4Front’s Rabbi Dena Schaffer Talks Jewish Teen Engagement

Growing up, Dena Shaffer knew early on that she wanted to become a rabbi. 

A native of Rochester, N.Y., this young woman was very active in her Reform synagogue community – participating in the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) and attending Jewish summer camp.

Yet for Dena, the moment that solidified her interest in pursuing a track in Rabbinic studies had nothing to do with Judaism. This executive director of 4Front, the teen engagement center housed at the JCC (an agency of The Associated), talks about that seminal moment as well as how to inspire today’s Jewish teens and even a “wacky” engagement idea.

So, tell us the story? 
As a kid, I trained in martial arts. When I was 13, the instructor needed coverage for a class. I was scared to do it, but he pulled me aside and he said to me, “When someone whispers in your left ear, and someone asks for the truth from your right ear, you have an obligation to pass that truth on.” That stuck with me.

You have worked with Jewish teens even before you came to Baltimore. Why do you think they are checking out? 
It’s an interesting phenomenon. In previous generations, the b’nai mitzvah was the on ramp to Jewish life. What has happened today is that it has been transformed into the exit ramp.

I think there are several reasons for that. The way today’s adolescents form their identity is different than how they defined themselves just two or three generations ago. Today’s teens see themselves as having diverse and complex identities. They take pride in this diversity, and Judaism is only one part of that picture. I also think there is a lot of pressure on teenagers to excel in various aspects of their lives in new ways.

What do you think inspires them to engage? 
I believe that Jewish teens are looking for something challenging and meaningful. In a recent study, teens admitted that they might come to a program the first time for the pizza, and maybe even the second time. But by the third time you need to give them something of value to their lives or they will stop coming. In fact, when we survey teens who are participating in a 4Front program about their motivations for signing up, they overwhelmingly reflect it was because they thought they would learn something.

Second, Jewish teens are all about feeling connected to a group of their peers. Finally, we try in our programs to draw upon other parts of their lives, to take a holistic approach to Jewish content. That way they are able to see that our values are portable, beyond Jewish – specific times and spaces.

What is success? 
We are seeing teens who are choosing to plug in all across our community as we collectively raise the priority and profile of this demographic… teens are demonstrating an incredible spirit and energy as they embrace modernity with tradition. They are inventing what hasn’t been invented and embracing Judaism in a different way than their parents; yet showing an amazing commitment to Jewish life and our people. I am also proud of the more than 70 partnerships we’ve developed with Jewish and secular organizations who care about these teens and the adult volunteers who are working with us.

Is there a particular story you could share? 
Sure, recently we partnered with Beth Israel Congregation and Keshet, a national organization promoting LGBTQ equality in Jewish life. Together we led a session for teens on Jewish attitudes towards gender and sexuality. It was amazing to learn side-by-side with these teens who were not only incredibly insightful but unbelievably genuine and comfortable bringing their authentic selves to a fairly sophisticated text study.

Even in my short career I have led hundreds of immersive Torah experiences with people of all ages and yet, while adults especially have a tendency to hide behind the text, the teens blew me away with their ability to personally relate to Torah and their willingness to share aspects of their lives for which the text offered an appropriate window.

Craziest Jewish engagement idea you have? 
I have this wacky idea recently that I imagined for say the JCC or any large Jewish gathering space. What if we swapped out one of food vending machine for a Judaic vending machine where everything would be free. You could get Chanukah candles, interesting Jewish books, a set of tefillin and more!

Each item could come with an invitation to hang out with a Jewish professional and share more about your curiosity or Jewish story. I’m really into ideas that make Jewish exploration personal, more experimental and more accessible… I’m always wondering how our organizations and institutions can help more with a sort of DIY approach to Jewish ritual and behavior.

A book you would recommend for Jewish teens? 
As a Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg. I read this book every year. It’s the story of a man in the first century (around the time of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem) who dabbles in the world outside of Judaism. He’s interested in math, Greek philosophy and other topics and struggles to keep a foot in both worlds to balance his various identities. He was a real guy who is considered a heretic by his contemporaries and is sort cut off from Jewish life. He’s told there’s not really a place for him and his non-conformity and Elisha also does some things in retaliation that were damaging to the Jewish people.

I love this book because of Elisha’s complexity. It’s hard to tell if he’s a good guy or a bad guy. The book explores themes that are interesting to teens, choice, identity, temptation to stray from the path, redemption, forgiveness, etc. It deals with the challenges of relevancy and how to make Judaism meaningful. This seems to be a continuing narrative in our Jewish history.

Favorite holiday? 
Purim. I love to teach it to teens. The story is a narrative of how the Jews turned negative experiences into positive celebratory moments. I feel like it is the secret to Jewish longevity and continuity.

Anything else? 
In general, I am so grateful to this community, to The Associated and the Jim Joseph Foundation, the JCC, my colleagues and peers who have been so supportive of us, the adult volunteers and the 60 professionals in this community who want to make Jewish teens a priority.

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