$1.1 million grant infuses new energy into teen programs

Why aren't Jewish teen programs in the Bay Area attracting more kids?

Leaders of the S.F.-based Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund are willing to pay more than a million dollars to answer that question — and to improve the situation.

The Goldman Fund has announced a $1.1 million grant to launch the new "Jewish Youth Educator Project."

Two Jewish agencies — one in San Francisco and the other in Oakland — are collaborating to run the three-year effort, which is fueled by the largest grant ever for Jewish teen-related programming in the Bay Area.

"It's among the most exciting projects we've ever been involved with," said Bob Sherman, executive director of the S.F.- based Bureau of Jewish Education. "It isn't often you get this kind of opportunity."

Rabbi Glenn Karonsky of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay echoed Sherman's enthusiasm.

"We're probably not going to get another grant like this for another hundred years," said Karonsky, executive director of the federation's Center for Jewish Living and Learning, the grant's other co-recipient.

Leaders at the family-run Goldman Fund, which is endowed for roughly $400 million, said they are extremely concerned about the shaky state of Jewish teen programming in the Bay Area.

Although the fund has made thousands of grants to Jewish organizations, said the fund's executive committee member Doug Goldman, this grant was researched more thoroughly than any others.

"We spent a couple of years thinking about it, planning it and launching it," he said. "It represents a major step into more progressive, strategic grant-making…It's our first [time] doing this in the Jewish funding area." The grant was announced five weeks ago.

Amy Lyons, the Goldman Fund's senior program officer, said their research uncovered a basic question: "There are teen programs out there now," she said, "but why aren't they attracting more kids?"

While looking into the issue, Lyons gained some insight.

"What we heard over and over again is that the institutions need to make a stronger commitment to their teen programs and their teen workers. That's what this program will address."

The funding, however, won't be simply for more and better teen programs.

It will also establish a fellowship program, taking about 15 adults who coordinate or work in Bay Area teen programs and teaching them how to better do their jobs. The fellows will come from synagogues, JCCs, camps, and any other Jewish organizations that offer teen activities, such as BBYO or Jewish Vocational Service.

Simultaneously, the new progam — which will be called JYEP — will work with Jewish organizations to create a better environment for teen educators, who typically struggle to be treated professionally. Goldman Fund research revealed that those employees are often part-time workers who receive low pay and no benefits in programs that face uncertain funding from year to year.

Moreover, with little chance for job advancement, there is low morale and high turnover, and the educators' skills don't often get honed beyond a basic level.

The flaccid state of the profession, in turn, makes it that much harder to attract Jewish teens and establish or nurture a connection to Judaism, said Karonsky.

The grant "gives us the opportunity to work toward professionalizing the job of youth director and youth counselor," he said. "Quite often we are faced with losing some of our best people who find nowhere to go after a year or two of teen leadership."

The new project will focus on two issues, Sherman said. The first is "to build up the profession" and the second is to give "technical support" to institutions that run teen programs. Central to the program is schooling those who work with teens.

"Even though everyone has recognized this as being a very serious issue, this is one of the few projects of its kind taking place in the country right now," Sherman said.

The program's first step is to launch a national search for a director, whom Sherman wants to have in place by this summer.

After that, adults who work with teens will be recruited to be fellows. The program will focus on education for about a year. The teen outreach workers and educators will learn about topics such as adolescent development, Jewish knowledge, non-profit organizations and group dynamics.

"One thing we need to do is train our [teen] teachers better," said the BJE's Ronit Le Mon Drobey, who helped write the grant. There are no degrees or accreditation programs for people who want to work with Jewish teens, she noted.

"People are coming to these jobs with incredible enthusiasm, but with lots of deficiencies, too," added Le Mon Drobey, director of professional development for the Teen Initiative, which is not connected to the new grant.

Following JYEP's education phase and a trip to Israel will be the implementation and evaluation phase. Teen workers, some of them equipped with $10,000 grants for their programs, will put into practice what they've learned, and JYEP coordinators will work hand-in-hand with Jewish institutions to, as Sherman said, "build up the profession."

The grant and the program were also hailed by Toby Rubin, chair of the Teen Initiative, which is designed to make programs more attractive and available to Bay Area youth.

"The Goldman family has provided something that is going to have a monumental impact on the community," Rubin said. What's best, she said, is that "it doesn't just focus on the individual [teen educator]. It's a complete continuum of attention" to the profession of teen worker.

Of course, JYEP coordinators aren't so foolhardy to suggest that educating 15 or so teen workers and their agencies over a three-year period is going to eradicate the deficiencies in the field.

"I don't know that it's going to solve all the problems in one fell swoop," Sherman said. "But it gives us a chance to model an approach that other institutions will pick up on."

Lyons also praised the "unique collaboration between the East and West Bays." Added Le Mon Drobey: "We usually don't do that because our federations are separate, so that's a real innovative part of this program."

The Goldman Fund, founded in 1951 by prominent San Francisco philanthropists Richard and Rhoda Goldman, doled out about $33.7 million in grants last year. Approximately 21 percent of that total, or $7.1 million, went to Jewish affairs and Israel, according to Bob Gamble, deputy director of the Goldman Fund who is also in charge of Jewish affairs.

Doug Goldman, who serves on the executive committee with his two siblings and father, Richard, said there's a "high likelihood" that the family's fund will continue to give money to this project after the current three-year grant is up.

"We hope that this project will have a significant impact in the community," Goldman said. "We're trying to pilot a concept. We're going to be watching its progress and hoping it creates ripples."

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.