Advocacy + Activism + Jewish Teens
Best Practices for Incorporating Advocacy and Activism into Jewish Education
Let’s start with the necessary disclaimers:
I’m aware that today’s political climate is contentious beyond words and that it’s scary to even think about stepping into the minefield of talking politics with our students.
You know your audience + environment best - it may be that everyone you interact with feels the same way on certain issues, or your community may span the breadth and depth of political positions. Nothing about this is one size fits all, so please pick and choose as is applicable.
There’s no shame in choosing not to engage in advocacy + activism education. It can be hard, intimidating, and provocative, and I don’t judge anyone who chooses to opt out.
This is not about taking a specific political stance on any issue - I’m not revealing mine, or asking about yours, or suggesting that any of us need to share them with our learners.
With all that said, I believe that we’re missing a key piece of our mission as educators if we universally avoid tough issues and turn a blind eye to the realities facing our students, particularly high schoolers today. High school students are not the apathetic navel-gazers that so much of society stereotypes them as being. Rather, they’re ‘woke’ sophisticated thinkers, and they’re not waiting for our permission to take a stand on any and all issues. They’re jumping right in, on social media and in person, and we’re not doing them or ourselves any favors by leaving this reality outside of the purview of Jewish education.
So without going into specific issues or stances, because I prefer not to provoke online outrage, how can we meaningfully integrate advocacy + activism education into Jewish learning?
Go Beyond Tikkun Olam
Tikkun olam, repairing the world, has become an all-encompassing buzzword for Jews, particularly young Jews, over the last few years. It can be used as the Jewish basis for literally anything, from social justice activism to volunteer work to being kind (or exhibiting basic decency - I definitely had a student say that not beating up his sister was his tikkun olam act for the week). And it’s a great starting point for conversations about activism, and advocating to make the world a better place. But I encourage you to go beyond that - seek out sources that delve into the topics you’re discussing, and have your students explore the context that backs their positions on contemporary issues.
Heschel, Herzl, Henrietta - Use Our Toolbox
One of the best gifts that the Jewish canon gives us is that it’s pretty much all encompassing. If you’re looking for something, no matter how obscure, it’s probably in there somewhere. From Abraham Joshua Heschel’s famous quote about praying with our feet to the example of Theodor Herzl advocating tirelessly for the cause of Zionism, to Henrietta Szold using philanthropic activism to spearhead women’s philanthropy, we have role models to share with our learners that are beyond inspiring. And with each holiday coming well-equipped with advocacy tie-ins, there’s no shortage of opportunities in our calendar to focus on activism with our learners.
Jewish educators talk all the time about wanting our students and their families to bring the lessons home, and we view it as a mark of success when our teaching is incorporated into the lives of our learners once they leave the class/event/experience. On these topics, our goals are likely hand in hand with those of the families we teach. They want to talk about important issues of the day, to volunteer together, to share their beliefs with their kids. So partner with them! Provide frameworks, resources, and structures for these important conversations - they’ll appreciate it and use it.
So what now?
If you’re interested in exploring how to incorporate advocacy and activism education into your work with Jewish teens, I encourage you to join me for the new Gratz NEXT class I’ll be teaching starting October 15. Gratz NEXT courses, for those who are unfamiliar, are online learning opportunities for Jewish supplementary school educators. You can learn more about Gratz, and all of the offerings, here. I hope you’ll join me for 4 weeks of exploration of teens, contemporary issues, and Jewish tie-ins. If you have questions, please reach out to me (email form below!) or the Gratz staff for more info.