Religion & Beliefs

Guest Op-ed: The Next Generation & Youth Righteousness

How do we involve the Next Generation? I’ll admit to being perplexed by this question the first dozen or so times I heard it. I’m puzzled by this question because my generation is no mystery. I involve myself in things … Read More

By / October 14, 2010

How do we involve the Next Generation?

I’ll admit to being perplexed by this question the first dozen or so times I heard it. I’m puzzled by this question because my generation is no mystery. I involve myself in things I care about. It’s exactly the same as my parents. I donate to causes that I care about. It’s exactly the same as my grandmother (except I care less about having my name on plaques or donor bricks). Our generation is actually more civically engaged than most of the folks who came before us. So why all the worry?

It took me a while but I believe I’ve finally deciphered the question.

Loosely translated:

“How do I make these spoiled, text-message-addicted brats get involved in exactly what I want them to get involved with in exactly the way I want them involved?

Sorry Zadie, but that’s not how the intergenerational transfer of power works. It’s never worked that way and it won’t work that way this time.

Youth empowerment has long been a major part of Jewish life. As secular society raises the age requirements for everything from renting a car (usually 25) to being able to go outside (sometimes 18) Jews have tried to hold their ground and keep the Jewish tradition of empowered and responsible youth alive. Our thirteen-year-olds become adults. At Passover, we entrust our oral tradition – that which has kept us united through the harshest of oppression – to the youngest person in the room. And, of course, there is that story about the young man named David.

Jews also have a long history of supporting social justice and civil rights. From Julius Rosenwald and the Tuskegee Institute to Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique to the work being done today by groups like Jewish Funds for Justice and the American Jewish World Service there is no greater ally to equality and fairness than the American Jewry.

American society, on the other hand, has a mixed record of youth empowerment. Our young people have done amazing things, but have not been entrusted with much responsibility or encouraged to develop their adult capacities at a young age. Many Americans believe that total deference to adult authority is an American value. American children are rarely treated as equals. 250,000 students in U.S. Public Schools are legally abused with wooden paddles each year yet doing this to any adult, even a criminal, would be considered assault. Despite a strictly enforced drinking age of 21 (the highest such age on Earth) there are over 190,000 emergency room visits by persons under 21 each year for injuries and conditions related to alcohol. 80% of 16 and 17 year olds work at some point during the year yet 0% of them can vote. Over 2,000,000 people under 18 are arrested each year. The United States is one of only six countries to have executed juveniles in the past 2 decades. Since 1992, 44 states have passed laws making it easier to try juveniles as adults. All 50 states have recently passed laws placing additional restrictions on young drivers and none have passed laws placing restrictions on elderly drivers. The unemployment rate for 16 to 19 year olds is 26.3% – the highest in recorded history. 41% of all people under 18 are low-income. The federal government spends $7 on each elderly person for every $1 it spends on a young person. The United States is the only country in the U.N. that has a functioning government that has not ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. Since the 1950s the number of legal restrictions on youth have tripled. This record is not one that any American Jew should be proud of.

Unfortunately, this societal trend has begun to rub off on the Jewish community. There are Jewish helicopter parents. The older Jewish generation is crying for the young people to get involved but demanding that that involvement be on their terms. I would implore any Jew, of any age, interested in seeing an involved and active next generation to vigorously pursue civil rights for young people. Fund programs like the National Youth Rights Association (full disclosure – I’m their director of development). Hold your politicians accountable for decisions they make that affect youth. It’s become far too easy to score cheap political points with older voters by passing one more meaningless, feel good restriction on the activities of young people. Teach our young people about civil rights and the importance of social justice. Encourage them to stand up for themselves. Raise an activist.

The greatest model for meaningful engagement and the passage of common values is for our parents and grandparents to do their best to teach us the lessons and values that are important to them and then to trust the judgment of the next generation to continue those values. If the old don’t trust the young to continue a Jewish tradition with Jewish values then they should blame themselves. I don’t think they should. I think they’ve done a great job. Since my Bar Mitzfah I’ve been treated as an adult. I have learned things from my family and they have learned things from me. From my Methodist, sports historian father I learned the value of the protestant work ethic and the importance of sport. From my mother, a true feminist pioneer, I learned that the status quo is not written in stone. From my grandparents, who lived through the Holocaust, I learned the importance of family, community, heritage and humor. My folks could have tried to force me to be involved in things and sometimes they did. Each and every time it failed as spectacularly as that one season of little league I played. Watching me grow into a caring and compassionate adult and neighbor took patience and I sincerely thank my parents for that. I hope that they see their influence and values in the way that I live my life and I’d like to take this moment now to thank them for supporting the National Youth Rights Association.

Dave Moss is the director of development and operations at the National Youth Rights Association.