NEW YORK, June 14 (JTA) — Jules Gutin recalls that when he was first starting out as a youth group director, “people kept asking me when I was going to grow up and get a real job.”
The experience of Gutin, who defied his questioners and eventually became director of the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth, was not unusual.
In the Jewish community, youth work has traditionally been relegated to the just-out-of-college kid willing to earn very little money for a year or two until he or she applies to graduate school or pursues more “serious” work.
Even among youth workers with master’s degrees in social work and education, turnover has generally been high and salaries low.
Now, as the Jewish community looks to improve outreach to teens, the majority of whom do not participate in youth groups or Hebrew high schools, there is a growing consensus that a renaissance of quality programming will require quality professionals who are in the field for the long-term and not just as a stepping stone.
At a recent conference for people working on informal Jewish and Zionist education, held in a fading Catskill Mountains resort that was once a hotspot for American Jewish vacationers and “Borscht Belt” comedians, Gutin was one of only a handful of people there old enough to remember that Catskills era.
But echoed repeatedly throughout the conference — sponsored by the four-year-old North American Alliance for Jewish Youth — was the need to stem the turnover in the field and turn youth work into a real profession — one with training, ongoing education, good salaries, a career ladder and perhaps most importantly, respect.
“We would like to have talented, informal educators whose job it is to respond to diverse needs and create compelling programs that would be like a magnet,” said Joseph Reimer, a Brandeis University professor and director of the university’s new Institute for Informal Jewish Education.
“Our judgment is that amateurs can’t do that work,” he added.
Created in 1999 with funds from Charles Bronfman, the mega- philanthropist who also chairs the national umbrella organization for Jewish federations and is a founder of Birthright Israel, the institute is one of the key players in the drive for professionalization of youth work.
Starting this fall, it will run a 13-month leadership seminar consisting of mentoring, networking with other informal educators and three intensive four-day retreats.
A somewhat similar plan is in the works in California’s Bay Area, where the Bureau of Jewish Education will be offering stipends, leadership training and mentoring, but also grant money for teen workers to implement new programs.
The Jewish Community Centers Association of North America runs a leadership “fellows” program for 18 JCC youth workers, and is in its second two-year cycle.
“It validated that the work I was doing had professional meaning and enabled me to sharpen my leadership skills,” said Julia Wolpov, from the first group of JCCA fellows, who now works at Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.
In addition to the proliferation of professional development programs, several communities are also looking for ways to provide greater support and networking among people working in informal Jewish education.
In Metro West, N.J., and Boston, federation-sponsored teen initiatives are cobbling together several part-time jobs to create full-time positions with salaries and benefits.
As part of a larger series of voluntary standards the JCCA is encouraging its members to adopt, it is suggesting that new youth workers be paid at least as much as area first-year teachers, said Amy Rosenberg, who staffs the fellows program and other teen services.
But some are skeptical that teen work will ever be a long-term career, no matter what is done to professionalize it.
Marissa Buchferer, a current JCCA youth fellow and coordinator of teen activities at the Samuel Field YM-YWHA in Queens, N.Y., described the fellows program as a “phenomenal way to network and program-share with people throughout the country.”
However, she said that while she loves her work with teens, it would be hard to imagine doing it indefinitely because the schedule is hard to balance with family responsibilities.
Since programs must be offered when the teens are not in school, youth professionals generally work several nights a week and most weekends, said Buchferer.
“It’s giving a lot of yourself,” she said. “You can only do that for so many years before you get burnt out and tired.”