What Teens Are Looking For

There are plenty of things that I do that people tend to raise their eyebrows at. I insist that my dog be walked 5+ times throughout the day, regardless of weather, and take her to the dog park on a daily basis. I treat hardcover non-fiction books about Jewish history as light beach reading. I watch truly mind-numbing reality TV and become oddly connected to the characters. But by far, the thing that gets me the most quizzical looks is my absolute love for spending my time with Jewish teenagers.

The years of adolescence can be many things - tear-filled, beautiful, dramatic, exhausting, hazy, defining. They are the time when individuals grow into who they’re going to be. When they can test out different facets of themselves, push their limits, and look both outward and inward to figure out where their authenticity lies. Of course, it can get messy. My own teen years were full of tears, of emotional toil that would make soap opera writers feel inferior, and massive amounts of awkwardness. But they were also the years that set me up for the life that I have today - they laid the foundation for my career as a Jewish educator, shaped the values that I seek in myself and others, and inspired me to prioritize teens in my professional practice and in my research. Which brings us to the question:

What are Jewish teens looking for?

There are way too many stereotypes out there about teens. That they’re lazy, or selfish, or apathetic, or any other way of saying they don’t care. And I get it - for those of us who are removed from their own teenage years, it can seem like the iPhone generation is navel-gazing and spending more time snapping selfies than thinking about anything ‘real.’ But we’d be wrong for thinking that.

Jewish teens are looking to make an impact.

I recently spent the weekend staffing a Shabbaton [weekend convention] with 100+ high school students. And the pervasive theme throughout every encounter that I had with the students was the same: they want to make a difference. They want to leave a legacy, to impact each other and the world around them, and to contribute to something greater than themselves. It’s actually amazing to sit and listen to today’s teens talk. They are completely not jaded - instead, they’re totally confident that they, individually and as a group, can do it all. The exuberance of youth is incredible - they are ready to take on the world, and they’re fully aware of their ability to do so.

Each conversation that I had centered around leaving a legacy, the theme for the weekend. And these Gen Z-ers are on it. The sophomores were talking about the legacy that the seniors left them, and the legacy that they hope to leave for the underclassmen. In high school, everything is now. Teenage dramas feel like they’re always going to be relevant, and all-consuming, and while in retrospect we can look back on them and know that wasn’t the case, the legacy of adolescence can be lifelong. And these kids know it - each leadership role that they take on, each new friend they welcome into the fold, each new experience they try - is the legacy of Gen Z. For them, legacy, impacting in a way that reverberates beyond themselves, is the ultimate goal. And it’s up to us to empower them to achieve these dreams.