By Michelle Shapiro Abraham and Rabbi Ana Bonnheim
Young Jewish professionals are a growing cohort of just-out-of-college professionals who are eager for Jewish living and learning. Their jobs in the Jewish world are often their first jobs out of school and often in synagogues, where they are charged with being the “pied-pipers” of youth engagement in their communities.
The Union for Reform Judaism has increased our support of these new professionals through programs such as Youth Professional 101, funded by Covenant Foundation, and the CLASP Fellowship (Camp Leader and Synagogue Professional), a multi-year Fellowship that creates full-time youth engagement positions shared between URJ camps and congregations. With the support of a new anonymous donor, the program will triple to 30 CLASP Fellows over the next two years. Combined, the URJ expects to provide professional development for over 50 young synagogue-based Jewish professionals each year.
To better understand and support these positions, Rabbi Ana Bonnheim, Jewish educational consultant, interviewed thirteen of the CLASP Fellows asking them about their lives, jobs, struggles, and professional goals. These interviews, coupled with the Union for Reform Judaism’s professional network surveys and learning cohorts, have provided valuable insight into this microgeneration of Jewish professionals. Below are some of the most interesting findings that are driving our approach:
These young professionals need high–quality, regular supervision.
Though this statement may seem obvious, it was interesting to see that our research substantiated that the professionals who reported regular supervisory meetings (weekly or more often) reported the greatest understanding of their organizations’ missions and their own roles within those organizations. Additionally, this well-supervised cohort reported feeling happier in their positions and more connected to their organizations overall. In a time when high turnover is common, and many young people view first jobs as a two-year commitment, regular supervision can turn a very short-term tenure into a longer, more mutually beneficial one.
Furthermore, those who reported regular, ongoing supervision shared that they felt more confident and less paralyzed when confronted with challenges at work. We also found that some young professionals who reported high-quality supervision also mentioned that they often turn to their supervisor for help with personal as well as professional issues. They see this deeper relationship as one of the best perks of their positions, a finding which aligns with current research on millennials.
These young professionals love youth work but are also interested in other areas.
All too often, Jewish professional twenty-somethings are slotted into youth work with the assumption that because they are young, they can easily relate to children and teens. While this is sometimes true, the assumption is limiting. We certainly found CLASP Fellows who enjoyed working as youth engagement professionals, but we also found that many did well with primary portfolios such as membership or cantorial soloist.
We found that congregations, camps, and the professionals themselves benefited from a role that tapped into the professional’s multi-faceted interests and talents. In our case, given our interviewees had shared positions between congregations and camps, we found that their facility in relationship-building, logistical planning, and a friendly, high-energy demeanor made them valuable assets in many roles. Sharing positions also enables congregations to hire additional staff at a lower cost, since they are only paying nine to ten months of salary, and it brings young adults who are passionate about Judaism and Jewish camping into congregational life.
They can’t get enough professional development and ongoing education.
Every professional we interviewed expressed interest in networking with professionals in similar positions, and many reported wanting more professional development. We learned that not only are these professionals eager for more professional development, but they also are very discerning consumers of optional professional education.
Two areas of helpful and desired professional engagement crystallized. First, these young professionals crave to be a part of cohorts with others doing similar work. They are often, by far, the youngest person working in the synagogue component of their role and are also often one of the oldest people working in their camping role, creating a dynamic where they have few professional peers in either space. There are opportunities to create these cohorts, even across distance. A successful example is the URJ’s Youth Professional 101 program. As these professionals advance in their jobs, they need a cohort of collegial peers in addition to role models and mentors. Second, we heard that these young professionals are looking for concrete information and skills. They reported being less interested in work focused on defining vision or mission and more interested in learning skills to help them on a daily basis in their jobs (i.e. graphic design training, learning about budgets, etc).
They’re “people” people, in this work for the relationships and impact.
These young professionals can clearly and passionately articulate why they have chosen the work they are doing. In the words of one professional, “I’m a poster boy for camp. I would not be here, doing what I’m doing, if it weren’t for [camp]… But at the same time, I’m trying to push away from a youth group culture that says it’s just for camp people. I want to impact Jewish kids, whatever they choose to do.” These kinds of statements serve as a good reminder that the individuals in these positions have passion, heart and drive to do the work they do. They are our collective success stories. They come to these jobs full of energy and idealism, and they know the depth of their possible impact. The onus rests on their organizations and mentors to help them mold this powerful depth of feeling into productive and meaningful work and outcomes.
These young professionals want to be career Jewish professionals, and many don’t know how.
As part of our interviews with the professionals, we asked, “Imagine everything goes according to plan. Where do you see yourself a year or two from now, and where do you see yourself ten years from now?” In every conversation, the tone shifted considerably at this point, and we received comments like, “I can’t stop thinking about this,” or “I’m so glad you asked, I’m so confused.” The attention, and often anxiety, surrounding both short- and long-term professional growth is both real and deep.
We found that most individuals see the normal trajectory of a CLASP Fellowship as 2-3 years. One learning is that if synagogues/camps want to retain these professionals longer, they need to look at an inflection point after 2-3 years in the position. As an aside, very few of the professionals gave the synagogue or camp a written or verbal commitment for any length of time. Now that there has been significant growth in these entry-level positions, the next question is how to retain and support these professionals as they grow.
Yet, despite feeling ready for a new job after a couple of years, nearly all of the professionals we interviewed want careers in Jewish life. We heard goals of: camp director/assistant director, rabbi, cantor, educator, Jewish social justice activist, Jewish general nonprofit work, Jewish youth consultant and more. Many felt they needed graduate degrees to do this work but were unsure of which one to get, exactly when to go, and how to finance it. Overall, this is a group of Jewishly committed young professionals who could benefit from professional mentorship and coaching, as well as help explicitly planning the next stages of their careers. There is an opportunity to retain these passionate and talented individuals who are struggling to figure out their career paths.
They are suffering under the burden of student debt, and for some, this is controlling their lives.
About a third of the professionals we interviewed feel crushed under the burden of student loans, and about the same amount are struggling month-to-month to make ends meet or living with family because they can’t afford rent. This financial reality is defining their current lives and their future plans. Within this group, some are postponing graduate school or trying to forgo it altogether because of their current debt burden. It is a reminder that even though these professionals are young and may not yet have financial dependents, they are struggling in today’s financial reality to simply live their lives. The CLASP Fellowship, with its financial contribution toward salary, has helped congregations provide full-time positions with appropriate benefits for these early career professionals. This has been an interesting benefit of this program that has been meaningful and important for the field.
The professionalization and expansion of Jewish camping is a critical entry point for Jewish professionals.
The majority of interviewees said that they chose their jobs because they loved working at camp. Jewish camping – and the passion for both its impact and techniques – is the entry point for this cadre. The camping component of the synagogue-camping job drew these professionals in, and in many cases, an interest in congregational work and engagement grew from there. We found that a commitment to Jewish organizational and professional life was sparked at camp but grew as the individuals engaged in these formative jobs.
One effect of the CLASP Fellowship is the larger pool of just-out-of-college jobs that are appealing to talented young Jews. There have traditionally been a limited number of full-time, year-round positions in Jewish camping, and there is increasing competition for these jobs. A greater interest in camping jobs may be a wonderful outcome of the professionalization of the Jewish camping industry.
We have the exciting opportunity to leverage the increased number of Jewish professionals inspired by the camping movement to bring their skills to a wider variety of Jewish communal work. Regardless of the reasoning, the CLASP Fellowship brings energetic, experienced, committed young Jews into synagogues and keeps them working summer positions at camp, potentially far longer than they could otherwise, a major positive for both synagogues and camps. With that added support of YP101 for our newest professionals in these positions, we are able to provide the learning and cohort needed to support them and help them be successful in those first two years.
Our data shows that both CLASP Fellows and YP101 participants report having a positive experience working in the Jewish community and feel that they are making an important impact. The congregations they work with overwhelmingly share that these programs are strengthening their own youth engagement efforts. They cite the greater experience and knowledge of these fellows as key factors in elevating summer camp positions and creating a stronger staff, which in turn creates more mature mentors and role models for younger staff. These programs will strengthen our pipeline of exceptional Jewish leadership and increase the number of young Jews choosing to bring their talents to the Jewish community.
Rabbi Ana Bonnheim is the Program Director for HUC-JIR Founders’ Fellowship and a consultant to the URJ. She lives in Charlotte, NC.
Michelle Shapiro Abraham, MAJE, RJE is the Director of Learning and Innovation for URJ Youth and a consultant with the Foundation for Jewish Camp. She is a graduate of Hebrew Union College-JIR Rhea Hirsch School of Education and the proud recipient of a 2015 Covenant award.