In the Middleby Jacqueline Bull April 25, 2018
Rabbi Daniel Bortz is the Founder and Director of JTeen. Rabbi Dan, as the teens call him, spoke to me over the phone from Israel, a few days after celebrating his 32nd birthday. Rabbi Dan is succeeding at something that many Jewish organizations are struggling to do in 2018: reach and engage teens in a meaningful way.
“It could have been that 50 years ago that kids would come after school or sunday school, or come to the synagogue. Nowadays, I feel that they are so busy with so many things that we have to bring it to them,” Rabbi Dan said. Many of JTeen’s programs meet at the high schools to create a casual and convenient opportunity to bring a Jewish element into the weekday.
“It’s about embracing what we have in 2018 and finding ways to infuse it with inspiration and meaning and basically showing how Judaism is relevant and cool for your life – not something that is outdated in any way,” he said.
One of JTeen’s programs is a New Moon club, a girls club that celebrates the first day of the Hebrew month, like a Rosh Chodesh.
“We did a visualisation, meditation thing for pre Passover … The word in Hebrew for Egypt, Mizraim, is the same as the word for limitation. The mystics say that on Passover you are leaving your Egypt, you’re leaving whatever is limiting you and your potential greatness. And we kind of mentally connected with what’s holding us back, how we can move past whatever is our personal Egypt and imaging what it would be like to be free,” he said.
He wasn’t always a model citizen of the Jewish nation though. He explains that growing up he woud be the last person someone would expect to be a rabbi. As a teenager and into his college years, he was missing a Jewish connection that felt relevant to his personal life. Gradually, he felt drawn to his own spirituality and then became utterly absorbed in Judaic studies. He went to Israel and studied Judaism for six years before coming back to his hometown of San Diego to fill a need he felt was missing from his own teenage years.
“On a bigger scale, as much as I want to impart Jewish knowledge and everything, for me, as a teenager, what I lacked the most besides not being very connected to Judaism, was as a human being, I needed more coaching and therapy and things that were out of box that would have made me happier as a person. We talk about life and we talk about relationships and talk about loneliness and bullying and all the things that everyone is going through,” he said.
He attributes some of his success to connecting and engaging with his students partly to his age: existing in a social space that is in the middle of a peer and a parent. And that he always treats them like adults and respects their opinions. This manifests in the program Judaic Honors, which is for the teenagers to debate and discuss important Jewish ideas (“I like to raise the bar a little bit”).
In addition to his age and ethos for relating to the teens, he has a cultural and generational understanding of his fellow millennials and his present day teens, Gen Z. He relates universal Jewish teachings to modern anxieties and schools of thought in the zeitgeist. This doesn’t merely mean he understands how to use social media; he has a deeper understanding for prevailing beliefs and moods.
“I’m on Instagram and everyone is talking about the good energy in the universe and how things come back from the universe. I’m like ‘If you took ‘the universe’ and turned it to ‘Hashem’ or ‘G-d’ it would be the exact same way that I believe. I understand. I love that society is moving down a more spiritual path. The only difference is that I believe there is a certain knowledge and intent to ‘the universe’ meaning G-d, this loving energy that brings us blessing and reacts to the way we act, that is imbuing the universe with that, not something indepent from Him,” he said.
True to form, we end the conversation with him extending a warm invitation to his group for 20-somethings and tells me I can look him up on Facebook if I want.