One of the highlights of my job is working with teens. I am passionate about adolescents and have relished each of my opportunities to teach, guide, mentor, counsel and support this age group for nearly twenty years.
It is typical for me to refer to the teens in our school as “my kids” and to refer to our post b’nei mitzvah program as “my baby”. I am exceptionally proud of the unique model we have built, and one facet that makes it stand out as exemplary is that our program is fully inclusive. We have created a structure that affords all students, regardless of ability or need, the opportunity to participate fully. And it works.
A recent article from Psych Central entitled, “How Teens Choose Their Friends” asserts that contrary to popular assumption, teens most often choose friends based on “the [academic] courses the adolescent takes and the other students who take the courses with them.” The article goes on to cite research from the American Journal of Sociology that states: “The researchers found that students who take the same set of courses…focus less on social status, such as how “cool” someone is [and] peer groups that formed around shared courses had implications for students’ academic effort, as well as their social world.” Students in this research were also, “less likely to judge classmates on visible characteristics, such as race and gender.” I would argue that such characteristics can also include disabilities.
At a time when synagogues across North America are lamenting a significant decrease in engagement with Jewish life post-bar and bat mitzvah, by offering a fully inclusive post b’nei mitzvah program, we maximize our students’ opportunities to continue learning, growing and engaging with Jewish life experiences. Further, based on the article cited here, we are also maximizing our teens’ potential for developing strong Jewish friendships.
Professor Steven M. Cohen of HUC-JIR states that, “having Jewish friends in childhood (and later in life) remains a significant predictor of Jewish identity” and that “Jewish educators should have an explicit mission to bestow Jewish friendship networks on children and adults who are increasingly unlikely to find them on their own.” (http://www.newcaje.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Powerpoint-Presentation.pdf)
An inclusive program benefits everyone. Our teens are entitled to every Jewish opportunity possible.