this as a failure of the Jewish community to really embrace our teens and offer them what they need precisely when they are intellectually and spiritually questioning the world around them.  We let them leave at the exact moment when Jewish values, wisdom and a supportive community could really help them on their journey to adulthood.

I sympathize when I hear parents make comments like, “I couldn’t get my kid to attend the first meeting and I decided it was not worth an argument.”  However I also know from speaking to teens in our programs that many say their parents initially forced them to participate — and they are grateful they did so.

So what is the balance? When do we insist that our teens partake in Jewish life?

I know that many of you who will read this have already opted “in” to Jewish life, but what about those who have opted “out?” Somehow with academics and sports the answer seems clear.  Yet what is the long term cost to their development as people and as Jews when we let our teens completely drop out of Jewish life?

Perhaps in the end it comes down to the quality of the experience. When our Shevet Achim or Rosh Hodesh groups run well — with a strong group leader who connects with teens in significant conversations making Jewish texts and traditions relevant and engaging — magic happens.

Like anything else, we fight to give our kids what we know they need and what we believe will shape them as human beings.  We would not say to our kids when they are in high school, “Hey, we’ve decided you have had enough movement for your lifetime and you don’t need to exercise anymore.” Why should their Jewish life experience be any different?

I’d love to hear how you navigate this issue with your teen.