It’s All About Relationships

by Craig Rosen

Research has shown that the most effective way to engage Jewish youth is to build relationships with them. I have been studying the art of relationship building for the past few years – and practicing it for a lot longer than that – and one of the most pivotal themes surrounding this topic is the idea that relationship-building takes time. We must take time to get to know our young people and allow them to get to know us as well.

While working as a youth director in California during the 1980s, I made sure I took time to get to know each one of the young people in my program. Whether we shared a cup of coffee and chatted or spent time getting to know each other while waiting on line at an amusement park ride, today I can point proudly to a number of rabbis, cantors, and educators who are former students and have told me that the time I spent with them had a huge impact on their choosing careers as Jewish professionals.

In addition to devoting time to getting to know young people, today’s dedicated youth professionals—myself included—also seek to raise the status of the work we do.  At the Union for Reform Judaism, our efforts certainly are paying off.  We’re integral to two newly launched initiatives:  the Campaign for Youth Engagement and the Reform Youth Professionals’ Association (RYPA).

As a founding member of RYPA, I am delighted to be at the forefront of an organization that provides professional development, leadership, vision, community, and advocacy for youth professionals, increasing our knowledge base and creating opportunities for us to learn from one another.  To elevate the status of Reform Judaism’s youth professionals further and contribute to the success of the Campaign for Youth Engagement, we must:

  • Create a vision of youth professional work as a legitimate, long-term career choice, and not merely a stepping stone to other opportunities; and
  • Ensure that youth professionals have access to high quality training and tools to build meaningful relationships with young people in our synagogues and beyond their walls.

As I did in California 20+ years ago, youth professionals today continue to have unique opportunities to spend time with young people, learning about their world and what matters to them. Not only do we learn about the latest trends in music and fashion we also hear firsthand about the deeply personal and often difficult issues our young people face in their lives every day:  bullying, eating disorders, sexuality, drugs, love and loss. When they know us, teens frequently open up and share their stories. I’ve had teens tell me about a death in their family and how vital their youth community was in supporting them through the loss. I have also had conversations with teens who were afraid to come out to their family and friends as LGBT. I believe that I was privy to these stories because I had been around for a few years. I knew these kids, they knew me, and we were comfortable with each other.

If we are serious about engaging youth in our institutions and in our communities, we must also be serious about investing in and elevating the status of our youth professionals, providing them with the time, tools and resources necessary to build meaningful, long-lasting relationships with our young people.

Craig Rosen is a Youth Specialist with the Union’s Campaign for Youth Engagement.

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