Developmentally, teens are in the midst of a significant process of becoming. In the teen years, we begin to move from our parents’ ideas and habits to our own. And at the same time, we are too young to truly be independent — we are deeply influenced by our peers and any mentors we find. This influence can lead to our good choices as teens and can shape the paths we will take as adults.

And yet too often, we leave “youth group” to early career professionals and leave them to independent decision-making. The Teen Funder Collaborative has tried to change this paradigm, making recruiting and hiring of teen professionals more strategic, then investing in them significantly during their early careers. Here, Sara Allen, director, of The Jewish Teen Education & Engagement Funder Collaborative, shares her thoughts on how we, as Federations and central agencies, can support youth professionals and educators.

The Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative is an innovative philanthropic experiment whereby national and local funders work together to develop, fund, and support new teen initiatives that draw on the collective strength of local organizations. Visit their site to learn more, get the latest developments, and sign up for their newsletter.

Many of us in the Jewish professional world today can reflect back on the educators who influenced us—and the experiences we had—and recognize the integral role those professionals play during formative years.

Why? Perhaps it’s because we often hear teen educators say things like:  “I enjoy the challenge of making Judaism fun, relevant, and meaningful for teenagers who are ‘figuring themselves out.’” And

“[I wanted] a feeling of meaning in my work and making an impact.”

These testimonials from teen educators reflect the commitment to their work and genuine love they have helping Jewish teens see the value and meaning in engaging in Jewish life.

People are the primary asset of any service-based organization, and nowhere is this more true than in the field of teen engagement, where dynamic professionals are uniquely positioned to have direct and lasting influence on a teen’s future connection to the Jewish community.

Yet, it is widely accepted that these roles—which often, but certainly not exclusively, are filled by early career professionals—can be undervalued within their institutions, experience frequent turnover, suffer from poor recruitment, and offer professionals limited access to training and support that can seriously impede performance and sustainability. Research affirms that “hiring, training, and retaining young adults challenging, in part due to their transient life stage, limited professional experience and the typically low wages in youth-serving positions.” At the same time, we know “high-caliber staffing [is essential to] developing successful models of youth programming.” Serious investments to address these challenges and the need for excellent staff are important levers for change.

The Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative is an innovative philanthropic experiment whereby national and local funders work together to develop, fund, and support new teen initiatives that draw on the collective strength of local organizations. We are committed to the core belief that youth professionals—educators and engagers who program for, connect, mentor, and inspire thousands of teens in our communities—are vital to the success of any teen program.

The Funder Collaborative introduces new ideas, produces research and shared frameworks, and networks leaders to advance the field of teen engagement.

One of our most significant early accomplishments is putting forth shared Measures of Success that guide our work. Notably, one of these shared measures is focused wholly on youth professionals and whether they feel equipped with the knowledge as well as the hard and soft skills needed to achieve desired outcomes for the teens with whom they work.

The Promise of Effective Professional Development

Many youth educators adeptly combine interpersonal skills, Jewish knowledge, and an authentic desire to transmit their love of Judaism. Many more need guidance, training, and a supportive community in which to grow professionally. In recent years, professional coaching, fellowships, and leadership programs have become more common and accessible; however, it is unclear how many front-line professionals are reached through truly comprehensive approaches that mix concrete tools and valuable network building.

Several intersecting trends make investing effectively in practitioners more pressing than ever: competition for, and retention of, talent; generational friction around workplace practices; a perceived sense that youth work is transitory. (Recruiting talented professionals is a critical element of the equation, and one we will explore in future writings).

Armed with this knowledge, the questions before us are straightforward: What can we do as a Jewish community to develop, support, and retain talented professionals who educate and engage our Jewish teens? And, how can we best position them to create dynamic and innovative teen Jewish experiences?

To reverse the trend of teens opting out of Jewish life post-b’nai mitzvah, it’s essential we identify answers to these questions, and act on them.

The Role of Federations in Professional Development, Field-Building, and Retention

Federations are playing a key role in pushing Jewish teen initiatives in many of our communities to greater heights. As significant employers and funders of organizations that hire youth professionals, Federations have the opportunity to be relationship-builders and catalysts for change, uniquely poised to convene youth professionals and leaders from disparate organizations to connect them to one another and to experts who can help them advance their work with teens.

Whether for a specific program or as part of overall teen outreach efforts, we offer some key questions that can guide internal planning and reflecting:

  • What are we doing to offer ongoing support and growth for our youth professionals?
  • How are we ensuring our youth professionals see themselves as valued members of our collective team?
  • How can we help organizations on the ground—congregations, youth groups, and others—attract and retain talented youth professionals to our local community?
  • Are we drawing from the latest methodologies, pedagogies, and best practices in our training of these professionals?
  • What are we doing to share best practices and resources about teen engagement and education within and outside of our communities?

Beyond these initial questions, following are some important strategies and approaches to keep in mind when considering professional development for teen professionals:

  1. Diagnose first. Be clear about the problem you’re trying to solve. Recruitment, onboarding, retention, and innovation each require different interventions and programs should be tailored to suit the desired outcomes.
  2. Use empathy. Professional development programs should integrate your mission, shared goals, knowledge of community culture, and sensitivity to power hierarchies to ensure they are responsive, relevant, and accessible. Federations can be expert relationship-builders—draw on your relationships by creating environments in which youth professionals and their supervisors can identify the most effective type of training. Communities are experimenting with monthly workshops and training sessions; community-based cohorts with experiential education experts such as M2 and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; mentoring programs that pair veteran youth professionals with those who are newer to the field; and subsidies for university-level courses. Many are creating a thriving community of practice (CoP) among youth professionals to seed and nurture a diverse ecosystem of educators and youth-serving professionals. Whenever possible, they seek to provide offerings that are complementary to other professional development the youth professionals might be receiving through their local institution or a national movement to which they may be connected.
  3. Build in support. Effective professional development could focus both on the professional him/herself, and the skills we wish to impart so that they are better equipped to do their profession. Cultivating a CoP can offer tremendous peer support to support learning, an approach echoed within the collaborative itself. Funders and the implementers (program professionals and initiative directors) come together to discuss, dissect, and address shared areas of interest, exponentially advancing the pace of learning and progress. Learning together, sharing best practices and lessons gleaned openly, honestly, and transparently through in-person convenings and network weaving is critical to building any field.
  4. Influence systems. Federations are uniquely poised to convene disparate organizations, as well as propose agendas that may shed light onto how policies and practices influence talent. For example, providing individual professional development stipends sends a powerful signal about the importance of an individual’s growth; teaching how to provide meaningful performance reviews can help create healthy supervisory relationships.

Educators are a cornerstone of Jewish life and engagement — and the role models with whom we entrust our teens. Identities and long-term relationships take hold during the teen years, and we therefore must create a future where teens are supported and inspired by the best and the brightest educators — individuals who can help show them all that Jewish life offers. The Funder Collaborative looks forward to continuing to learn from the most promising practices within our communities, as well as others around the country, and to continue to share that learning for the benefit of all.

This article is reposted from the JFNA Blog Ideas in Jewish Education and Engagement. It is reprinted with permission.