Allison Schulman Stamm is pregnant with her first child, but she’s already an expert on the teen years. Youth director at Temple Sinai of Roslyn Heights, a Reform congregation on Long Island, Schulman Stamm, 29, is one of five professionals receiving the Jewish Education Project’s inaugural Young Pioneers Award. The winners — the others are Jacqueline Marks of the JCC in Manhattan, Rivka Pianko of Westchester Hebrew High School, Yoni Stadlin of Eden Village Camp and Michael Wittman of Temple Beth El of Great Neck — will be honored at a cocktail reception on Monday.
The award, which includes a $360 professional development stipend, recognizes educators under age 36 who are “designing and implementing innovative educational approaches that inspire students and families to live as actively engaged members of the Jewish community.”
Q: Were you involved in Jewish youth groups when you were a teen?
A: I grew up in Montreal, at the only Reform synagogue in eastern Canada. I got involved with our youth group, which was included in the North American Federation of Temple Youth’s New England region. Although I never went to summer camp, a lot of my friends from NFTY had been involved in the Union for Reform Judaism’s Camp Eisner in the Berkshires; we got jobs together there so we wouldn’t have to say goodbye to each other. I worked there for nine summers; when I fell in love with an American guy and moved to the United States, I got the job at Sinai through my camp connections.
Most Jewish youth directors stay only a year or two before moving on. How has Sinai managed to keep you for six years?
They’ve really professionalized the job here and made it worth my while to stay. I’m on the same level as our education director and nursery school director. … This is a dream job. I can see why there’s such burnout in this field, because you work nights and weekends. But it’s the kind of work that fills your cup: you make connections with teens, and when they come back from college on break and tell me what they’re doing — Birthright trips, Hillel and so on — you see the fruits of your labor.
There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the terrible job the Jewish community does of keeping teens and their families involved after bar/bat mitzvah, including a UJA-Federation of New York-commissioned study that showed that most Jewish teens and their parents rank Judaism at the bottom of their priority lists. How have you managed to keep 125 kids participating regularly at your temple?
My main goal is to offer teens professional experiences and leadership opportunities within the Jewish world, stuff that’s novel and unique that they wouldn’t get other places. A lot of youth groups do basketball in the parking lot or make-your-own-sundaes, which is great, but that’s not what attracts teens here. … We recently took teens to Albany to lobby state senators and assemblymen about anti-bullying legislation. … We brought the kids in for a seminar where we taught about this and had the clergy explain the Jewish perspective. Kids then wrote speeches, which we worked with them on to make sure they were professional. … We had them dress in ties and suits, and everyone was so impressed with how the kids spoke, how they were representing the Reform movement, our temple and teens in general. … There’s an appetite among teens for these kinds of experiences.
What other kinds of activities do you offer?
In April, we participated in a joint effort with Conservative and Orthodox congregations and BBYO on Long Island to put on a free day of camp for New York City kids living in homeless shelters. We rented out the JCC’s Camp Jacobson and had buses bring kids from six New York shelters: they could do any kind of sport you can imagine, craft projects. … The teens acted as counselors for the day. It was teen-run and teen-planned, but in terms of some of the logistics, the professionals were doing the behind-the-scenes prep work.
Also, two years ago we re-evaluated our Hebrew high school and found that coming once a week — for pizza dinner and Torah discussion, then electives — was great, but with so many other things going on, Hebrew high was falling lower on the teens’ priority list. So we cut it down to eight sessions per semester and instituted Hebrew high overnights in the city to celebrate the semester’s end: they do service work, like cooking dinner for cancer patients or working with disabled teens, and then they have Shabbat together, staying in a hotel. The fun, hip teachers who they already have a relationship with come with them.
What advice do you have for working successfully with teens?
If you’re speaking directly to teens, you want them to understand you view them as young adults. They’re ready, willing and able to take on leadership roles as long as they have support and guidance. Your role is to empower teens to achieve their goals. You also have to get parents to see the value of what you’re doing, to show them that you’re helping their kids develop a sense of maturity they’ll need once they’re outside their parents’ homes.
This is an edited transcript.
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