Youth, Religion and Social Responsibility: Part I

For more than thirty years I have been developing programs that help young people see new relevance in their respective religious traditions. Most of that work took place under the aegis of the PANIM Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, an organization that I founded in 1988. In this and several successive columns, I will share some insights that may be valuable to others who are struggling with the same challenge.

To the extent that young people receive religious training in the context of their religious congregations or in their homes, it tends to be focused on the ritualized part of their traditions. Thus much time is spent teaching about how a given tradition engages in prayer and worship, festivals, and life-cycle ceremonies. There may be some attention paid to ethics and religious doctrine, but rarely are such lessons linked to contemporary social and political issues. It more likely focuses on personal decision-making.

Because we are raising a generation of young people who see themselves largely as global citizens, this form of training will have limited success. While faith communities have an investment in strengthening the religious identity of their youth, young people are less interested in how their religion separates them from the rest of humanity and more interested in how it might provide some wisdom to address the pressing issues facing their community, their nation, and the world.

It is possible to strengthen both religious identity as well as a commitment to greater social responsibility by following five principles: inform, empower, inspire, motivate and contextualize.

1) Inform The great irony of the younger generation is that with all the access they have to information through the media and the internet, their worlds are incredibly small and narrow. The alien species that we call "teenager" has a thick crust of self-centeredness covering a deep well of idealism. The trick is to pierce through that tough outer crust.

Brief encounters with knowledgeable experts in a variety of fields helps to make social problems real for youth. Let youth learn that the wealthiest 1 percent of American control over 20 percent of the income in America while a single parent working full-time at minimum wage still needs food stamps to feed her children. Or let them get some hard date on how our generation has been responsible for the most selfish abuse of the ecosystem in the history of civilization, compromising the very planet that they will inherit or hope to bequeath to their children. Time and again I see how learning such facts from experts evokes appropriate moral outrage among teens. Suddenly, it strikes teens as inappropriate to stay in the cocoons that they have built for themselves.

In a society that is often in search of a value system to guide it, faith communities must return to their sacred texts for wisdom. We should be teaching our teens Deuteronomy 8:12, which warns of the danger of becoming blind to the poverty in our midst even as we grow wealthy. We should have them read Isaiah 5:8 and Micah 2:2 and ponder what those prophets said about the unrestrained accumulation of wealth in a circumstance when the majority lived in abject poverty.

Our teens are the most acquisitive demographic in society because our consumer culture successfully gets them to link their sense of self-worth to their material possessions. Yet have them learn the principle of not engaging in any wanton destruction of our planet (Deut. 20:19) and they get a new perspective on consumption and its costs. The great Jewish sage Maimonides expands on Deut. 20 and argues that we must not despoil any of God's creation; rather we should protect and defend it. This provides an entirely different value frame from the one that permeates our society today.

2) Empower

Moral outrage is a good start, but it can't end there. Teens must learn how social change takes place. Americans today have a cynicism about the political process, and teens share that bias. Yet despite the examples of abuses that the media so love to expose, politics is also the process through which one can change the world for the better. Teens are amazed to discover how open the political process is at the local, state, and national level. With just a little effort, congregations can organize visits to public officials to discuss a specific issue of concern to the community. At the local level, it does not take much citizen activism to make a positive change on an issue. Young people can find dozens of vehicles to channel their moral outrage into constructive engagement.

The Serve America Act, which passed Congress last year, is the latest in a series of national initiatives over the past 25 years that make community service a normative part of what young people can and should do. Increasing numbers of high schools are requiring community service for graduation. The media is filled with stories of young people making significant contributions on issues in their backyards (e.g., literacy, hunger, homelessness, the environment) as well as on issues that play out on the world stage (e.g., earthquake relief in Haiti, genocide in Darfur, service missions to New Orleans or to developing countries). Faith communities should be sponsoring activities like these for their youth, both because it advances a core tenet of religious mission and because it will make religion relevant to young people who would otherwise be quick to dismiss it.

We must counter the message teens receive that they are "just kids," which is understood by them as "we don't really matter." No wonder they log hundreds of hours in front of the TV and the computer. Tell them instead that they can make a difference in society or in the life of someone less fortunate than they, and you won't be able to contain their energies.

3) Inspire

Teens respond to passion and to role models. The adults in their lives need to speak from the heart and tell them why it is important to help alleviate some of the pain in the world. They also have to serve as role models.

Some years ago I took my three children, then ages twelve, ten, and eight, to South Carolina to help rebuild a black church that had been burned in a string of arson fires. Living together for that week and sleeping on the floor of the half-constructed church meant more than all the parental lectures that I offered them through their lives.

Adults will often do things for their kids that they would not otherwise do on their own. There are numerous opportunities for parents and their teenage children to engage in valuable service work together. I know of congregations that have organized family service missions to New Orleans, family blanket runs to bring clothes and food to the homeless during the winter, and family visits to shelters where parents can provide life skill training to the adults and the teens can read to younger children. My own synagogue just began a community garden where families can get their hands dirty. Throughout the summer, they will harvest produce, some of which will be served during the congregation's fellowship hour following services and some of which will be given to local soup kitchens.

4) Motivate

Teens need to know that they are needed. In the summer before my senior year of high school, I went with my synagogue youth movement (USY) to Eastern Europe and Russia. I remember meeting a young Soviet Jewish woman in her twenties who desperately wanted to emigrate to Israel. We spent the better part of the evening talking. As we took our leave, she looked me in the eyes and said, "Don't forget us; we need your help." My life was never the same after that moment. I became a Soviet Jewry activist, and that led me to innumerable other causes, a path that eventually came to define both my Judaism and my sense of what I must do with my life.

I have seen hundreds of teens similarly transformed as they look into the eyes of a homeless person and learn the true meaning of Genesis 1:27, that every human being is created in God's image. Moreover, they start trying to live out the implications of that truth.

We must create such encounters for our teens.

5) Contextualize

The above kinds of activities need to be linked back to the teachings of our respective faiths. Across the faith spectrum, religious education for youth fails miserably at conveying the social teachings of our respective traditions. Civic engagement, political activism, and community service should not be experienced in a vacuum. Clergy and religious educators must link these experiences back to the core teachings of faith about compassion, protecting the vulnerable, reaching out to the strangers in our midst, and protecting God's earth and all of the creation on that earth.

If we do this well, we will find that religion will take on new meaning to a younger generation that would otherwise turn its back on irrelevant teachings of yesteryear. We may also find that it will begin to transform the way we experience our own faith and the eternal truth of God's word.