Until recently, there has been relatively little investigation of adolescents in Jewish contexts, other than the sporadic research conducted into the various settings in which Jewish teenagers have found themselves (e.g., summer camps, youth organizations, day schools, and teen Israel trips). Although, since the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, much communal discussion focused on the precipitous “dropout” rate of Jewish teenagers from Jewish communal life and organizations post the age of bar and bat mitzvah, it has only been investments in research by several philanthropic foundations in the past decade that have begun to surface a more comprehensive knowledge of 21st-century Jewish teens (Bryfman, 2020; BTW/Rosov Consulting, 2013; Levites & Sayfan, 2019).
Through this research, we have learned of a generation of Jewish teens in America who are perhaps best described through the multitude of paradoxes that they embody. Jewish Gen Z (born around the turn of the millennium) are largely universalists who are deeply proud of being Jewish. They might not be religious in the ways of their parents and grandparents but, overall, they feel a strong attachment to their families and to family traditions, and they, like many of their contemporary American peers, are extremely concerned about themselves, but also highly altruistic and determined to help make the world a better place.
This is also a generation notable for increased rates of anxiety and depression. As seen in this issue, many Jewish educators are focusing much attention on helping to develop a generation of resilient, healthy, and thriving youth, as much as they are concerned with the Jewish development of these teens. Among the many opportunities that this collection of research begins to uncover is that today’s generation of teenagers are not seen as rebelling against their parents as much as previous generations; and knowing that teens respect and want to learn from parents much more than we initially thought opens up the possibility of more intergenerational Jewish learning.
As we are finalizing this journal amidst the pandemic, it is even more acutely obvious that we would make mention of perhaps the single quality that most characterizes today’s teenagers. Their adeptness with technology, often viewed as a distraction or negative social force, is being harnessed by these digital natives to continue their learning, maintain their social connections, and ensure their mental health even amidst their social isolation. Much as the marketers of the 1940s predicted, it is teenagers who are often seen utilizing technology in leading the way in the social, economic, and often political trends of our society.
The articles in this issue confirm that today’s Jewish teenagers are a generation of creative thinkers; they will not be the passive recipients of an ancient tradition. Instead, they are broadly categorized as a generation from whom Jewish wisdom, values, and tradition are most readily adapted when presented in a nondogmatic, inquiry-based approach, where their role is to internalize, make sense of, and produce their own meaning. There is a tremendous opportunity for educators and for places of Jewish learning if they adapt to these practices: a generation of Jewish teenagers is open and willing to actively participate in those journeys.
This issue of the Journal of Jewish Education can be understood fundamentally as contributing to a field-building project; it advances a teen arena that has demonstrated tremendous growth and creativity in the past decade. The building of a knowledge base rooted in empirical inquiry is a fundamental component in the development of any strong field. Through an ongoing program of research we set outcomes, define terms, disseminate key insights, question assumptions, and fundamentally increase capacity to meet our highest aspirations. As guest editors, we hope this special issue will serve as an important early step in documenting what we know about Jewish teens and Jewish teen education, staking out core areas for future research that are responsive to the needs and questions of practitioners and policymakers, generating lively conversation and debate among stakeholders, and helping develop evidence-based improvements for the field.
Bryfman, D. (2020). Generation now: Understanding and engaging Jewish teens today. The Jewish Education Project.
BTW/Rosov Consulting . (2013). Effective strategies for educating and engaging Jewish teens: What communities can learn from programs that work . Jim Joseph Foundation.
Levites, A. , & Sayfan, L. (2019). Gen Z now. Understanding and connecting with today’s Jewish teens . The Jewish Education Project and Rosov Consulting.