Honoring what Matters: Making Young Jewish Engagement a Profession

By Morlie Levin

Last month, Jewish Federations of North America’s (JFNA) Global Planning Table issued this challenge: What do you think are the important Jewish issues that could be significantly influenced by philanthropic intervention if the Jewish community could devote sufficient resources on a large scale? What types of interventions would be most effective? NEXT CEO Morlie Levin authored the piece below in response.*

Connecting young Jewish adults to one another, Israel, and their local and global Jewish communities fills much of the bandwith of communal discussions about Jewish identity and continuity. Watching and learning from Taglit-Birthright Israel, we know a great deal about what matters to young Jewish adults in their 20s who are exploring their Jewish connections. While the reality on the ground is complex, in the end the broad message is simple. It’s about:

  • Authentic, personal experiences;
  • Being with friends and experiencing (or creating) community together; and
  • Opportunities that deepen Jewish knowledge and stimulate Jewish growth.

This is not a new message. We’ve long understood that identity formation is episodic and ultimately a result of personal discovery. That’s why experiential, immersive, interventions (like camping and Birthright Israel trips) have gained such traction. And while we have, in certain instances, invested in deepening the knowledge of the young professionals who touch the participants — the guide/madrich – we have done woefully little as a community to commit to their careers. This is a plea for taking that on as a serious commitment of the Jewish people.

From my perch at Birthright, I see time and time again the impact of a talented trip leader or motivational local engagement staff. The anecdotes are supported by the analysis. Numerous analytical studies, both in the Jewish world and the secular world demonstrate the profound impact a gifted teacher, camp counselor, young leadership professional, innovator, community organizer can have. We know it; we see it; most of us have experienced it.

But even the most gifted are often frustrated. We’ve heard the litany: low pay, impossible hours, divided (often conflicting) responsibilities, no career path, devalued skills, minimal collegial interaction, little investment in “continuing education,” an invisible community of practice. The turnover in staff is huge, rapid, and costly – not only in dollars and impact but, most importantly, in squandered passion. We dangle the opportunity to connect mission and meaning to work and then by our actions indicate that we consider “this work” simply as a way station on the way to a “real” career — and one increasingly outside the Jewish community.

It is true of course that some turnover is not only good, it is some times warranted. Some people age out of their role, others burnout in them. For still others, it’s simply not the right match. But systemic turnover undermines our communal ability to leverage many of the other investments we are making, especially in experiential interventions like camping and Birthright.

A serious philanthropic focus on young engagement professionals (across all organizations–mainline, entrepreneurial, and grassroots) could make a significant difference by:

  • Raising salaries of young engagement professionals;
  • Adding additional staff positions so that engagement is the sole responsibility, not one of many tasks;
  • Holding national gatherings across organizations to create a community of practice;
  • Developing, and continually refreshing, core curricula that fuses engagement strategies with up-to-date information about social/social media trends;
  • Arming engagement professionals with the (ever-evolving) technological savvy to interact with a wired generation;
  • Teaching research and analytical skills so that trends can be assessed and acted on;
  • Promoting full-time opportunities to part-time engagers working in informal Jewish education settings like camp;
  • Convening international conferences that bring young adult engagers from Israel, the FSU, Europe, and South America together to share best practices and develop professional networks, which would then be supported by online gatherings to sustain connections built during in-person gatherings;
  • Offering competitive grants to mentors to work with young professionals to teach work/life balance and provide coaching on career options and opportunities, coupled with opportunities for mentors to meet periodically and report back to the field on trends they have observed and new practices that have surfaced;
  • Creating a “master class” where highly-regarded young engagement professionals would teach and train their peers, receiving additional remuneration and recognition in the process;
  • Exploring the skill and knowledge linkage between engagement work and Jewish education so as to create alternative (and refreshing) career paths. This could mean offering special grants to those who have excelled in one and the opportunity to take on new roles in the other.

While not exhaustive, this list is illustrative of the kind of activities a major, systemic, philanthropic effort could enable. Embedded in many of these examples is the assumption that this effort would help to network myriad organizations in a way that would operationally bridge the work done between and amongst them: a dream many of us have had for a long time.

We know that young Jewish adults want to learn from peer engagers. Through and with them, young adults explore their identities, take on commitments to themselves and their communities and discover and embrace deep convictions about Jewish life.

It is time to really invest in peer engagers. This is a clarion call for convening a roundtable to move them to the forefront of our funding agenda!

*This brief think piece makes no attempt to address many of the mega-issues facing the Jewish people. Rather, and intentionally, it focuses on a narrow (and systemic) issue that, with a relatively modest increase of funds and attention, could have a disproportionately high impact.


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