Supplemental Jewish Teen Education Today

By Shari Weinberger

I started out in supplemental Jewish teen education in 2004. I came to it in a round-about way. My son said he would only go to the teen program if he could take the cooking class and the cooking class was full. At the time I was the director of a Jewish preschool. The Hebrew High director had children in my school. I approached her to see if I could get my son in the class. She said sure – as long as I agreed to teach a second section. One thing led to another and I left preschool to jump into teen education. I learned very quickly that teenagers and preschoolers are very similar. They are happier with food and naps. The brains of preschoolers and teenagers are developing at rapid rates and both age groups struggle with where they fit in the world. I also learned that my job as the Hebrew high director was one part education, one part Judaica and one million parts community and relationship building.

Since 2010 I have been the director of NAACCHHS (North American Association of Community and Congregational Hebrew High Schools). Over the years of my involvement, first as a Hebrew High director in two different communities and then as the NAACCHHS director, I have seen some major shifting in supplemental Jewish teen education. I have seen many schools close and there have been common factors.

At the beginning, in 2004, NAACCHHS membership reached 60+ schools. These schools were consortiums of community synagogues who came together to educate their teens collectively with BJEs or Federations, or by creating independent organizations to oversee the programs. The programs were pluralistic; enrolling students from reform, conservative, and a smattering of orthodox congregations. Most collected full year tuition up front and ran two semesters; 28 – 30 weeks of classes per year. The majority of these programs had full time directors and additional support staff. Thousands of Jewish teens participated across North America.

Then came the economic recession of 2008, followed by the Bernie Madoff scandal. Families struggled and reprioritized – Jewish education was not at the top of many family lists. Funding for teen education got very tight. Campaigns started to dip. Money got thin. Once flush with cash and a bright future, when the money disappeared, teen education was the first thing to suffer. People began to wonder why they were paying fulltime employees to run what looked like part time programs. Remember what I said before? The job of a high school director is one part education, one part Judaica and one million part relationship management. Running a supplemental program is not a part time job. If you look at the job of a teen educator only as someone who administers a program two hours a week, teen education will not recover.

I was successful at my job because I worked 24/7. I was everywhere teens were in my community. If there was a school play at any of our catchment area public high schools, I was there. I went to science fairs, debate tournaments and band concerts. I visited religious schools at all the community synagogues, and for holidays I made sure to make an appearance at each one. I was treated like a valued community member everywhere I went. And it paid off. Families, kids, and clergy all over town knew me and trusted me. Administering the two hour program was just a tiny fraction of my job. Yet, when I had to leave this position due to a family move, I was replaced with a part time employee and the program rapidly lost enrollment, synagogues began to pull out of the consortium and in three years the program was dead. I have seen this scenario play out time and again in communities all over the country. Programs have closed, and enrollment is down in many that are left.

Another challenge is that communities seem to think they can get something for nothing. Not only do they put unreasonable expectations on part time directors, they want them to do it for peanuts. Just look at jewishjobs.com to see the long list of responsibilities. Then scroll to the salary line – little pay and no benefits. When so much is riding on trust and strong relationships, constant turnover of the director can have bad ramifications. When employees are not paid fairly, they do not stick around. Very few of the founding NAACCHHS members are still in the field. They have retired or moved on in their professional lives. Many of these positions are filled with young people, who last a year or two, before they move on to better paying jobs. These days, when two working parents is the norm for survival, how can someone stay in a job when their salary won’t even cover their healthcare costs? I have done survey salaries in the field. I’ve seen the numbers. Not only is this not just, it’s a recipe for failure. And we are failing.

If we believe in Jewish teen engagement, the path is not to reduce the budget for these struggling educational programs. Today’s teens are tomorrow’s leaders. To increase engagement, increase the budget. Pay a full time person a living wage and let them build relationships from the ground up, with clergy, families and teens. This is the way to recover teen engagement. It will be an investment with current and future dividends.

Shari lives and works in Providence, RI. She makes $8000 a year.