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Rabbi on Turning Teen Angst Into Action for Positive Change

Struggling kids need to have hope in the future

A portrait of Rabbi Rachel Timoner inside the Sanctuary at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, New York on August 9, 2022.
Rabbi Rachel Timoner inside the Sanctuary at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, New York.

I’m seeing a deluge of teens in agony in ways I haven’t witnessed before. Earlier in my career, it might have been a bullying situation or specific issue at home that brought a teenager into my office. Now it’s this generalized feeling of I want out. I don’t feel like this world is a good place to be. ​

When we see our kids suffering or struggling, what they need to hear is, 'I believe in you.'

​So many of the things we once counted on are not reliable anymore, like democracy, like justice, like public health, like the future of the earth itself. If you’re a teenager in 2022, you’re genuinely worried that we’re heading toward mass extinction. That’s different even than the worst horrors of the past. I grew up in the ’70s in Miami, and there were a lot of Holocaust survivors with numbers on their arms. I knew a monstrous thing had happened. It was evil. But there was one clear bad guy. Everybody could rally against Adolf Hitler, right? There’s not just one bad guy anymore. The problems now are all-encompassing. I remember when my son Eitan was around 10, I walked by his bedroom and he was weeping in his bed. I thought he was hurt or something had happened at school, but he said he was weeping because the world is going to end. The polar bears are dying, and there’s nothing I can do about it. He’s now 17. That’s this generation.​

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​I think the main thing for parents and grandparents to know is that to love is not to worry. But rather to have rock solid faith in your children and to express that. When we see our kids suffering or struggling, what they need to hear is, I believe in you. They might not believe in themselves but knowing we’ll get through this together really makes an impact. The world can be a cruel place. Change is hard and it’s slow. But hope has to be the option. There’s no choice. I mean, we could all decide to give up and just party to the end, but I don’t want to be at that party. Sitting back and watching impending disaster powerlessly is a recipe for despair. ​

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​All of us have a sphere of influence, young and old alike. One of our bat mitzvah girls is raising money to save the rhinos. Our ninth grade class worked all semester collecting signatures to close Riker’s Island as a jail and to turn it into a renewable energy plant. God forbid, the world is going to end. Let’s at least go out with a fight — having given everything toward life, toward health, peace, justice and freedom. I know from experience that applying yourself like that automatically generates hope. ​

Rachel Timoner is senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, New York

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