Turning youth work into a long-term career becomes new priority

As a thirtysomething Jew, Erik Ludwig is a salty old veteran in the world of youth workers.

He's been on the job more than two years.

"You put in two years in this business and, in a way, you are kind of at the top of the field," said Ludwig, the teen program director at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

"The turnover rate is extremely high. There's a lot of burnout. I think the average time people stay in a job like this is a year and a half."

In the Jewish community, youth work has traditionally been relegated to the just-out-of-college kid willing to earn very little money for a year or two until he or she applies to graduate school or pursues another line of work.

Even among full-time youth workers with master's degrees in social work and education, turnover has generally been high and salaries low.

Now, as the Jewish community looks to improve outreach to teens — the majority of whom do not participate in youth groups or Hebrew high schools — there is a growing consensus that to improve programming will require skilled professionals who are in the field for the long term, and not just as a stepping stone to some other job.

Mitch Reitman seemed to be one of those people. Until a few months ago, he was the executive director and youth director of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism's Northern California region.

But now he, too, is a casualty of the system.

Citing burnout and work overload — basically, he was performing what should have been two separate jobs — he quit after four years to become administrator at Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame.

"For someone who's single and is just starting on their career, youth work has traditionally been OK," said Reitman. "But for someone who eventually starts a family and is trying to live in the Bay Area, the salaries just aren't keeping up."

Reitman, who recently turned 40, has a wife and two kids. Working nights and weekends to meet the time needs of teens had become too much, he said.

Jason Epstein, the part-time director of teen services at the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto for the past two-plus years, does a balancing act. "I try to keep at least some of my nights and weekends for myself," he said.

He's in his late 20s and single, so working odd hours isn't too much of a strain. But he also teaches full-time at the Mid-Peninsula Jewish Community Day School. "Finding the balance between having a personal life and meeting the needs of the teens" isn't always easy, he added.

At a recent conference in New York for people working on informal Jewish and Zionist education, there was repeated talk about the need to stem the turnover in the field and turn youth work into a real profession — one with training, ongoing education, good salaries, a career ladder and perhaps most importantly, respect.

"We would like to have talented, informal educators whose job it is to respond to diverse needs and create compelling programs that would be like a magnet," said Joseph Reimer, a Brandeis University professor and director of the university's new Institute for Informal Jewish Education. "Our judgment is that amateurs can't do that work."

Created in 1999, the institute is a key player in the drive to professionalize youth work. It was begun with funds from Charles Bronfman, the philanthropist who also chaired the national umbrella organization for Jewish federations and was a founder of Birthright Israel.

The institute has run a 13-month leadership seminar consisting of mentoring, networking with other informal educators and three intensive, four-day retreats.

A similar plan is in the works in the Bay Area, where the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education is turning a $1.1 million grant from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund into an extensive new program for those in the Jewish teen field.

Called Ti-ke-a, the program will offer stipends, leadership training and mentoring, as well as up to $10,000 for teen workers to implement new programs.

Approximately 15 teen field workers will receive fellowships for the two-year program, which is targeted to start next month.

"We're the first community to do something like this," said Debbie Findling, who recently became the Ti-ke-a director after three years as the BJE's director of school services.

"I suspect the rest of the Jewish communities across the country will be keeping a close eye on our progress and watching what we do."

The Jewish Community Centers Association of North America runs a leadership "fellows" program for 18 JCC youth workers, and is in its second two-year cycle.

One of the current participants is Ludwig, who used to be an East Palo Alto teacher before joining the JCC of San Francisco, where he started Club 18 for Jewish teens.

"It is extremely validating of the work that we do with teens," Ludwig said. "It gives us recognition within our own JCCs and from other Jewish agencies that what we're doing isn't small, that it isn't inconsequential, that we, in fact, play a major role in transition and making sure these teens not only feel Jewish, but also want to participate in the Jewish community."

In addition to the proliferation of professional development programs, several communities are looking for ways to provide greater support and networking among people working in informal Jewish education.

Again, the Bay Area is leading the way with the Teen Initiative, a 3-year-old project designed to make programs more attractive and available to local teens. It was spearheaded by the Jewish Community Federation and is run by the BJE.

Similar initiatives are under way in areas such as Metro West, N.J., and Boston, where the federations are going a step further, trying to cobble together several part-time jobs to create full-time positions with salaries and benefits.

Findling said Bay Area Jewish institutions are exploring such paths, but admitted that "we haven't made much progress yet in that regard."

As part of a larger series of voluntary standards the JCCA is encouraging its members to adopt, it is suggesting that new youth workers be paid at least as much as area first-year teachers.

But some are skeptical that teen work will ever be a long-term career.

"You can only do it for so long without burning out," Reitman said.

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.