Caleb Tanenbaum is your typical teenager and a pretty cool kid. He likes hip-hop artists like Jay-Z and Eminem. He likes skateboarding, video games, jamming out on his guitar and chilling with his girlfriend. But there is something else that Caleb finds cool: his Judaism.
He is proud of his heritage, proud that he was born in Israel, and proud that he lives in a country where he could express himself and his Judaism. When he wore his large woolen Kippah (the Jewish head covering that is customarily worn by some Jews during prayer and others throughout the day) to Northwood High School, Caleb was expressing to his world that he is connecting with his roots and trying to discover that very important part of himself. It didn’t matter to him whether or not his friends would give him a hard time. It didn’t matter to him that the school administration challenged him and doubted whether he was in fact Jewish. Caleb understood that this is something that he has to be proud of.
It’s unfortunate that there aren’t more young Jews like Caleb, who view their religion as something to be proud of. For so many, they haven’t been properly exposed to the sweetness of their heritage. They haven’t been shown how the teachings and practices of Judaism are as relevant and useful today as they have ever been, and that, whether or not one wishes to take on the full gamut of Jewish observance, Jewish tradition is overflowing with values and messages of personal development and self growth.
For too many young Jews, their only impressions of Jewish life give them the misconception that Judaism is archaic, ritualistic and boring. Daydreaming through services on Yom Kippur, when the only sound more painful than the cantor chanting songs in a language they don’t understand is the sound of your hungry stomachs begging to be fed, is certainly not a great way to introduce a young person to their religion. Yet for some Jews it’s all they grow up with! Being forced to attend Hebrew School two or three times a week while your other friends are chilling is definitely not going to make Judaism seem like very cool, yet this has become the standard negative association to Judaism for a large percentage of young Jews in America today. For a religion that traces itself back over 3,000 years, I would like to believe that we’ve probably used some better branding techniques in the past, if we are still here to be talking about it.
As the director of a nonprofit Jewish Learning Center with a mission to educate Jews about their heritage and ignite a love for Judaism, I remind myself before every class, every meeting and every service that we offer, that our generation thirsts to be spoken to and connected with, in the most honest, direct and personal way possible. They like MTV and reality shows that reflect their own lives. They like Glee because the characters struggle with the same issues we all do. They like Lady Gaga because she portrays herself as a rebellious misfit who is madly in love with her fans, whom she refers to as her “little monsters,” and just wants to help them discover their inner craziness.
I remind myself every day that if I can’t show my students that their Judaism can speak to them in a way that is even more relevant and even more personal than MTV, Glee or Lady Gaga, then how can I possibly expect them to fall in love with it? And if the next generation of Jews don’t see that the stories in the Bible contain lessons that are timeless and relevant, and that the biblical personalities struggled the very same struggles we face today, then how can we expect there to be more kids like Caleb Tanenbaum who will view their Judaism as cool and wear their Jewish headgear with pride?
Rabbi Shlomo Buxbaum is director of Aish DC in Bethesda, Md.