Moments of Opportunity

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February 1, 2009
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Shira D. Epstein
In the early 20th century, the “boy problem” took center stage in educational debates and discourse. Psychologist G. Stanley Hall argued that classrooms and curricula were becoming feminized, and public schools were in danger of losing boys to the streets. His writings broadly impacted educational policy, resulting in initiatives that today we take for granted as elements of schooling: administrators created athletic programs to both foster and provide an outlet for innate male aggression and established student government initiatives in hopes of encouraging boys to adopt leadership roles. Girls became both the literal and figurative cheerleaders as attention focused on how to engage boys in formal education.

Hot educational topics tend to resurface in cycles, and the discourse of a “boy crisis” once again permeates discussions of American and Jewish education, offering challenges and opportunities. The current concern about the drop-off of male participation in formal Jewish educational programming could focus attention on targeting “Jewish boys” as a uniform constituency with identical issues and needs, and launch discussions about the types of programming that are perceived to attract all boys to Jewish life. Focus on a “boy crisis” can undermine the necessity of creating vibrant educational programming as a conduit to Jewish communal living and participation for all adolescents. Deborah Meyer notes that today’s youth are bombarded with messages regarding how they are supposed to think, feel, and act.

The heightened attention in Jewish education to gender issues can become an opportunity for educators to reexamine how we engage male and female teens with curricular content material. Organizations such as Moving Traditions and the JTS project “Addressing Evaded Issues in Jewish Education” are working toward systemic change in how Jewish youth educators are trained to relate Jewish texts, rituals, and practice to learners’ lives.

Curricular plans often exclude formal discussion with adolescents about the pressures weighing heavily upon them day-to-day, and ironically, some of these very pressures often keep them from deepening their participation in Jewish study and practice. Jewish teenagers today feel quite comfortable, as Deborah Meyer notes, “voting with their feet.” Many teens have pulled away from participating in Jewish programming to instead prioritize activities they and their parents perceive as better helping them advance academically or deepen their social connections. While we cannot address all the pressures teens face, we can create programming that meaningfully integrates issues that are part of their lived realities. Several curricula now exist that help Jewish educators explore a range of topics that both boys and girls face, including: pressures to succeed and fears of failure; competition with friends; the balance between self-assertion and sensitivity to the needs of others; the quest for perfection; sexuality and mixed messages; and explorations of gender identity and roles (e.g.; Hineini, Keshet Boston; Life Choices, Tzelem; Love Shouldn’t Hurt, Shalom Bayit; Strong Girls, Good Guys Initiatives, JWI; Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl’s Thing).

Jewish educators have new opportunities to help teens connect Jewish content and their daily lives. Through these encounters, we will better focus our energies on the teens who show up in our classrooms, camps, after-school programs, youth groups, and service learning projects. Our discourse will move from a language of crisis to a language of opportunity; our discourse will focus on new possibilities for adolescent programming and Jewish education.

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