Fellowship gives boost to educators of Jewish teens here

In the eyes of the nation's news media, teenage "slackers" are often portrayed as being too lazy to do much — other than commit violent crimes, of course.

Within the Jewish community, it seems teens are not so vehemently demonized — though teen education programs and the professionals who teach them are often shunted to the back burner within many Jewish organizations.

Teen education "is not a valued profession," said Sarah Wineberg, the teen program coordinator for Club 18, run by the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. "You work very hard and you're not paid very well. That may diminish the worth of the job we're doing — but anybody working with teens won't feel that way."

Burdened by difficult work, long hours, low pay and little institutional support or respect, Jewish teen educators sport a burnout ratio higher than the crowd at a Grateful Dead concert.

That's where the Te-ki-a Fellowship comes in.

"The professionals in teen education positions are often very young, usually post-college, pre-graduate school," said Debbie Findling, director of Te-ki-a, which is co-sponsored by the Bureau of Jewish Education and the Center for Jewish Living and Learning. "They often leave after a few years to go to grad school or law school. With all due respect to lawyers, it'd be great if they stayed."

Thanks to a $1.2 million contribution from Richard and Rhoda Goldman, Te-ki-a (a name derived from the sound of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, which means "blast") is the nation's first professional development program aimed specifically at Jewish teen workers.

Hailing from both sides of the Bay, the program's 15 fellows are in the very early stages of what Findling calls "16 months of intensive Jewish learning and training," which will include a two-week trip to Israel. The fellows will be drilled in Jewish education, teaching techniques and tips on how to avoid the pitfalls of the nonprofit world.

Te-ki-a's staff includes Rabbi Lavey Derby of Tiburon's Congregation Kol Shofar, former JCC of S.F. Executive Director Zev Hymowitz, Camp Tawonga Director Deborah Newbrun, the BJE's Gabrielle Perelmuter, and Ronit Le Mon Drobey, the program's coordinator.

Additionally, each of the 15 fellows will receive a $5,000 stipend, while their agencies will receive up to $10,000 to cover program costs.

"The educators are tops in their fields," said Stuart Brotman, a teacher at San Francisco Congregation Sherith Israel's religious school. "When we're ready to put our programs together, the financial backing will be there. Any requirements we have for materials or education and they're always right there to help us out. It's one-stop shopping, and that's really nice."

Long toiling in relative obscurity, Te-ki-a fellows are ecstatic that their work with teens has been recognized, and their expectations are high. Findling said the program aimed to be a "mini-grad school," a statement fellow Rachel Phillips is taking seriously.

A religious school teacher at San Rafael's Congregation Rodef Sholom, Phillips is hoping that Te-ki-a will take the place of graduate school.

"I'm in this [teaching] position, which I really enjoy, but I am ready to get some more formal education. I was looking to go to grad school, but this way I can stay in the position that I love and continue to learn on the job," she said. "I'm hoping to increase my Judaic knowledge in general with text study and all of that, and also pick up some really practical administrative knowledge."

Yet in addition to learning from Te-ki-a's staff, fellows can develop their ideas independently. With the $10,000 set aside for program design, each Te-ki-a fellow can work, for once, without worrying about financial constraints.

"I really appreciate that freedom for creativity and experimentation that we normally don't have. A lot of what happens with nonprofit youth work is trial by fire," said Lom Friedman, Camp Tawonga's assistant director in the wilderness and outdoor program. "You learn by doing, and a lot of times you have to be very careful of the consequences you can incur from that. Being able to learn by doing in this case is a joy."

And that $5,000 stipend? Well, obviously workers in this field aren't obsessed with money — but it doesn't hurt.

"It's nice," said Jonathan Emanuel, the co-director of teen services at Oakland's Center for Jewish Living and Learning. "But, more than anything, it's nice to feel appreciated — people recognize this isn't the highest-paying job in the world. We all appreciated getting it, but that isn't the reason we applied for the fellowship."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.