You’re likely familiar with the famous aphorism by 1st-century sage Rabbi Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” 

In many Jewish circles, this text is used to underscore the religious foundation for social justice, a warning against selfishness, the charge to avoid our human tendency to think merely of ourselves and our individual needs, and instead to define and distinguish our identity by how well we care for others. 

At 4Front Baltimore, our community’s Jewish hub for teenagers and the adults who care for them, this text is relevant to how we understand our mission to help teens utilize the Jewish lens as they strive to become great human beings and contributors to the world. 

We hear the stereotypical accusations all the time; we even occasionally see the behaviors upon which they are made. Teenagers are selfish, self-centered, entitled.  They expect others to always do for them, and act impulsively without considering how their actions might affect others.  

People blame the times, saying this is a “me-first” generation in which we are all paying the price for the increased privilege possessed by today’s young people. But a quick dive into adolescent psychology may reveal something interesting to us about the reasons behind these stereotypes. 

In her book “The Spiritual Child” (St. Martin’s Press), Columbia University professor Dr. Lisa Miller describes the metacognition and higher-ordered thinking that accompanies the surge of brain development during adolescence.  This includes questioning, reexamining and rethinking childhood assumptions about life, the world and reality.  

The teenaged brain is built to begin the tasks of individuation. While the majority of a teenager’s sentences may begin with “I” or reference “me,” it is not so because they are truly self-centered but because they are biologically compelled to figure out who “I” really is.  This consuming and demanding task of individuation, coupled with their first taste of autonomy, is natural and developmentally appropriate. It’s literally what they are meant to be doing.  

Dr. Miller suggests teenaged turbulence is actually a spiritual awakening and the beginning of a search for meaning and purpose that will accompany them for the remainder of their lives. In this context, given the state of spirituality and religious identity in today’s world, there is a terrible chance that contemporary culture is leaving teenagers wholly unprepared to undertake this challenging quest of adolescence.  

A spiritually engaged core is often one of the most helpful resources in navigating the questions that teenagers are encountering for the first time. Who am I?  Why am I here?  How do I matter? And the answers to these questions can sometimes influence a teen’s life-altering choices and behaviors, such as substance abuse and sexual experimentation, not to mention their capacity for resilience, sense of safety, self-worth and general wellbeing.   

This underscores how fortunate we are that the Baltimore Jewish community has invested in its teens and endeavors to champion opportunities that inspire teenaged spiritual growth. A teen engaged in the plethora of youth-friendly options for Jewish life in Baltimore through their synagogue, school, summer camp or 4Front will be exposed over time to deep spiritual concepts such as B’tzelem Elohim (human beings were created in the image of God) or mitzvah (commandment, good deed).  The spiritual core, developed through these Jewish experiences, infuses each of the central tasks of adolescent development with meaning, purpose and life-affirming connection to something larger than the teens’ own existence.   

The platform offered by teen programming for spiritual individuation sets up young people to value themselves and others as more than just winners or losers.  They begin to see accomplishment as part of a higher purpose and higher good.

For the teen with a well developed spiritual core, not making the team or getting the grade will not undo them for they know they have inherent worth. Career choices are not simply about acquisition, talent or gain, but rather meaning, purpose, calling and contribution. Good events are not deserved, they are blessings, and bad events symbolize opportunity and learning rather than failure or bad luck.  

In truth, we continue this work begun in adolescence for the remainder of our lives. The High Holy Day season, which will soon be upon us, is a yearly opportunity for continued spiritual grappling with the crucial questions of existence, meaning, purpose, calling, relationship and the ultimate nature of the world.  May this year’s quest be no exception. May each of us travel through this seasonal “Jewish adolescence,” only to emerge on the other side in a more individuated way.  

Rabbi Dena Shaffer is executive director of 4Front Baltimore.

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