Teens need a third place

Teens need a third place

Teenagers are frequently described by words like lazy, selfish, sensitive, and “basic,” a new-age way to say simple-minded. Sure, some teenagers can demonstrate laziness, make decisions without taking others into account, struggle in the face of criticism, and lack diverse interests.

The problem with ascribing these attributes to teens is that they could easily describe all of us. Teens are far too often lambasted for the worst qualities they can demonstrate without any recognition for both the hurdles that the world has put in front of them, and the good they even more frequently meet their adversity with.

Perhaps the greatest challenge that this generation of teenagers face is the lack of a “third place.” A modern sociological philosophy, the third place refers to a setting that is separate from the usual two social environments, which for teens are their home and their school. Community centers, parks, bookstores, and synagogues all are examples of historically successful third places for teenagers, where there are minimal barriers to entry and teens can just be themselves.

Unfortunately, third places have been shifting in recent decades from physical to virtual environments. Investment in traditional third places has wavered, the former bike-around-your-neighborhood comfort of Gen X is gone due to safety concerns, and the need for car rides to get anyplace is far too common. Video games, computers, and social media have replaced traditional in-person third places. The fallout of the covid-19 pandemic only hastened the emerging trend; too few teens go to third places in person.

Importantly, none of this is the teens’ fault.

October 2023 brought with it even more third place complications for Jewish teenagers. After the terrorist attacks in Israel on October 7, demonstrations of antisemitism and hate crimes toward Jews have been everywhere we turn. For Jewish teenagers, this rise in hatred is unlike anything they’ve seen in their lifetimes, and even worse, it’s infiltrated their third places. Tik-Tok, Instagram, video games, anywhere teens turn, there are images and expressions of antisemitism, making these previously sacred places, virtual or not, much less comfortable. Jewish teens have few places to turn to, and their parents echo their concern. I’ve spoken with countless parents of soon-to-be-college-bound teenagers who worried that places that once seemed to be safe from antisemitism now are overflowing with anti-Jewish demonstrations.

There is no such thing as a silver lining from the October 7 terrorist attacks or the war that has unfolded since. However, as has been the case throughout our history, Jews around the world have rallied for one another in the face of such evil. Be it community candle-lightings for those lost to horrors in Israel or clothing drives to support displaced families, the Jewish community always has and always will grow stronger when faced with adversity. It’s essential, though, that we do not leave our teens behind. It’s important that they’re meaningfully cared for, engaged, and brought into this community, rather than left to their own devices in the complicated, divisive communities of their virtual third places.

Jewish summer camp isn’t the only answer, but it is times like these that can make a Jewish summer camp experience even more important. Countless Jewish teens have grown up at an overnight camp, surrounded by others with similar heritages, religious ties, and interests. Countless studies show that overnight camp is the single most valuable way to ensure Jewishly engaged young people turn into Jewishly engaged adults.

And yet teenage engagement in overnight camp has grown more and more complicated, with sports seasons starting earlier, travel programs on the rise, and college prep courses marketing themselves as essential to future applications. There are countless fantastic options allowing teenagers to pursue exactly what’s important to them: school, sports, travel, and more. But for Jewish teens, overnight camp can provide something that these others can’t on my wrist — a true third place. The devices are out. Nature, bonfires, and scraped knees are in. The horrible expressions of hate on social media are out. Friendships and bonds formed over previous summers are in. The supervision of parents and teachers is out. The sense of independence and confidence to explore new interests is in. Most importantly, the current uncertainty that many teens face in being Jewish is out. Instead, we welcome in the sense of pride, joy, and Jewish community that only overnight camp can provide.

Synagogues and Jewish community centers are tremendous third places for Jewish teens during the year — summer camp might be exactly the third place that Jewish teens need for summer 2024.

Jeff Horowitz of Jersey City is an NJY Camps lifer; he spent nine years as a camper at Nah-Jee-Wah, Cedar Lake, and Teen Camp and returned to camp on staff, working his way up to his current role as the director of NJY Teen Camp and associate director of Camp Nah-Jee-Wah. He earned a Merrin Teen Professional Fellowship from the JCC Association of North America.

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