My Space/Your Space: Teens Hash It Out


by Dvora Lakein - Chabad Lubavitch Headquarters

April 23, 2009

(lubavitch.com) What is a woman’s responsibility to her unborn child? Is it her right not to birth the infant? Is it her obligation to care for her child?

Teenagers in 21 American cities grappled with this issue and other hot-button topics at the recently concluded MySpace/YourSpace course offered through the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI), the adult education arm of the Lubavitch movement. This was the adult education institute’s first foray into the world of teenage minds, and by all accounts, it was a successful one. An additional 50 cities are on a waiting list to participate.

Rabbi Benny Rapoport constructed the six lessons based on a previous JLI course entitled Talmudic Ethics. “We focused on the ethical differences between the Jewish perspective and the American system,” says Rapoport. “Judaism is a system of obligations whereas the American legal system is based on the person’s rights. We showed how an individual’s role on earth is not simply about personal enjoyment and not hurting others. Instead, we have an actual obligation to help people. No other system of law demands such an obligation to save life.” 

The course’s “heavy moral dilemmas” included abortion, suicide, organ donation, drug usage, and responsibility towards strangers. In comparing Jewish law American law, each lesson presented Talmudic selections and American cases, using media sources, YouTube clips, and movie excerpts. Each class, Rapoport says, “elicited a tremendous amount of discussion.”

Initially, admits the Pennsylvania rabbi, “I was not sure if the teens would go for heavy material like this. I considered hosting a ‘sushi and discussion’ event, instead. I was gratified to see that no, they want to learn. They really want to learn.”

“High school kids are a lot more educated than people think,” maintains Rabbi Chaim Mentz of Bel Air, California. “These are thinking kids who have opinions and understand the news. JLI gives them the opportunity to challenge their previously-held beliefs and come to the correct conclusions, on their own.”

In his presentation on abortion, Mentz showed the students a YouTube clip of then-candidate Barack Obama. “Look, I've got two daughters; 9 years old and 6 years old,” he said at a town hall meeting in Johnstown, Pennsylvania in March of last year. “I am going to teach them first of all about values and morals. But if they make a mistake, I don't want them punished with a baby.”

Mentz played the clip several times for the students and asked if they agreed with Obama’s sentiments. The majority did. He then asked them to think about the candidate’s choice of phrasing. “A ‘mistake’ is choosing a fork instead of a spoon when you want to eat soup,” he told 32 teenagers. But when two people become intimate with each other, he insisted, “It is a choice. It is not a mistake.”

After the clip ran for the third time, and the students thrashed out the ramifications of sexual activity and abortion, Mentz again asked if they concurred with the modern notion that pregnancy is a “mistake” and a baby is a “punishment.”

No one raised their hand.

“We never learned the difference between rights and obligations [in secular and Jewish law],” a Bel Air student at a local Jewish school lamented. “I wish our school would show us. Until now, I thought I was doing everything right, because I was doing everything that is politically correct.”

 

“JLI has taken the students out of the pop culture world and shown them that, as Jews, we have a responsibility to live to a higher standard. The course empowered my students—who all come from homes where they are given everything and denied nothing—to do the right thing, to take responsibility for themselves.”

By his own designation, Mentz is an “old geezer.” He says that his success with young students is his ability to connect with them, on their Instant Messenger or Facebook pages.

The greatest lesson he took from the course? “I saw that kids really want to open up. They are willing to talk about anything. The barriers are coming down.”

The barriers will continue to crumble in an additional 50 cities this fall as the second teen course, about Hollywood and Jewish values, will premiere.

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