BY SYLVEE LEGGE / AJT //

teensWant to influence the lives of Jewish teens? My advice for the adults who will be their “leaders,” mentors, coaches, advisors and teachers during those critical high school years is:

Think like a teen.

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Do you want to connect with adults? Not really. And are teens selfish sometimes? Yes. Not because they mean to be this way, but because it is natural during a time of so much growing that they would be self-conscious, scared, confused and probably a little self-absorbed due to these other qualities.

So, in order for an adult to make a real difference in a teen’s life, the individual in question must have the number one quality needed to engage teenagers: “relatability.”

Teens listen to what they know and what they want to know, not to something – or to some person – whose words contradict their mindset and beliefs during the teen years. I know because I grew up in a family with parents much, much older than me and much older than other parents of children my age.

There was a large and noticeable generation gap between my parents and I, and I would be lying if I said we didn’t have difficulties getting along and even sometimes completing a task together. In many situations, neither side understood the opposing argument – neither side even wanted to understand.

I was stubborn and ignorant, while they (and many other adults in my eyes) were stubborn and educated. For that reason, I steadily disliked adults and thought I was better than them…that is, until I met my acting coach for college theater auditions.

His name was Brian Kimmel, and he worked extensively for Jewish Theatre of the South. At the time, I totally didn’t care about his Jewish connection; while I was growing apart from my parents, I had grown apart from Judaism as well. In fact, I found Brian’s affiliation with the religion to be an annoying parental ploy to reel me back in.

However, he never brought it up on any of the several occasions that we met. Instead, he cared about me, my life and my success as an acting student. That’s it. There was no manipulation and no mention of my parents or Judaism, which actually made me more attracted to the theatre.

Of course, over time, I found I actually enjoyed the MJCCA’s “Company J,” and thus participated in many of their shows with other Jews in the community. Without even realizing it, I finally had invested in something; and I liked it. I even found myself wanting to improve my Hebrew and discuss with my dad his feelings on religion, which in turn allowed for a much more relaxed relationship with my family in general.

Brian’s efforts to relate to me and an activity I love (theater) led to a friendship based on the commonality of Judaism as well. What’s more, he always engaged me in Jewish topics in the same way he related to me as an actor – with a personal touch, an openness and a willingness to discuss anything.

More recently, I saw and benefitted from this type of “relatability” again. In my time as part of the focus group with Jewish funders last October to discuss Jewish teen education and engagement, the idea that people really wanted feedback from teens – and only teens – was thrilling to me. Finally, somebody understood that if you want us to engage, all you have to do is ask!

And be cool about it.

We don’t like manipulation, and if we start to get annoyed with a situation, then forget about it, it’s over! But when an adult takes the time to invest energy into our opinion – that is when care, intent and love begin to shine through to us.

And that is the only credible way to get the job done.

Editor’s note: Atlanta’s Sylvee Legge is currently is a first-year student at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. She was one of six recent high school graduates who participated on the research advisory committee for the Jim Joseph Foundation’s new report, Effective Strategies for Educating and Engaging Jewish Teens. For more info, see jimjosephfoundation.org.

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