My primary reasons for attending this year's RCA Convention were that I was asked to present a session, and that I wanted to re-connect with friends. This morning, though, I gained a lesson I find significantly more valuable.
I attended a session this morning in which high school seniors from the New York area (some from Jewish schools, some not) answered questions about what it’s like to be a person and a Jew in high school today. They talked about drugs and alcohol and sexual activity, as well as relationships with their rabbis, with their parents, and with Judaism.
Most of what was said was not particularly novel [although I did learn that – contrary to what I had thought – Facebook and Twitter have not yet fallen out of fashion]. The yitzrim are the same, and the prevalence of teen involvement in those yitzrim remains high. No novelties there, no Generation Gap there.
But I did learn something that was new to me: I found the current Generation Gap. The difference between today’s eighteen year old and the eighteen year old of even ten years ago is Control. Access. Power. And it all comes down to Communication.
The same Communication Revolution that has empowered remote populations, economically disadvantaged populations and government-repressed populations has also empowered teenagers.
The result: Today's high schooler has far more independent power than we did as high schoolers, and they know it.
Ten years ago, and certainly twenty years ago when I was in high school, we had no cell phones, no personal email, no ability to text. The result was that nearly all communication took place within a zone that our parents could monitor.
Friends called the home phone to talk, and our parents answered; the only way to communicate in private was by mail, and who was going to write a letter? Sure, we could talk in school, but with teachers present and the fear of supervision, we were very limited.
Today, teens can text each other, send pictures to each other, call each other on cell phones, hold a video chat, and all directly; it’s easy to talk and make plans and arrange whatever they choose.
I never really thought about the impact of all of that that independent communication before, but it’s so clear to me now.
Separately, I learned something else: As part of the program, the students discussed the role of a Rabbi. One person present commented that Rabbis are more benign than parents, because the Rabbi (assuming confidentiality) is not able to punish them. He can only help.
The conversation really made me miss the shul rabbinate. I was never the best at getting close to high schoolers, in no small part because of the reflex reaction of “I’m not cool enough” triggered by being near adolescents. But it was always something I wanted to do better, and I miss not having done more. I can do it somewhat in my current position, but one day, one day…