Post 01: Building a Movement from the Ground Up

This post is part of an ongoing discussion about involving young people in environmental activities.

This first post in the Building a Movement (BAM) series focuses on choices young people have when they graduate from high school.

Teenage Angst

I had a radio show that I co-hosted for several years called the Jewish Activist Network. One of the topics we kept revisting was the issue of so-called "Yeshiva Drop-Outs".

"Yeshiva Drop-Outs" are teenagers who come from observant families and are attending, or had attended, Jewish schools. At some point they either stop observing the Torah to a large extent while still attending Jewish schools, or they stop attending school altogether. Apparently, this phenomena takes place in the U.S. and in Eretz Yisrael, and perhaps other locales. Anectdotal evidence indicates that the number of Jewish students affected is significant, perhaps one in four.

I work as a tutor in the DC area, and I am also aware of this phenomena because it affects some of my own students — either they have joined the "drop-outs", are at-risk to becoming a "drop-out", and/or count "drop-outs" among their family and friends.

I used to think that in the Silver Spring area where I live that this "drop-out" phenomena only affected a few students. Then I spoke with a Rav who also has a Ph.D. in psychology and does counseling. I said to him, "You know, I'm aware of about half-a-dozen kids that are turned off to Judaism; I'm thinking there might be a few more in the community here…why don't we reach out to them and try to bring them back?"

His response was,"No, it's not just a few kids." Apparently he is the go-to man when the Orthodox schools have a student that they're not sure how to handle. "It's huge." I had called him on the phone. As we were speaking, he went to this study. "I'm looking at my computer screen, and it happens to be open to an email that a student at a local school sent me. It reads, 'I'm being taught to be a Jew, I'm being taught to be a non-Jew, and I'm not sure WHO I am.'"

That email kind of sums up the challenge that young, Observant, Jews face: how to live as a Jew yet deal with the general Amercan culture. Some kids apparently think it's not do-able, and end up jettisoning their Judaism.

The "Script"

The career of an observant Jewish young person is supposed to be something like this:

1. Graduate high school. Possibly go off to learn Torah for a year or two. Go to college. Graduate. Get a Master's Degree. Go to work. Somewhere in there try to get married.

or maybe

2. Graduate high school. Get a job in business, maybe the family business. Get married. Start your own business.

For a number of kids, for a number of reasons, neither of these choices is a really viable option. So they go to a local community college, and then maybe on to a four year college, kind of hoping things will work out. Or they travel. Or they get a low-paying job that gives them enough money to survive, but not to start a family. Or they get on some government program that gives them money and housing.

Another Option
The next post in the BAM series will address how the environmental movement offers an option for these kids who are coming from nowhere and going nowhere.

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