Ups and Downs

Zachary Sitkin
November 13, 2012
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Every institution has its ups and downs and Jewish institutions, in particular, are not immune from this phenomenon. I have spent many years of my life working in various Jewish organizations: Six years in over 4 different synagogues, 4 summers at Jewish summer camps, and 2 years at the J.C.C. I must admit that the cities I have worked in had inspiringly strong (and friendly), Jewish communities, and I recognize that not every Jewish community is the same. Needless to say, each one of these jobs presented themselves with extreme rewards and extreme disappointments.

Let me begin with Synagogues. Synagogues, in my opinion, are the foundational center within every Jewish community. They are a space, which if managed properly, can be used for a million different functions: weddings, bar mitzvahs, funerals, bazaar’s, fairs, town hall meetings, theater halls, get-away’s for both parents and kids, etc.…Managed improperly, Synagogues become a desolate wasteland that I wouldn’t touch, (nor would potential congregants), with a ten foot pole. Unfortunately, I have worked in Synagogues that manage themselves well and Synagogues that do not. However, whether a Synagogue is well managed or not, I believe the number one concern should be the inconsistency between what kids are learning in Hebrew school and what their religious life is like at home. It has been my experience that more often than not, the things I teach about: lifecycle events, Kashrut, Shabbat observance, Tefillot, and creating a spiritual foundation within the students themselves, are contradicted or ignored by parents at home. I think it is the collective responsibility of the entire Jewish community to work together and instill in our children at least a sense of respect and honor for the traditions and values that are the foundation of the Jewish faith. I recognize that not everyone is observant or has the same views toward what it means to live a religious life, but we all share a collective history, and that alone is worthy of exploration and admiration.

Similarly to Synagogues, Jewish summer camps, when managed correctly provide incredible LIFE experiences for children and staff. I loved all three summers I spent as a Unit Head at the James and Rachel Levenson day camp in Pittsburgh, making wonderful friends and connections with both the staff members and more importantly the campers. I also had an incredible work experience as a Yahadut teacher at camp Ramah Darom in Clayton, Georgia. The camp atmosphere is certainly worthy of emulation, and I think that summer camps are doing their part in placing Jewish children on the path to becoming educated Jewish adults. Amazingly enough, I was never really a camp-y kid growing up, so go figure camps are the one Jewish organization I feel are the best example for other Jewish institutions.

Out of all the organizations I previously listed, the Jewish Community Center is the one I have actually worked in professionally. I spent a little over a year working as an early childhood educator at the J.C.C. in Pittsburgh. I would just like to take a minute to say that early childhood educators are incredibly hardworking and caring individuals and their jobs are tremendously important. They spend the majority of their days caring for  our children, at some of the most crucial developmental periods of their lives. That being said, despite having such important jobs, early childhood educators in the Jewish community are grossly underpaid. We MUST do a better job of supporting people’s livelihoods especially when they take care of the most important people in our lives. Outside financial issues, which are understandable in today’s economy, J.C.C.’s are wonderful institutions that provide a lot of care to the needy and Jewish outreach programs to otherwise unaffiliated Jewish families.

In all my years working in the Jewish community one thing that was consistent in every Jewish organization was the desire to provide an invaluable service to Jewish families and doing so by upholding common Jewish values. At the core of each organization is the intention to strengthen AM YISRAEL, the people of Israel, and create a better and brighter Jewish future. Of course, some institutions are better at doing that than others, but like anything else…you win some, you lose some.

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Zachary Sitkin is a Rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He is a Philadelphia native, and was recently married to his beautiful wife Lisa. They are both moving to Israel for the academic year together. Zachary graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a Bachelor's in Psychology and Religious Studies. He often describes himself as an avid sports fan and rabbinic enthusiast.

1 Comment

  1. This article sounds very familiar to what I wrote about during my MA program at Gratz. I believe that if Jewish life and values aren’t emulated outside and inside of the synagogue/camp/JCC, it is hard to achieve “success” in creating a Jewish identity for our “customers”.

    It’s unfortunate to think how underpaid we are as Jewish professionals (well, many of us- but not all). It is hard to stay encouraged to continue working in the field when we know how much more we may make working for other companies. We know we are doing an amazing task by helping the Jewish community in doing what we do- and if we (educators, directors, program associates, etc.) aren’t doing it- who will? In any case, there are sparks and insightful moments where we remember why we are here. Hopefully those moments will continue to come through our lives and keep us motivated.

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