TEENS: Trying to keep them Jewishly involved

It has become a truism for many American Jews that the bar or bat mitzvah is more a farewell ritual than a welcoming ceremony.

But now, amid national efforts in renaissance and outreach, Jewish organizations are looking for ways to reach the Elliot Maltzes.

What is at stake, say educators, is keeping teens in the community and showing them how Judaism can make their lives meaningful at any age. That is key in cementing lifetime values and behavioral patterns.

Adolescence is "a stage of life in which young people are beginning to make really important decisions for themselves and create their own affiliations," said Bob Sherman, executive director of the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education, which ranks outreach to teens as one of its top three priorities. The other two are family education and professional development for Jewish educators.

The challenges in engaging teens are significant, with Jewish involvement — at least for non-Orthodox teens — dropping steadily throughout the high school years.

"Parents want something for their kids to continue after their bar mitzvah, and most kids are [inclined] to stay involved," said Mitchell Reitman, a former youth director for the Northern California region of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

"But kids are no longer satisfied just joining a youth group type of thing and paying a yearly membership. We still need to have those youth groups but we also need to find other entry avenues — sports, one-time social events, dances, creative synagogue programming. That kind of stuff."

A recent Brandeis University study of 1,300 Jewish teens and their parents in Massachusetts confirmed that Jewish involvement steadily drops after the bar or bat mitzvah. It is one of the only studies that looks at a cross section of teens, not just those who are active in Jewish life

According to the study, 86 percent of Jewish seventh graders participate in Jewish activities compared with 56 percent of 12th graders.

The study defined Jewish participation broadly, from participating in a youth group to attending a Jewish summer camp to using a Jewish community center at least once a year.

Although focused on one state, the study likely reflects the experience of most non-Orthodox Jewish teens in America, say researchers

Some of the key findings of the Brandeis study include:

*The drop in Jewish involvement is simultaneous with increasing amounts of time spent on homework and part-time jobs.

*Girls are more likely than boys to express interest in going on Israel-experience programs, and they participate at higher rates in formal Jewish education.

*Most report they did not enjoy Hebrew school as much as regular school.

*Parental opinion strongly affects teens' attitudes on intermarriage: 73 percent of teens whose parents say marrying another Jew is not important also believe this is not important, while 78 percent of teens whose parents say marrying a Jew is very important believe it is somewhat or very important to marry someone Jewish.

*The Holocaust, anti-Semitism and "being ethical" are the most important aspects of being Jewish, say teens, while volunteering for Jewish organizations, observing Jewish law and contributing to Jewish organizations rank the lowest in importance. Israel ranked somewhere in the middle.

"There's no question that the data we have is depressing," said Brandeis researcher Len Saxe. "We have lost one-third of the population before age 13 and another large chunk by the time they graduate high school."

Commented Sherman: "We've recognized on a national level that this is a real crucial issue, It's a real crucial time."

Jewish teens are hardly being lost to the streets, however. "These kids are highly motivated and success oriented," said Saxe. "After b'nai mitzvah, their job is to be successful in school and they work hard at it. Also, they take jobs that earn money and obviously this takes away from involvement in other things."

However, the findings also point to ways the Jewish community might better reach teens, he said, mainly by creating part-time jobs for them in Jewish organizations and selling the importance of Jewish involvement to their parents, who, according to the study, do influence their children's attitudes.

According to Rabbi Art Vernon, the staff person responsible for teens at the Jewish Education Service of North America, Saxe's research shows that Jewish programs must be more sophisticated nowadays than in the past to appeal to teens.

"Kids are sophisticated consumers. They shop for what they want, like everyone else in America, and content is important," he said.