By Sara Feldman, Teen Outreach Worker
A few months ago I heard Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman speak in Baltimore at the Friends of the IDF fundraiser. I was inspired by her dedication to gymnastics, as well as her unapologetic attitude about her Jewish heritage, which attracted worldwide attention at the 2012 Summer Olympics. During the program, an officer from the IDF made a surprise appearance to read the letter he had written to Aly about how she had inspired him and other Israeli soldiers.
Listening to Aly and the soldier’s story started me thinking about role models — how we are affected by them, and how we can positively influence others. Since I work with teens at the Mitchell David Teen Center, I decided to talk to several different teens to find out what inspires them.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that teens are inspired by everything around them! One girl admires Ellen DeGeneres “because she is an amazing human being who always puts a smile on people’s faces.” Ellen inspires her to give to charity and emphasizes that we should always “be kind to one another.”
Teens are also inspired by historical Jewish figures. For example, one chose Hannah Szenes, the Hungarian Jewish heroine, who is famous for her poem “Elie, Elie” (“My God, my God”) and many other writings. She joined the Haganah and volunteered for a daring mission parachuting near the Hungarian border to rescue Jews about to be deported to Auschwitz. She was captured and executed for acting on her beliefs. The teen I spoke to admired Szenes because “she fought for a country she considered her homeland and gave up her personal dream in the process, giving up her life to her country. She understood the power of a collective dream.” Hannah Szenes inspired her to grow as a leader and fight for her own beliefs.
I quickly learned that you don’t need to be famous to be a role model. One teen told me that his uncle is his role model “because he came from humble beginnings and worked his way through school.” His uncle taught him to stay humble and always work hard at your job. Other teens were inspired by their peers’ success, caring hearts, and determination. One said that her peers “advocate making the world a much better and a more peaceful place” and push her to be the best version of herself. Another was inspired to follow in the footsteps of some older girls to take on a leadership role within BBYO.
Parents have an opportunity to contribute to this process. A good conversation opener is to talk to your teen about whom you admire and who inspires you. From that conversation, you can ask your child if there is anyone right now that he or she thinks of as a role model. Your child’s answers give you insight into his or her values and goals. And this is also an opportunity for you to tell your child what special qualities you admire about her or him.
With a little guidance your teen can be a role model for others. Teen are very impressionable. It’s important for us to encourage our teens to be kind to others and to teach younger kids leadership skills. Encourage your child to take on a leadership role in club at school, or in their youth group or at their job. Teens can start out small by helping a teacher, or taking on a smaller position within a club and then working their way up. You don’t need to be the president of a club to make a difference.
Teens need to feel empowered to stand up for what they believe in. They will inspire others by blazing their own trails and striving to be the best they can be. As Aly Raisman said, “I push myself and do the best that I can to finish and just have a good feeling at the end of the day.”
By Sara Feldman, Teen Outreach Worker, Jewish Community Services, Baltimore, MD
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