Their predecessors' success in maintaining strong Jewish lifestyles should guide today's USY leaders to pursue high standards both for themselves and as role models for their peers, argues the director of academic programs at Gratz College’s Jewish Community High School.
Not long ago, the Internet and American Jewish media were abuzz with stories about a change in leadership standards within the Conservative youth movement.
At their national convention over winter break, teen leaders of United Synagogue Youth, known as USY, reworded a provision relating to dating that applies to elected regional and national board members.
Instead of the old language, which expected that student leaders would “refrain from relationships which can be construed as interdating,” the new, softer wording urges student leaders to “model healthy Jewish dating choices.”
Whether or not such a change is significant or whether or not teenage dating has any bearing on future marriage partners are important discussions resulting from this decision and its related media coverage.
Interestingly for me, this discussion came less than two months after I successfully defended my doctoral dissertation toward an Ed.D. at Gratz College that focused on this very concept of leadership standards in USY and the impact of the youth leadership experience on adult Jewish observance and identity.
While much of the attention on the standards that came out of the December USY convention focused on interdating, what is more significant in my view is that the youth leaders opted to retain other long-held leadership standards: observance of Shabbat, holidays and kashrut; attendance at synagogue services; and participation in weekly formal Jewish study.
These are the standards that most impacted the subjects of my research and are the ones that appear to lead to active Jewish lives in adulthood.
My dissertation included surveys and in-depth interviews of former teen leaders and produced a portrait of the unique setting that Philadelphia has provided for a cohesive and integrated Conservative teen community over the last five decades.
One of my subjects, Karl, (names have been changed to protect privacy) grew up in Oxford Circle and attended Northeast High School in the 1960s. He got involved in USY at his synagogue, continued his Jewish education at Gratz College and eventually served as president of the Philly Region USY.
Meir grew up in Mount Airy in the early 1970s, and was a regular Torah reader at his synagogue. He was excited by the rigorous Jewish text study he experienced at Gratz, became active in USY and served as a vice president of the region.
Melissa followed her friends from Northeast High School to their synagogue and USY chapter in the late 1980s, and became excited about the Shabbat community she found there. She, too, studied at Gratz’s Jewish Community High School and was elected to the USY regional board.
Karl, Meir and Melissa each spent summers at Camp Ramah and today live intensely committed Jewish lives with their families.
These three are among dozens of leaders in the Jewish lay and professional community who trace their enthusiasm for Jewish leadership, synagogue involvement and home ritual observance of Shabbat, holidays and kashrut to pivotal experiences in USY when they were teenagers.
Teens who became elected leaders in USY pledged to serve as role models for the mission of the organization. They observed Shabbat and kashrut outside their homes, they attended synagogue regularly, they continued their formal Jewish education throughout high school, all in addition to active involvement in their synagogue-based USY chapters, in the region and in intensive summer programs such as USY Israel Pilgrimage.
More than half of the subjects of the study also attended Camp Ramah as campers, and another 30 percent had not been campers but worked at Ramah during college.
In analyzing the Jewish lives of the subjects I studied, it became apparent that USY leaders over the decades came from strongly involved Jewish homes.
Compared to other Conservative-raised Jewish adults, as surveyed in such studies as the 2013 Pew Research Center’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans” and the 2001 National Jewish Population Study, former USY leaders who are now adults ranging in age from 25 to 70 are more ritually observant, more likely to be members of synagogues and consider themselves Conservative Jews, and more likely to provide their own children with intensive Jewish educational experiences such as Jewish day school or Camp Ramah.
Although it can’t be determined from this research that their adult Jewish decisions stem exclusively from their USY leadership, it was most definitely an important factor.
As for the leadership standard of refraining from dating non-Jews, this wasn’t explicit until the early 1990s. Prior to that, it was likely a given that teens who were involved enough to be elected, role-modeling leaders would find it inconceivable to date non-Jews.
As a result, nearly all the Philadelphia-area former USY officers whom I studied — and who are married — are married to Jews.
The question is: Should USY elected leaders, in role modeling the mission of their organization, maintain these standards? The research says that the standards help to promote an active Jewish adult life.
So, yes, we should give kudos to the current generation for maintaining the standards and serving as role models for their peers.
I hope they understand the implication of their leadership, that they are responsible for the continuity of a precious legacy — USY, the Conservative movement and 3,500 years of Jewish tradition.
Michael Schatz is director of academic programs at Gratz College’s Jewish Community High School and national president of the Jewish Educators Assembly.