Teen Initiative attempts to expand, improve programs

The Teen Initiative was set up to ensure that high-schoolers — traditionally underserved by local Jewish agencies — will take an active role in the Jewish community.

Now run by the Bureau of Jewish Education in San Francisco, with input from a host of other organizations, the Teen Initiative is analyzing local youth programming and seeking to improve it.

Although the Teen Initiative is two years old, the seed for the program was planted five years ago when the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation formed a task force.

Right off the bat, the task force noticed that while some Jewish agencies welcome and integrate kids between the ages of 13 and 18, others don't know what the best ways are to attract teens, according to Nechama Tamler, who was hired 17 months ago to direct the initiative.

Today, the Bureau of Education has at least a half dozen staff workers who make contributions to the Teen Initiative. "Pieces of everyone's job relate to it," Tamler said.

Moreover, just about every organization in the Jewish community that deals with teens — from synagogues to JCCs to BBYO to camps — is involved with the Teen Initiative. "Everyone together contributes," Tamler said.

The Teen Initiative advocates for teen programs, providing resources and advice. Monthly meetings are held with Jewish community professionals who work with teens.

In addition, the Teen Initiative serves as a clearinghouse, helping Jewish organizations get funding for their teen programs from the S.F.-based JCF and its Jewish Community Endowment Fund. The Teen Initiative has helped such organizations as Hebrew Free Loan Association the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, the Albert L. Schultz JCC, Jewish Vocational Service and the BJE itself.

Also, with a $50,000 grant received from the JCEF, the Teen Initiative has been able to help fund seven area agencies that reach out to teens. Among them are the Jewish Film Festival, Camp Tawonga and Or Shalom Jewish Community in San Francisco.

Teen programming in the Bay Area also gets a good deal of funding directly from the JCF, often based on recommendations made by the Teen Initiative.

The goal is to get more teens to participate in Jewish community activities and to deepen and strengthen the commitment of those who are already involved, Tamler said.

The Teen Initiative is focusing on four major issues: developing of professionals who lead teen programs and who work with teens; developing teen leaders; increasing Jewish study opportunities for teens; and boosting informal youth activities.

Tamler said the development of professionals is a major target area right now.

Recently, the S.F.-based Goldman Fund made a $1.1 million grant for a three-year program to educate those who work with teens. The fellowship program will be run by the BJE and the Oakland-based Center for Jewish Living and Learning of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay. Not only that, Tamler said, but about $100,000 has already been spent in the name of educating professionals who work with teens.

One thing the Teen Initiative accomplished last year was getting college credit from the Foothill-De Anza Community College District for Peninsula teens studying Hebrew in synagogues and Jewish institutions. A similar push is currently under way in San Francisco.

Toby Rubin, chairwoman of the Teen Initiative, said she got involved because she has three daughters in or entering the teen milieu.

According to Rubin, some agencies falter in attracting teens, in part because they don't commit enough resources to teen programs. One of the reasons: "In a nonprofit community it's a challenge for institutions to have programs that don't generate revenue," Rubin said.

Staffing is also a challenge. As most workers in teen programs are part time and may be balancing several jobs, it's hard to develop a strong commitment. But the most difficult task is keeping kids interested, according to Rubin.

"There are so many things competing for kids' time. Teens are so busy it's a joke," she said. "You have to provide something of high enough quality to be attractive and to be perceived as a place the teen wants to be."

Ultimately, the best way to fortify that teen bonding, Tamler and Rubin believe, is to offer a broader array of activities.

"The more things overlap, the better it is," Tamler said. "Teens don't divide the world into little boxes. We need to offer a multiplicity of doorways. That's what community is about anyway."