At the JCC in Manhattan, where I work, it’s sometimes hard
to tell apart the staff who work with our teens and the teens
themselves. Youth professionals who work directly with
adolescents—including camp counselors, youth-group
advisors and student-life directors, as well as formal
educators—often enter this work as freshly minted adults.
They bring a level of energy, passion and creativity that can
put their more senior colleagues to shame. Because of their
youth, they claim what anthropologists call “insider status,”
which garners them trust and legitimacy as leaders.
However, the very qualities that make young professionals
so desirable in work with youth also create particular
challenges. And, while this issue isn’t exclusive to male or
female staff, we know that teens look to these teachers and
leaders as role models. Whether they are aware of it or not,
youth professionals constantly convey messages about
gender through their work.
Gender is a key category through which teens discern the
rules that govern their social worlds. Throughout the
teen years, notions of masculinity and femininity feature
prominently in the identities middle- and late-adolescents
try out (the football jock, the mean girl, the tomboy).
Bestselling books like William Pollack’s Real Boys and
Rachel Simmons’ Odd Girl Out report that teens—boys and
girls alike—describe feeling tremendous pressure to conform
to others’ rules about gender. Knowledge of these rules comes to teens from many sources: from the real people in their lives (especially those with whom they identify and whom they admire, such as young, dynamic Jewish teachers and advisors) and, just as powerfully, from the popular culture.
Whether it’s in the form of Bratz dolls, Disney Princesses or
images of men in hip-hop gear, gendered messages in the
popular culture are a hot topic among concerned adults.
Thinking about the role of Jewish youth professionals in the
lives of teens, it is crucial to remember that teens are not the
only ones being influenced by mainstream pop culture.
Often, youth professionals are watching the very same TV
shows, using the same social-networking websites, and
tracking the same ads, fads and celebrity scandals. With
guidance and support from supervisors, youth professionals
can learn to use pop culture “moments” (that is, teens’
offhand comments, song lyrics, or excerpts from films and
TV shows) as resources for teaching and pointing out the
values and messages embedded in the media they consume.
As Ma’yan works to address the needs of girls in the Jewish
community, we’ve learned that cultivating this capacity in
youth professionals can serve two ends at once: improving
the skills of youth-serving staff and strengthening the
effect of programming, regardless of its specific content.
One powerful strategy is for supervisors to model attention
to gendered language and other cultural messages. This is
not the same thing as policing, which consists of either
shaming or simply attempting to avoid instances of gender
bias. Instead, modeling means actively engaging these issues
when they arise.
Riding in an elevator, a senior staff member once shared
with me her concern that kvelling over a little girl’s spangled
tutu had been a mistake, that she’d both reinforced the
narrow demands of femininity and implied to the girl’s
plainly dressed friend that she was less worthy of attention.
Sharing her doubt and confusion about how to handle
gender in that moment was an act of generosity, a teachable
moment well-met. Just as that incident sharpened my ear
and challenged my thinking, supervisors’ willingness to
narrate such moments helps their colleagues to think
through similar dilemmas for themselves.
Seizing these opportunities isn’t always easy, even for the
most experienced among us. Reflecting on these moments
threatens to expose the ways we all have compromised
our principles around gender. Attempting to ignore
double-standards and gendered mixed messages or to
resolve them neatly perpetuates the fantasy that they are
individual problems, when in fact they are cultural and
structural problems that require collective solutions. Sharing
our concerns, our intentions and even our fumbles reminds
us that we are allies in a shared struggle for tikkun olam.
This essay was originally published in the Union for Reform Judaism’s Torah at the Center journal (vol. 11, no. 1, 2007) and reprinted in the Jewish Communal Service Association of North America newsletter (November, 2007).