New Year Wisdom for Teens – And the Rest of Us

How can the next generation of Jews confidently tackle this upcoming 5784?
September 13, 2023

As we enter the High Holy Days, we look back on the past year and engage in introspection, or “Cheshbon Hanefesh,” an “accounting of the soul.” We examine our actions, relationships, and how we impact the world. For me, as the Head of School at de Toledo High School in the San Fernando Valley, this time of year serves two purposes. First, like all Jews, I do my own personal teshuva (process of repentance). At the same time, as an educator, I ask everyone in our scholastic community – starting with myself, but also the younger generation of students – to examine the past year and its challenges, note what we’ve learned, take stock of where we can improve, and move forward with clarity and firm direction. 

Today’s world is fast. It’s tireless. And it can be overwhelming for teens – and frankly for all of us. Dedicating this time to genuine self-reflection is a valuable practice for us all. And one that I value both personally and professionally.

How can the next generation of Jews confidently tackle this upcoming 5784? By adopting the following concepts:

1. In the face of uncertainty, respond with curiosity

Uncertainty is an inevitable part of life. From unexpected job changes to personal relationships and global events, we encounter it daily. A Jewish education can do what secular education often fails to do. It can encourage the next generation to seek more than answers on tests. And in the face of inevitable uncertainty, it can urge students to embrace curiosity. We can’t provide answers to all our students’ questions, but we can help them build the skills needed to navigate the muddy, often opaque waters of adulthood. Our next generation must learn resilience, self-confidence, and mindfulness.

With strong social connections, values, and communal bonds, teens can learn the self-confidence needed to navigate the messiness of adulthood. This doesn’t mean relinquishing all control or living recklessly. It means adopting a growth mindset that allows for the ebb and flow of life’s uncertainties. Whether that’s waiting for a college acceptance letter or struggling with a concept in calculus, students should be taught to acknowledge and own that life is a journey filled with twists and turns, and that unexpected detours can lead to unexpected opportunities. Education, and specifically a Jewish education, is most valuable when it instills in students the ability to embrace the beauty inherent to difficult, complex, messy questions.

2. Lean on our generational wisdom

Jewish wisdom is not confined to the annals of history; it is a living, breathing tradition that has withstood the test of time. From the wisdom contained in the Torah and Talmud to the profound insights of our Jewish sages, our tradition offers a timeless source of guidance on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life. As teenagers face increasingly complex moral dilemmas, Jewish wisdom provides a framework for ethical decision-making.

Concepts like tzedakah (charity), tikkun olam (repairing the world), and derech eretz (ethical behavior) are not just words but guiding principles that educators can use to help teenagers navigate the complexities of modern life. The teachings of Jewish ethics offer guidance on issues such as honesty, compassion, and justice, helping young people make choices that align with their values. Our people’s stories, both triumphant and tragic, from the Exodus to the Holocaust, offer lessons in strength, perseverance, and the transcendence of the human spirit. At the heart of Jewish wisdom are enduring values that span generations. And we’d be remiss to forget their lessons.

3. Don’t pave the road, prepare for a bumpy journey

To hone the resilience required to navigate the messiness of adulthood, teens must develop skills that only they can create. 

Seeing our kids struggle, get frustrated, or become upset is difficult to witness. As a father, I understand the strong urge to solve our kids’ problems for them. My time as an educator has confirmed something I’ve known for a long time but struggled to fully accept – that intervening on behalf of our children is not in their best interest. What happens when they get to college and beyond? Will they have the tools, the mentality, or the grit needed to navigate the challenges of being independent? They will, but only if we let them be the architects of their own future. To hone the resilience required to navigate the messiness of adulthood, teens must develop skills that only they can create. So, I implore all of us to have the strength to allow our children to experience failure and be upset. We need to be strong enough to not only let them to feel discomfort but learn how to navigate that discomfort. This isn’t an abdication of parenting or educating, it’s the very definition of it. Grit is a muscle which must be developed and strengthened.  It takes practice and repetition that is best flexed during the teenage years. This is how you build grit. This is how we can help the next generation develop into the leaders of tomorrow.

As we usher in a new year, let us all return to these timeless lessons. May we continue to nurture the wisdom within ourselves and our youth, providing them with the tools to not only survive but thrive in an ever-changing world. Through self-reflection, resilience, and the enduring wisdom of our tradition, we can confidently embark on the journey ahead, knowing that we are well-prepared for whatever challenges and joys lie along the path.

L’Shana Tova.

Mark Shpall, MA.Ed, J.D., is Head of School, de Toledo High school. 

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