Creating Happy Jewish Youth

by Rachel Kasten

Within an hour of the official kick-off of the Youth Engagement Conference, I was already inspired. Rabbi Bradley Solmsen, the URJ’s Director of Youth Engagement, informed us that each of our presenters were asked to give a talk they had never given before, in order to model the conference’s goals of thinking new thoughts and taking risks.

Our first speaker, Allison Fine, an author, blogger, and speaker, recounted a story that she said has stuck with her for some time. It is now stuck with me, too.

A young Jewish adult attended services at the local Chabad house. She was asked: “Did you go there because it was free?” She responded: “No. I went because it was joyous.”

Ms. Fine then challenged the youth professionals assembled at the Youth Engagement Conference: “Where are you creating joy?”

Good question. Although happiness is often a by-product of our work, how often is it an explicit goal? When do we say to ourselves, “I hope our teens leave happier than they came”? I know strategies for teaching Jewish holidays, for teaching Bible, for teaching most Jewish content… but I do not know how to teach, how to create, joy.

Ms. Fine suggested that the key is not trying so hard to cram in content and a shifted focus on relationship-building. She stated a possible new goal of our work: creating happy grown-ups who infuse Judaism into their lives.

Isn’t that really what our goal is anyway? Happy, Jewish adults. Perhaps we could spend less time teaching specific content to our students and instead give them the tools to know how to access that content for themselves; that could leave us more latitude to focus on projects that would create joy.

The example given was a synagogue high school program that began the year without a set curriculum. The teens were given the opportunity to choose a yearlong project, and they chose to renovate the youth lounge. Throughout the year, the teens met regularly to work on their project, while the youth professional wove in content about teamwork, sacred space, and other Jewish concepts, creating a meaningful, joyous experience for the teens.

I don’t know what creating joy might look like within my own congregation, but I do know what the result would look like:

A teenager attends an event at a Reform synagogue. A friend asks: “Did you go there because it was free?” He responds: “No. I went because it was joyous.”

Rachel Kasten is the assistant director of education & youth Programs at Isaac M. Wise Temple in Cincinnati, OH.