Filled with Meaning, Learning, and Personal Growth: Creating Impactful Jewish Internship Experiences

Photo courtesy NCSY Next Step

By Sara Allen

Teens today are highly ambitious. Inspired to create positive change, when they choose to devote their time and energy to an organization or activity, they expect an experience that offers both a chance to learn, and a sense of meaning.

Generation Now: Understanding and Engaging Jewish Teens Today notes that, “Teens expressed that ongoing Jewish programming should offer them recognizable value in their life … that strengthen their resumes and therefore improve college applications. Internships, learning tangible skills, community service, leadership activities….”

To meet these needs and desires, select internship programs are being infused with Jewish learning and reflection, as well as offering rich real-world experience. All indicators suggest this skillful mix makes them highly effective.

As part of the Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative’s efforts to share insights and learnings with the broader field, we want to explore some of the critical elements of these Jewish teen internship experiences. What makes them work? What are the challenges? And what even makes them “Jewish?”

No One Way to Offer an Internship

There are three models that Funder Collaborative communities have launched to offer teens a meaningful internship experience, rich with learning, Jewish context, and peers:

  • DOROT is a program that connects teens to elderly members of the community for visits. This is an offering of the New York Teen Initiative, which was seeded by UJA Federation of New York and the Jim Joseph Foundation. The Initiative works to diversify the models and increase the number of teens participating in immersive and inspiring Jewish summer experiences.
  • NCSY’s Next Step offers teens internships with a range of organizations and businesses in Israel – from Hadassah Hospital to tech start-ups and more. This also is a part of the New York Teen Initiative.
  • The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles Community Internship Program (CIP) creates a cohort of committed teens learning and working in Jewish organizations. Just over a year ago, the Federation and the Jim Joseph Foundation posed a series of questions that communities may want to ask themselves to determine readiness for creating an internship program of their own.

From these three examples, we can begin to connect some dots to better understand what creates a positive internship experience.

Make the Experience Productive and Enjoyable

Modern teens have high expectations, and often are unafraid to critique. This means that when teens are offered an internship experience, they expect to be utilized properly, to contribute to a genuine project, and to learn something. Melanie Schneider, Senior Planning Executive at UJA Federation of New York, says:

“Especially for New York families and teens, top flight internships are increasingly becoming important pieces which teens build into their later high school years. The New York Teen Initiative has responded to this desire by seeding and supporting compelling new models of summer programs where teens learn skills and gain experiences in interesting professional settings – all through a Jewish lens. We’re excited by this start, and look forward to the development of more internship opportunities in New York.”

As you might expect, a lot goes into creating a productive work environment, such as finding appropriate placements that align with teens’ skills and interests. NCSY and the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles work with supervisors in the internship placement organizations to make sure they know how best to utilize teens. NCSY in particular had a steep learning curve since Israel really has no tradition of teen internships. But Dan Hazony of NCSY says that “once the supervisors saw how talented the teens were, many of the supervisors really understood the value of having the teens on their team and maximized the experience through the program accordingly.”

The structure, depth, and duration of the teens’ work is crucial. DOROT puts teens in position to seriously address a major problem in society – social isolation and loneliness of elderly people. Teens are trained to have meaningful home visits with elderly. Mark Meridy of DOROT says that DOROT “provides the students powerful and meaningful experiences with the people whom they engage.” For internships like Los Angeles’s CIP and Next Step, the experience is more dependent on the organization or company where the teen is working. In this instance, structure is key. Teens in general have a more productive and enjoyable experience if they work on one major project over four weeks as opposed to multiple smaller tasks over a few days. Part of the reason simply is because teens are work-savvy; they finish tasks quickly. It’s not good for anyone involved if a teen finishes the only project for the day by noon.

For all three programs, program duration has been designed intentionally. Los Angeles even adjusted its duration after some early learnings from the CIP. All three programs examined here run for four weeks. This is not just because that fits nicely into the teens’ schedule; rather, four weeks also is about the maximum bandwidth a supervisor can offer. Jessica Green, Vice President of Jewish Education & Engagement at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and organizer of the Los Angeles CIP, says that they now end the work day at 3:00 – partly because teens are exhausted by then, but also to give the supervisors a chance to catch up on their work that may have been put aside while they supervised the teen. When done effectively, supervision is hands-on and deliberate; supervisors are a significant factor regarding whether a teen finds an internship meaningful and impactful.

Peer Connections Build a Cohort of Diverse Teens

As we know from other teen programs, developing strong peer relationships is a key indicator of whether teens find an experience meaningful – and whether they are likely to continue engaging in that and other offerings. Internship programs can offer quick and deep bonding among peers. This might seem counterintuitive, given that teens have individual placements, but the three programs foster a genuine group dynamic where teens engage with others who offer something new to their life.

Hazony of NCSY’s Next Step explains, “Our program includes teens from both public schools and Jewish day schools. So we have teens of varying levels of Jewish engagement and knowledge. By interacting with each other, teens see different ways to relate to Israel and to Judaism.”

Next Step introduces the teens to a different educational theme each week, such as Peoplehood, and utilizes WhatsApp to communicate with students as a group and to introduce the theme. Throughout the week teens talk with each other on the message chain, and the WhatsApp group is still active even though last summer’s internships ended more than six months ago.

DOROT, too, is intentional about having a diverse group of interns. “We absolutely want vast differences among the teens here – it’s an essential part of the program,” Judith Turner of DOROT says. “We have many teens who have not had a b’nai mitzvah. The 20 teens become a strong unit, and the two-day orientation is a critical time period for this group formation. Then, throughout the program, they learn from each other; come to know peers with different world views; and really develop a meaningful social connection with each other.”

In Los Angeles, the CIP sets aside Friday as the time for all the teens to come together, to process their experiences. The goal is clear: to have teens engage with each other and expand their Jewish peer networks. One participant says:

“This program definitely helped form a community for me. I met so many of my Jewish peers from all around the LA area that I would have never gotten the chance to meet otherwise. It was really great experience and it helped me realize that I want to be part of a Jewish community throughout my life.”

It’s Not What You KnowIts What You LEARN

The internship programs understand that teens want to learn. Nearly any experience within the internship framework is an opportunity for learning, including the learning time outside of the teens’ work experience. For DOROT, this involves training specifically to help teens engage with elderly and to properly process that engagement.

“We are a Jewish organization whose roots are firmly within Jewish tradition, and it’s a beautiful thing to address social isolation through that lens,” adds Turner. “DOROT makes time for exploring Jewish themes as a group and for learning about different social issues. Trained professionals also work with teens to develop leadership skills, to understand best practices for sharing about themselves, and how to be active listeners. This is about emotional intelligence and helping teens be intentional in everything they do.”

Next Step broke the mold relative to NCSY’s other summer programs by maintaining a less structured learning environment, but no less intentional. When the teens return from work each day, they are all together at their hostel in Jerusalem. “We initially had different learning theme nights planned throughout the week,” Hazony says. “But we learned quickly that teens, like most adults, are pretty tired after a day of work.” Next Step instead implemented what many other NCSY programs deploy – “structured freedom.” We have a lot of success with small group learning and reflection. We find out what a group of teens are looking to learn, and match them with staff who can help.”

In Los Angeles, Friday is when CIP interns come together for reflecting on the values they see in the work place. Green explains that “we’ve learned to integrate Jewish content into our learning time, with a light touch on Jewish values specifically.”

Intentional Jewish Growth

As we see, each internship in its own way is infused with Jewish learning and with room for what can be termed “Jewish personal exploration.”

The diversity of Jewish backgrounds and family life among the cohorts in each internship program is a major part of the teens’ experience. The three programs say that the teens find the internships – and the related learning and cohort experiences – to be a platform for accessible, often inspiring Jewish engagement.

Turner at DOROT adds, “Today’s Jewish teen community is very diverse; this internship opens up doors for teens from a range of backgrounds and with varying levels of knowledge to explore Jewish heritage, to learn from activists, and to understand what it means to grow old from Holocaust survivors. These are powerful interactions, which teens then process through traditional Jewish chavruta style study.”

A teen in Los Angeles says:

“I always thought being Jewish was just about believing in God and praying, which is why it never clicked with me, but I now know there are many different ways to be Jewish and that becoming involved in the Jewish community is much easier than one would think. Thanks to this program, I have developed new connections with other Jewish teens as well as started to create a professional network.”

As Green concludes, the impact can far exceed simply providing work experience, creating a lens through which teens can see themselves in a greater context. “We’ve seen the power of these internships is less about the work experience and more about the opportunity to discover for themselves the different ways one can be Jewish and fit into Jewish community.”

Sara Allen is Director of the Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative.

Cross-posted at Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative