Then & Now: The Evolution of the Jewish Youth Professional



by Hope Chernak

I’ve spent the last four days at my eighth NFTY Convention/Youth Professional Conference (now known as the Youth Engagement Conference), and I can’t help but reflect on events past. In 1999, there were 13 of us full-time “youth workers.” We came from all over the United States, and this was the first time we had a chance to meet in person. A few sessions were offered to us for professional development, and we attended song sessions and worship with our temple teens who were attending NFTY Convention. I remember vividly a special meeting hosted by J.C. Cohen, now Director of URJ’s Jacobs Camp: In this round-table discussion, we had the first chance to share ideas, ask questions, and try to figure out what sort of “professional development” we needed in this evolving profession. Our biggest challenge back then was not having enough support and recognition as professionals; many people didn’t believe that this was a long-term profession and thought we would “grow out” of our jobs as we got older.

Fast forward to 2013, when we have many, many more full-time youth professionals and numerous rabbis, educators, part-time youth staff, and volunteers attending the URJ’s Youth Engagement Conference. Many of the faces are familiar from past NFTY Conventions and URJ Youth Professional conferences. Many faces are adults I once knew as teens, campers, or counselors. Many faces have continued to stay in this profession. Many faces make up all different ages and skills.

To my mind, here are the top five things that have evolved since that first gathering in 1999:

  1. The presence of a youth professional network: The Reform Youth Professionals’ Association (RYPA), launched in 2011. Youth directors, educators, rabbis, volunteers (full-time and part-time alike) can all join this affiliate for support, guidance and professional development year-round.
  1. More direct youth engagement: At this year’s conference, new “Engagement Labs” were created for youth workers to dive deeper into content with professionals to help provide with us a toolbox and offer us an opportunity to interact directly with teens to test out what we have learned and developed as a team. Our interaction with the teens is no longer just “song session or workshop.” Also, workshops are more diverse with facilitators that are the top in the field of education and youth work.
  1. Professionalism in our field: Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) now offers a Certificate in Jewish Education for Adolescents and Emerging Adults. Through this year-long program, selected adult applicants join a diverse cohort to study topics critical to working with youth, teens, and young adults. Past and current students include rabbis, educators, and professionals in the field who are looking to focus on adolescent development, experiential learning, program-planning, change theory, integration of social media, arts, and service learning – to name just a few of the topics and skills learned in this program.
  1. Strengthened group processing: At the Youth Engagement Conference, attendees have a chance to process and network in small reflection groups. While we don’t always feel comfortable breaking out of our silos and friendship circles, this new format gives us the opportunity to meet new people and learn new things from our colleagues in an intimate setting. yec-badge
  1. Better online technology: We didn’t have the opportunity to use technology in our workshops, large group sessions (both with NFTYites and youth professionals), and to share in “real-time” what we are learning and what our teens are learning with our parents and synagogue community. Now, Twitter, blogging, and even live-streaming of conference events keep us connected and in-the-know.

Hope Chernak is the director of youth and informal education at Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City. Follow her during the Youth Engagement Conference and NFTY Convention at @hopeynyc and @TaSTYNYC.

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