Engaging Teens Means Engaging Teen Leaders

Just as our teens need guidance to navigate through adolescence, so do youth professionals who work with them. The San Diego Jewish Teen Initiative (JTI) offers that guidance: investing in our community’s teen educators and youth leaders by training them to better understand the dynamics of adolescent development and how to build meaningful relationships with our teens. Without such training, these professionals cannot always effectively and consistently respond to and support those who are struggling – whether externally with friends or family, or internally with identity or stress.

Engage, Connect, Inspire 
There’s no shortage of stories from parents, teachers, and youth professionals about teens who are navigating complex issues of harassment and cyber bullying, processing feelings of isolation and depression, struggling to manage the stresses of academic pressure, and tangling with questions about body image and identity. Failure to address these questions means that we paint our teens as one- dimensional portraits and do not allow them to grow Jewishly as multi-dimensional, complex-thinking young adults. Our community has made a commitment to dedicate resources to the development of our role models, youth mentors, and teachers.

That commitment comes as a direct result of findings from the Teen Initiative’s 2018 annual community-wide survey. More than 50% of San Diego’s Jewish teens surveyed reported that they seek out their youth directors as mentors. In the same year, San Diego’s Jewish youth professionals reported that approximately half of their work time is spent engaging in direct mentorship of their teens. 

So it is equally important that our organization’s leaders care as much about the role of a youth advisor’s ability to mentor and guide our teens Jewishly as we do about their skills in event management. Even as they are helping our teens become strong leaders, we must invest in our youth professionals’ knowledge of adolescent development and the risk factors and warning signs of a variety of mental health challenges. We must provide them with proven techniques for responding to crisis situations, and teach them how to best understand the current needs of teens as they tackle questions of gender and identity. By working together to create stronger youth professionals, the San Diego JTI, along with its affiliates, believes this work will create a path to healthier and stronger teen development.

Through the Teen Educators Coalition (TEC), partnerships with San Diego’s most well-respected youth organizations give educators and young leaders the opportunity to create programming that can help teens develop a stronger sense of self and develop their capacity to grapple with and express their unique spiritual journeys. Jewish educators play a critical part in helping teens thrive. 

Through high-level professional development sessions, members of San Diego’s TEC deepen their own skills in creating authentic and inspiring environments that motivate Jewish teens to be their best selves. The 50 members of this cohort represent more than 30 unique organizations across the city that are committed to engaging teens in Jewish life. At the core of this group is a belief that our synagogues, community centers, youth groups, and camps are positioned to provide safe spaces where teens can let go of the stresses of their lives, connect and be strengthened by their Jewish peers, and find their niche place in being part of a larger Jewish community.

Living One’s Best Jewish Life 
Ultimately, these identity-forming experiences cannot and do not occur without the intentional involvement and guidance of adults. This year, Teen Educators in our community have access to certification classes from Mental Health USA in Youth Mental Health First Aid (some of San Diego’s Jewish institutions now have 30 certificated Youth Mental Health responders). They have the opportunity to find inspiration from nationally recognized leaders from organizations such as Moving Traditions and Romemu, focusing on the topics of Sexuality, Identity, and Religion and the Science of Spirituality. From workshops on Mindfulness in Jewish Education to Raising Resilient Teens, our city’s youth professionals are demonstrating that their roles far exceed recruitment for pizza parties. They are the first line of defense for our teens to find a peaceful place where they can unwind into themselves, Jewishly.

by Jessica Kretzer, Associate Director, Motiv and The San Diego Jewish Teen Initiative


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