We still have teenagers on the mind here at Sounding Board. First there were the recent sad exits of Liz Swados and David Bowie—iconic voices of teen power. Then there is continuing preparation from the JCC Maccabi Games® and ArtsFest® 2016, as well as our planning to confirm fantastic host communities for 2017 shortly. And don’t forget the Jewish Teen Summit in Baltimore two weeks ago, a gathering of people who care about great programming for Jewish youth, a bunch of JCC executives learned from a wide range of partners and prospective partners. All were saying some version of the same thing, phrased so beautifully by the great Dar Williams: “Teenagers Kick Our Butts.”
We don’t mean to say that we at JCCs do not have a handle on engaging teens. Scores of BBYO and other youth groups make their homes in our buildings. JCC Maccabi brings together thousands of teens every summer. We employ more teens in our day camps (and help them live life to the fullest in our overnight camps) than any other similar network. There are the Merrin Teen Professional Fellows, selected by JCC Association for intensive professional investment; ARTEL, a partnership with JCH of Bensonhurst, for teens to develop their Jewish identity, explore their Russian-Jewish heritage, and build a connection to Israel; and so much more.
But still, think of all of the teens we could be engaging as leaders and campers and dreamers and doers that never come through our doors. Think about the brainpower, money, and energy spent musing about how to bring teens into the fold of Jewish life. Not an easy task. Not for JCCs; not for any program or community. In fact, the elusiveness of teen audiences is much of what drives Western culture as a whole.
Think about it. Once upon a time, an actor by the name of Marlon Brando was asked in his role as a biker king of cool in The Wild One—which would go on to inspire everyone from Elvis and Bob Dylan to Henry Winkler, aka the Fonz—“What are you rebelling against?” He answered, “What have you got?”
Film and fashion and food and education itself all seek teen engagement for their own ends, and Sounding Board’s favorite pastime—popular music—may be the biggest source of teenage inspiration, fascination, and perspiration of all.
Teens and those just a tad older invented what we know as rock and roll and hip hop; they have shaped our musical tastes for decades and, since we were all teens once, colored the memories with the soundtracks of our own lives. Teen life can be both painful and sweet; it’s not clear many of us would want to live it again. But in all of its awkwardness and radical bursts of ideas and personality and physical and spiritual growth, it is a time of unparalleled energy and idealism. Why wouldn’t communities want to chase that Holy Grail of teen engagement to power activity and excitement at their core?
We have met so many wonderful teen role models and educators over the past year. With the multiple creative ways we engage teens, and the many more that we might, what do we want those teenagers to feel and be? Dar Williams says:
Find your voice, do what it takes
Make sure you make lots of mistakes
And find the future that redeems
Give us hell, give us dreams
And grow and grow and grow
Yes, we have a lot more work to do. There are many more opportunities to invent and all kinds of ideas to grow. And yet, even if they sometimes drive us crazy—and kick our butts—aren’t we glad to know so many teenagers around JCCs already, watching them grow and grow and grow?