Jewish Values in Action:
How Youth Professionals Help Teens Thrive

Photo courtesy Jewish Learning Works

By Dana Sheanin

This summer my daughter was bullied and harassed by her male counterpart on the regional board of a national Jewish youth organization. The organization’s professional staff failed to take meaningful action, and I watched my daughter suffer for months before this young man was finally removed from his leadership position. As my daughter struggled with her male peer’s aggressive and inappropriate behavior, the Jewish community publicly wrestled with the implications of women speaking up about ongoing gender-based abuse of power in organizational life. Such abuses run deeply counter to the Jewish value of b’tzelem elohim, the belief that all people are created in the image of G-d, and accordingly are worthy of respect and kindness.

My family’s experience this summer reinforced two important things. First, I was reminded of the critical role youth professionals must play in modeling middot – the everyday character measures that encourage us to live lives of righteousness and meaning. Second, I was reminded of the damage that can be done when we fail to take our responsibility as role models, mentors, and teachers seriously.

I have worked in the field of Jewish teen engagement for fifteen years and I am the parent of four teenagers. I am familiar with the complex social environments in which teens learn about and adopt gender norms and struggle to differentiate themselves from their peers. I have supported countless teens as they identified their core values and stepped into leadership roles in the community. Long before my own children were teens I hoped they would be involved in Jewish youth groups, believing in their unique power to help these emerging adults grow and thrive.

Those of us committed to engaging teens in Jewish life believe that, at their best, synagogues, youth groups, camps and Jewish Community Centers offer a place of respite from teens’ stressful lives. They provide a space where teens feel safe and draw strength from their peers. Such experiences, however, must be framed by the thoughtful involvement and guidance of adults. A nurturing environment enables teens to take risks, unpack their daily lives, and grow in ways they can’t do at home or at school. But this is only possible when staff actively draw on core values to attend to social dynamics, gender norms and culture of the group. It is imperative that we invest in training youth professionals to deeply understand who teens are, and how to build trusting relationships with them. Without such training, they cannot respond to and support those who are struggling – whether with friends, family, school or self-harming behavior.

In my role at Jewish LearningWorks, I am privileged to oversee a multi-year professional development initiative for youth professionals, made possible with the generous support of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, Marin, the Peninsula and Sonoma Counties, and the national Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Funder Collaborative. The Jewish Teen Education and Engagement Initiative, one of ten nationwide, provides Bay Area youth professionals with year-round opportunities to learn from national experts, build new skills and ultimately to become the role models our teens deserve.

We have chosen the theme of “wellness” for our learning this year. The programs we offer to youth professionals will explore how to help emerging adults wrestle with the things that matter most in Jewish tradition – how to live and love and contribute in a world where derekh eretz, right action, and chesed, compassion, are increasingly counter cultural. We hope this work will create a path to healthier teen development.

When we authentically teach and model Jewish values we are able to build teen communities that provide safe havens, that enrich the well-being of participants, and that we want teens to be part of. Jewish values must be central to our work. Senior leaders in the community must care as much about a youth advisor, rabbi or camp counselor’s understanding of Jewish ritual and text as we do about their ability to plan a program or recruit uninvolved teens. We must deepen their ability to understand gender or sexual identity, politics and power through a Jewish lens even as we teach them how to help teens develop leadership skills.

Ultimately, youth professionals have a brit – a covenant – with the teens who participate in our programs. It is our sacred obligation to keep them safe, to keep them healthy and to inspire them with what Jewish wisdom has to offer as they grow. Our children deserve to live in a world peopled with adult mentors who believe in them, who hear their voices and who help them thrive. May 5779 be a year in which we all take steps together to make this a reality.

Dana Sheanin, MSW, MAJCS is the Chief Learning Officer at San Francisco based Jewish LearningWorks. She is a lifelong devotee of professional learning and capacity building and is honored to serve the community of Jewish professionals in the Greater Bay Area.