The case for retaining synagogue youth directors
When I met them, Erica and Megan O’Donnell were a mad scientist and a hot dog.
It was a chilly October night in 2017 when the 12-year-old O’Donnell twins walked into the synagogue youth lounge on the promise of a costume contest, arts and crafts, and apple pie. The event was one of my first programs as the newly hired director of youth engagement at Temple Shir Tikva, in Wayland, Mass.
They were the only ones to show up. Megan ate the entire pie.
When they graduated from our temple’s high school program this past May alongside seven of their peers, Erica and Megan decided on slightly nicer outfits for the occasion. They no longer fit into the old ones, being five-and-half years older and 10 inches taller.
As I am entering my seventh school year at Temple Shir Tikva, growth is no stranger to me. Every year, when our students return from the summer, I joke that it’s illegal for them to get any taller – but they always do, and many of the once-scrawny elementary and middle schoolers now dwarf me in stature.
I relish it.
With each year, I see more children grow out of their costumes and clothes, their glasses and braces, and their prejudices and bad habits. In their stead, I get to see them grow into their curiosity and compassion, their new schools and new senses of self, and the passions and plights that will fuel their futures. I get a front-row seat as they grow into themselves.
I know this is not common. As a long-term youth director, I am in the minority; the average shelf life of a youth director tends to be two to four years. Many institutions and young professionals view the youth director position as an entry-level gig or a career stepping stone, which can often leave the position feeling like a revolving door.
I was lucky enough to have a long-term youth director as a teenager, which shaped my own Jewish experience. My synagogue felt like home largely because I always knew what to expect when I walked in the doors. I knew the timing, angle and speed of our youth director’s high fives. I knew that every Friday night, our youth director would stand in the back of the sanctuary and yell, “Gooooood shabbos!” I knew that every time I entered my synagogue, I would be greeted, received and loved. Well over a decade later, those memories inspire me in my own work.
It is important for our teens to have trusted adults in their lives who are not their parents or guardians. It is important that they have spaces outside of school or sports that are free of competition and stress — where they know they will be greeted, received and loved. The youth director is that person and creates that space, sharing a proximity and intimacy with our teens that few other roles do. And if you think a youth director can do a lot in two years, think of how much they can do in six.
There is no denying that you can have an incredible amount of impact in a short amount of time. Quality and quantity are not the same thing and should not be mistaken for each other. That being said, you can have the most dynamic, life-changing person as a youth professional, but their impact is still limited by the amount of time they occupy their role. If I had only stayed in my role the average two to three years, I would have seen Erica and Megan O’Donnell grow out of their glasses, but I never would have seen them grow into youth group presidents. We tend to think of relational work in terms of depth, but I think that we should also consider it in terms of breadth. Being able to see our kids grow over the years adds a logarithmic level of trust and reward to the relationships and the work.
As a result of the pandemic, many synagogues are not rehiring full-time youth professionals. Those who are not cutting roles and redistributing responsibilities entirely are recruiting part-time staff. I think that we should seriously reconsider where we dedicate our resources. Not only should we continue to hire full-time youth directors, but we should elevate the value we assign these roles. Synagogues should view the position of youth director not as a revolving door, but the person who fills it as a serious professional and an essential part of the synagogue team. Youth directors are not just the people who take your kids to trampoline parks. They are the thread through transitions, the bulwark of engagement and retention and the builders of Jewish futures.
The health of our congregations and the future of our movements owe so much to youth directors. We owe it to them and to our kids to reappraise their worth.
Jenna Friedman is director of youth engagement for Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland, Mass..