The Case for Jewish Mentorship

by Brad Sugar

If you’re interested in an informal education experiment, grab a sheet of paper, find the nearest teen or adolescent, and give them one instruction: Draw a Jew. It may sound ridiculous, but over the past seven years – this simple exercise may have taught me more about the state of Jewish life than I care to admit.

Seven years ago, I instructed a group of students at Walter Payton College Prep (in Chicago, IL) to complete this exercise for the first time. Every Monday, students from all backgrounds (Jewish and not) met after school in the foreign language room, under the auspices of a network of Jewish culture clubs across the country (now called “The Jewish Student Connection”). As they converged upon the whiteboard to complete the task, I remember at once being taken aback with their artistic skill yet saddened by their representations of what “Jewish” was. As you might imagine, stereotypes ran rampant. Of course, there was the big nose. The Orthodox rabbi, replete with payot to the ground and a brimmed black hat that would make John Wayne proud. The doctor. The lawyer. The businessman, with a blinged out gold Star of David resting upon his opened shirt button, buried beneath curled hair. Over seventeen drawings in all.

To be sure, this was a “teaching moment” I could not resist.

“What’s missing from this picture?” I asked. A student then ran up the board, and amended his picture of the businessman by inserting a bagel in his hands. Not the answer I was looking for.

There were a lot of things missing from the picture, of course, but perhaps most egregious was the fact that not a single female had been drawn, despite more than half of the artists at the board being young Jewish women themselves.

I was also curious as to why none of the participants had drawn themselves, or someone that wasn’t an obvious caricature or stereotype. Here they were, in a self-selecting Jewish club, clearly identifying as being Jewish – yet no one “regular” was represented on the board. This really bothered me, and I spent the next hour after the meeting had finished asking each student about his or her representation of a Jewish person.

As it turns out, most of them fell back on stereotypes because there were no significant Jewish leaders in their lives other than immediate family. Few belonged to synagogues, and fewer went more than once a year. Jewish camp was not on the radar, Hebrew school was anathema and the acronyms of the local Jewish youth groups were simply gibberish to them. As teenagers, they had no true Jewish heroes. No immediate Jewish role models to emulate, to seek out, or to spend time with. The best representation of Jews to them was the stereotypical male Rabbi.

Some suggest that the most viable solution to inspire our youth to lead Jewish lives is to provide them with rich Jewish experiences. This may be true, but defining the desired outcomes for these experiences is difficult. The Jewish Student Connection’s approach is very specific: to expect our Jewish youth to grow into participating Jewish adults, we need to provide them access to affable and knowledgeable Jewish role models and leaders they can trust. Men and women. Religious and secular. Gay and straight. Jewish professionals and professional Jews. Young and old.

The high school and college years are such critical periods – not just for adolescent development, but for Jewish development, too. Think of all the important conversations that take place during this period: dating, friendship, and loss – just to name a few. If only our teens could have these conversations in a Jewish context, in consultation with a Jewish mentor they trusted – perhaps their future decisions will also be made a similar context?

Think about the Jewish mentors in your life with whom you’ve had these discussions. Perhaps it was a camp counselor, a youth director, or a Rabbi. Maybe it was a Hillel professional – or maybe even a relative. The point is – it is the people in our lives that mold us as we grow. Relationships almost always last longer than experiences, and as such, we must invest our resources in fostering meaningful relationships with those that matter. To Jewish Student Connection, teens matter.

To celebrate the Jewish inspirations in our lives, JSC has begun a campaign to recognize the individuals in our lives – past and present – that have made a Jewish difference. Please join us in recognizing these difference makers in our lives, and become partners in our mission to provide the very same experiences to the next generation.

Brad Sugar is National Director of Operations for the Jewish Student Connection.

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  1. Rabbi Jay Moses says


    Thanks for a thoughtful piece. You diagnose the issue well, but there is a piece missing in your prescription. How are we to provide our teenagers with “access to affable and knowledgeable Jewish role models and leaders they can trust” outside of the context of any organized Jewish program or organization? Those young people who do participate in camp, youth group, Hillel, etc., almost always do have access to these kinds of mentors. Mentorship requires a CONTEXT; and for the kids you describe who have no context for Jewish life, no relationships can form with mentors. If you’re suggesting the mentorship happen even without context, then how would that work? And if you agree context is necessary, then it becomes a question of how to get more young people into one of those contexts–which is what we are all working on already.

  2. says

    Rabbi Moses,

    Thank you for kickstarting the conversation with some really important points.

    First and foremost, my suggestion as outlined in the article is for a renewed focus on people, and not on programming. To wit, for those existing institutions which provide valuable “context for Jewish life” – that context should be rich in programmatic outlets, but even more so in personnel. In my opinion, a great program is simply fleeting – a one-off opportunity – and should instead be viewed as a conduit to something greater : a connection to the personalities behind an institution and the values they stand for.

    All too often teen and youth engagement is relegated to the most junior professional on an organization’s staff; and in some instances – the responsibility to educate or to be knowledgable in basic Jewish literacy for these teens is not required for the job, even in some of the largest youth movements and organizations around today.

    Second – you are absolutely correct in noting that relationships cannot necessarily occur without context – but the key is creating other contexts instead of feeling exhausted or constrained with the ones we have. Teens and young adults are in many places – if we’re lucky, our institutions are on their lists – but the chances of this are slim outside of the roughly 10% of the hyper-engaged. We would do well to meet them where they are, both physically and emotionally. JSC does this, as an example, by working within the public and private secular school system with heavy Jewish populations.

  3. says

    I’m glad that you wrote about the need for mentors between teens and professionals in the field. The exercise that triggered your blog is similar to one I’ve done many times in leadership classes to broaden students’ thinking about careers in the Jewish community. When I asked: “If you were seeking a career in the Jewish world, what positions would you be looking at?” Invariably, students respond with the careers most visible to them: Rabbi, Cantor, Education Director, Youth worker.
    So, we know we aren’t providing our teens, especially those that are already highly committed to being connected, with role models that would broaden their thinking. Thank you for bringing focus to this and encouraging others to think about the need for mentoring programs!

  4. says

    Firstly thank you for a most amazing article . The points you bring up are so true, there is a definite lack of mentorship programs for our youth and we need to build programs. but not just “programs” there are plenty of those .We need to make ones that speak to our children , that connect to them in their interests, that they want to join ,not just being forced to come by their parents for bar/bat mitzva lessons ,or bribed by the free lunch. the content of these programs need to be real and need to be the atraction .
    I have the privilege of being head counselor of The Zone summer camp as well as director of Chillzone . The concept of both of these programs is exactly that, mentorship .In camp every camper is matched up with a staff member who will be his mentor and to keep up thru out the year in our nation wide chillzone programs . Our top priority is to give our campers the most amazing and exciting summer experince in a jewish atmosphere ,so they see that being jewish doesnt cotradict having fun and being cool . The summer is then followed by year round programing and events . bust most importantly we understand the needs and interests of todays youth and connect with them . I encourage all that read this to check out our website or on facebook
    http://www.facebook/getinthezone.come . you will surely be happy you found a most amazing program for the youth of 2013