Teens, Gender, and Identity

February 1, 2009
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Deborah Meyer
“Who am I and who do I want to become?” These existential questions are central to the teen experience. The task of adolescence is to explore and construct a personal identity. This search for meaning provides fertile opportunities for those of us committed to building the Jewish future and to more life-affirming and nuanced expressions of what it means to be a man or woman.

We are living in a time of great transition, with almost as many women as men in the workforce, and more men actively involved in parenting. Yet popular culture sends contradictory messages about masculinity and femininity: Despite gains over the past three decades, products are still sold with highly sexualized images of women, and our society’s definition of masculinity is often conflicted. On the one hand, boys are encouraged to get in touch with their feelings; on the other, popular culture pushes a hypermasculine, “gangster” image. Teens need help reading culture and constructing gender identity across a full spectrum, rather than from restrictive polar opposites.

In addition, teens need help making positive life choices. Fostering a meaningful and lasting connection with Judaism is valuable not only for its own sake; research suggests that connecting to religious communities correlates with higher grades, lower levels of drinking and drug use, and other dimensions of healthy development. However, the Jewish community by and large is missing this golden opportunity.

American Jewish teens today, like their parents, have access to all aspects of society — where they work, live, and play — which enables them to choose whether and how to participate in Jewish life. If we want teens to choose Jewish activities and build connections to Judaism that will carry into adulthood, we need to provide meaningful experiences that serve and engage them. Unfortunately, teens are voting with their feet. Teens drop out of formal Jewish education steadily after bat and bar mitzvah; by their senior year of high school, only 24 percent of girls and seventeen percent of boys participate. Even Jewishly active teens are dissatisfied with much of what they find — boys more so than girls. As Jordan, a teen, said, “At this age we want to dig more and learn more about things. We need a deeper meaning.”

We’ve learned that girls are drawn, for example, to Rosh Hodesh groups* — experiences that are fun and also intellectually challenging. The groups draw on Jewish text and tradition to explore the issues girls grapple with daily — body image, friendship, sexuality, and academic pressure, to name a few. Meeting girls where they are with creative engaging activities, significant conversations that touch them personally, and Jewish values and traditions that help them explore the issues they care about most, demonstrates how we might approach engagement with boys.

Ironically, boys are given fewer opportunities than girls to consider gender and the possibilities of adulthood, including what roles work and relationships will play in their lives.

The Jewish community should help both teenage boys and girls navigate this terrain. We must start from an understanding of who boys are, what they enjoy doing, and what issues inspire and engage them. By helping teens steer their way through adolescence, and by helping them filter our culture’s often limiting messages about gender — about what it means to be a man or a woman — we will demonstrate that Judaism has a place in their lives, now, and into their adult years.

* Moving Traditions (movingtraditions.org) operates Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl’s Thing and manages several research projects and focus groups on gender and education.

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Deborah Meyer is co-founder and executive director of Moving Traditions (movingtraditions.org), which is conducting action-research to develop a Frame work for Working with Boys.

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