Do We Have The Courage for a Real Tikkun For Our Teens?
by Craig Parks
I am a very rare breed in the Reform Movement. Out of over 900 congregations I am one of the very few full time Directors of Youth Programming that has been in my job over ten years. I have now spoken at my third national Biennial in a row and do so with great fervor. When those attendees come to my presentations and hear about the 60 -70 kids coming to our Teen Shabbat Jam 2 hour Friday night service once a month or our well over 100 9-12 graders participating in our programs such as the social action youth group Tikkun Project, or the summer camp that brings in gobs of kids and teens who work on staff I sometimes have to reach for napkins to wipe the drool off the faces. I can’t even tell you how many times I have heard the phrase “Can we clone you?”
The bad news is no you can’t clone me but the good news is you don’t need to clone me for the URJ to have a deep transformation in teen engagement. There is a huge disconnect between stating that we want our youth involved and doing what it takes to get those results. In my 13 years here at Temple Solel I have never seen a strong vibrant youth program in North America without a passionate, talented, and skilled youth professional who stays to build that program. Imagine every URJ congregation changing rabbis every year or two. There would be no or very little sustainable deep connection, relationship, or community building. Yet when it comes to our teens who arguably need the wisdom and support of our tradition the most, we often supply our adolescents with unskilled, underpaid, temporary workers to do very important holy work.
This short sighted approach gets short sighted results. For a real paradigm shift and truly making a difference for our teens, we merely have to look at the URJ’s 2007 “Supporting Our Youth” manual for some guidance. In it it states that the range for full salaries of youth professionals range from $50,000 to $80,000 a year. Currently I know of nobody in the field making close to the upper range and most are not even getting close to the lower range of those numbers. I have heard the quite audible gasp at those kinds of numbers but I can tell you many stories of incredibly talented people who the movement has lost because the type of talented, passionate, and skilled people we need will never do this work because they can’t do it and have a family on current salaries. The real kicker for the movement is this…..most balk at these types of salaries for youth professionals yet when congregations invest wisely the money they pay has the very real potential to come back double or triple for the congregation in real dollars in the form of camp revenue and membership growth and retention post b’nei mitzvah. That is correct, a talented youth professional can help bring in revenues anywhere from $100,000 to $300,000 annually. Aside from the pure $$$$ of it all let’s remember the often troubled afflicted teen souls who can find comfort, community, leadership, spirituality, support, and connection amongst other benefits when there is a strong program that we provide for them. It truly is a win win financially, spiritually, and for the future of a vibrant Jewish community.
We are making some strides. HUC-JIR has launched a new graduate program in Jewish Education specializing in Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood which I am proudly part of the first cohort. There is a new professional organization called the Reform Youth Professionals Association (RYPA) of which I am one of the founders. These need to be supported in order to develop professionals who will make profound differences in the lives of our teens and congregations. Once again I presented at the Biennial but I wonder how much more drool I will see or cloning questions I may be asked before congregations really see the possibility of real transformation by investing in the training, development, respect, and support for a career youth professional. There are thousands upon thousands of kids right now who unknowingly are dreaming and screaming that we do. Let’s create it for them and finally walk our talk.
Craig Parks is the Youth Programming Director of Temple Solel in San Diego, CA.