Wake up: Orthodox teenagers are now ‘woke’

Shuls and other institutions have to find ways to accept a different generational outlook


Young woman with a raised fist protesting in the street

December 30, 2021 10:33

Earlier this year, my friend was talking to her teenage son about racism.

“He told me to go educate myself,” she told me later. “He thinks I’m a racist!”

She related this story half laughing, half appalled because she considers herself to be the antithesis of a racist. Yet when her son looks at her, he sees someone out of touch with the values of the modern world.

I’m sure that similar conversations are taking place in families up and down the country. But this one occurred in an Orthodox family from the heart of North West London, where the children receive what is, by anyone’s standards, a fairly conservative education.

The values of the next generation of Jewish children are evolving, including in the modern parts of Orthodoxy. Yet this change is barely on the communal radar, even though it’s a huge challenge for shuls. How are we going to reach these kids and connect to them? If we get it wrong, we risk losing an entire generation.

Many of these teenagers are somewhere on the “woke” spectrum. Anecdotally, you can hear about children identifying as non-binary in Orthodox schools. Although it’s still rare, their friends take this completely in their stride. Many are avid environmentalists and anti-racism is built into their identities. Increasingly, they take it for granted that their friends may be LGBTQ or transgender.

It’s tempting to class these kids’ attitudes as a ‘rebellion’ or a ‘phase’, particularly when they come from traditional homes. But I don’t believe that’s the case. Most modern Orthodox kids watch the same TV and are on the same Internet as every other kid in the country. They are listening to the same conversations and are products of their generation.

This can be a huge challenge for many parents in our community. Like the friend I described earlier, you can consider yourself open-minded and even PC and yet still find you don’t really understand your children anymore.

But while parent-child relationships will probably survive the woke revolution, I’m not sure the same can be said for the relationship between teenagers and their shuls.

Right now, with the pandemic in full swing, synagogues everywhere are struggling to get families back through their doors. But again, anecdotally, even where the parents are returning, their teenagers are often staying at home.

While might partially be “regular” teenage lethargy, this values gap is a factor too. After all, if you’re a 16-year-old whose passions are anti-racism and environmental activism, and whose openness to different communities is a cornerstone of your identity, what attraction does shul hold for you? At best, the values you really believe in are absent. At worst, you’re picking up messages from the pulpit and lay leaders that you consider deeply problematic.

Given that Orthodox synagogues are unlikely to become temples of woke any time soon, what can we do?

It starts with awareness. Shul authorities need to internalise that “woke values” are not something that “other people” believe in. It’s something that many of their members’ kids believe in, too, to differing extents — even though this might be going unnoticed, in the chaos of the corona situation.

Second, we must not pit our community institutions against these teens. This is a real risk, given that they are usually run by a much older generation, which often has little sympathy to Gen Z’s values. Similarly, while many of our rabbis are astute about trends in the community and sensitive to congregants’ sensibilities, others come from backgrounds that will make it difficult for them to accept these points of view with understanding and compassion.

One of the biggest problems in our community is an offputting emphasis on conformity. We need to be open to these teenagers’ viewpoints and be able to listen non-judgmentally, even if we disagree with them. Perhaps our leaders may even learn something from the engagement.

Finally, we cannot continue as usual and expect an entire generation to fall in line. If these kids feel disconnected from shul now, they may never come back. Connecting to them is going to take effort and flexibility, and we should be conducting a communal conversation on how to do so.

Unfortunately, adapting to changing societal values has been difficult for our shuls in the past. On the subject of women’s participation, for example, many Orthodox shuls initially rejected women’s voices out-of-hand and then were slow to change. There is arguably a generation of Orthodox women who have quietly opted out of shul as a result. Let’s not make the same mistake again with our teenagers.

December 30, 2021 10:33

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive