Howard Voss-Altman: I’m afraid that most young people I meet are not deeply dissatisfied or alienated by youth culture. The challenge for religious leaders is to respond to an ethos of isolation (iPods and smartphones) and instant gratification by appealing to our youths’ natural idealism and communal orientation. Young people believe in goodness and choice. We have to help them see their lives not in terms of “What’s in it for me?” but rather, “What’s good for the entire community?”
Sikander Hashmi: Great point, Rabbi Howard. One of the issues I have noticed is too much of a focus on do’s and don’ts without a solid foundation in faith. Many times, the don’ts go against what youths (even adults) desire to do. One of the things I’m trying to do is first help our youths discover their spirituality, which I believe all of us have. Once that spirituality is allowed to rise and they build a good understanding of God, then a lot of the other discussions (for example, care for and service to other) become a lot easier.
Matt Wilkinson: I appreciate what Rabbi Howard has shared. Many youths I have mentored and walked with have shared that although they have become disillusioned by the institution of the church, they very much embrace Jesus and his teachings. The idea that Jesus would come not to destroy but rather to serve, that he came not to live among the elite but to spend most of his time among the outcasts, that he would bring the forgiveness of sins instead of the rejection of the person. When young people are able to move away from the self and the desires of the “me generation” and embrace the person and teachings of Jesus, they seem to look at their world differently – again, it is something not done alone but done in the community around that young person.
Guy Nicholson: And if the choice Howard mentions leads to a full, self-examined life without religion? Someone came knocking on my door the other day promising to help me search for meaning – between family, rewarding work and more interests than I have time to pursue, it felt like an unnecessary offer.
Sikander Hashmi: Well, that’s what it is, then. It’s a choice, after all.
Howard Voss-Altman: In the end, the goal is the fully realized self-examined life. If that life does not include religious practice, then it’s up to the rabbis, imams, ministers and priests to offer the most compelling teachings that affect the lives of our people. But if someone really seems to be making the effort to live a meaningful life without formal religion, that’s all we can really hope for.
Sheema Khan: Another issue that all young people face is that of identity, and related to that, the question: “Which group do I belong to?” It is a period of flux, as interests and perceptions of oneself change. For Muslim youths, there are two additional issues they face: Being a minority, and the post-9/11 ethos. Interestingly, the latter has caused many to re-examine who they are and what they believe in, primarily as a response to being defined a certain way by popular media.
Guy Nicholson: Ah, your insight has stolen one of my questions here, Sheema. You should be moderating this one!
Howard Voss-Altman: One of the most difficult aspects of this conversation is the natural inclination of religion to encourage group identification. When I was growing up in the United States in the 1960s, my rabbi used to ask us: Were we American Jews or Jewish Americans? If you answered “American Jews,” it was a sign that you placed your identity as an “American” first, and that you were on your way to assimilation and losing your Jewish identity. If you chose “Jewish American,” it meant placing your religious identity above your national identity. I’ve always felt that both identities are critical to our youths, and that religious leaders need to reinforce both religious involvement and responsible citizenship. When we subordinate one to another, we can easily slip down the slope to extremism.
Sikander Hashmi: This is where many young Canadian Muslims are struggling. Some have told me that when they’re at school and with their peers, they feel more “Canadian.” When they’re at home or at the mosque, they feel more “Muslim.” That’s likely because they’re associating cultural practices and expectations (like alcohol, sex, materialism) they face on the outside as being a part of the Canadian identity. My message to them is that those are not a part of a Canadian identity. You can practice your faith fully, express yourself as a Muslim and still be a law-abiding Canadian like anyone else.