Teen Engagement Begins with Those Who Work with Them

By Jonathan Fass

In recent months the Jewish community has focused on the need to better serve Jewish teens. A piece of this conversation that merits further discussion is providing professional development for the “in the trenches” youth workers of the Jewish community. While developing outstanding engagement opportunities is critical to keeping teens connected to Jewish life as adults, we cannot underestimate the importance of putting committed, knowledgeable Jewish role models in front of them. In my mind, these often underappreciated professionals are the most significant factor in successful teen engagement.

Close to two decades ago, the JCC Association established the Merrin Teen Professional Fellowship, through the vision and generosity of the Seth Merrin and his late wife, Anne Heyman. Recognizing that Jewish Community Center teen workers were typically younger employees, the fellowship provides both general professional development and skills specific to working with the teen population. Now in its ninth cohort, the program has graduated more than one hundred fellows. Graduates serve in many leadership positions at both JCCs and other Jewish agencies across North America. Many attribute their decision to be career Jewish professionals to the early support they received as participants in the program.

The fellowship is designed around four areas of professional growth: understanding adolescence, developing leadership skills, enriching Jewish literacy, and developing a professional network. The fellowship consists of five seminars, including one in Israel, and provides each participant with a mentor. In addition, the fellowship is explicit in creating an environment in which each fellow feels that the JCC Movement is investing significantly in his or her growth. While intensive study with access to thought leaders and cutting-edge developments in the Jewish and wider professional world is a hallmark of the program, providing a selective, high-end experience is also critical to creating a program that graduates life-long Jewish communal professionals.

While the fellowship has evolved, maintaining a focus on the four domains outlined above has proven its value. Many participants enter the fellowship unable to articulate a strategic vision for their work with teens or how to integrate Jewish ideas and ideals into their work. Participants exit the fellowship with an understanding of how to serve adolescents through a Jewish lens, how to work within the organized Jewish community, and with a direction for life-long participation in the Jewish professional community.

While we should continue our dialogue on serving the teens themselves, let us also create a global agenda to advance the opportunities for growth of Jewish teen professionals. They are our greatest assets in keeping teens connected to our Jewish community. How can those who have committed themselves to serving the Jewish community create agency partnerships to advance the professionalism of all of our teen workers? What can we leverage collectively to create the next generation of teen professionals, who will in turn create the next generation of engaged Jewish teens?

We need to build on success such as the Merrin Fellows program. JCC Association has provided more than groundwork; it has 18 years of experience, but we need to push beyond JCCs, and advance this critical conversation in the Jewish professional world beyond them. An inspiring role model can have lifelong impact for a teen; lets give them the very best we can.

Jonathan Fass is JCC Association’s vice president of JCC Maccabi and the Merrin Center for Teen Engagement.