Helping kids find joy in being Jewish

Helping kids find joy in being Jewish

Since he was a 14-year-old growing up in Paterson, Jules Gutin has been deeply involved with United Synagogue Youth, the young people’s division of the Conservative movement.

In his youth, he rose from being president of his chapter at Temple Emanuel in his hometown to head of USY’s Hagalil region in New Jersey.

But the Garden State, which he still calls home, was a USY steppingstone for his college enrollment in the joint program operated by Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Since 1991, he has been USY and Kadima international director.

Now, as he is about to be honored for 40 years of service with a concert and reception on Sunday, Sept. 18, at the Glenpointe Marriott Hotel in Teaneck, Gutin is preparing for a new role — as USY’s senior education adviser.

When he begins the newly created position on Jan. 1, he will be in charge of both adult and teen education programs in the United States. He will also oversee Nativ — the Conservative movement “gap year” of study in Israel.

Gutin will continue to take on the role each winter as a tour leader for USY members who visit concentration camps and Jewish historical sites in Poland. He will also serve in various places as a scholar-in-residence, where he can instruct adults as well as young people.

Another part of his portfolio is a must: attending USY’s national conventions. Gutin has been to every one of them since his first in 1964.

“That experience of kids from so many different communities all being in one place, that joy of their being Jewish and being able to express it in a positive way, is a pretty overwhelming experience,” he said.

“One of my real joys is having teaching opportunities, and those are going to expand. Hopefully I will be able to expand our resources as well,” he told NJ Jewish News in a Sept. 9 phone interview. “We are always in desperate need of expanding.”

He expects his new position will come with “probably fewer headaches” than his current post as leader of 15,000 high school-age students in 17 regions in the United States and Canada.

“My current job has enormous responsibilities,” he told NJJN. “We are responsible for the well-being of thousands of students who participate in our programs, and we have to do the best job possible in terms of inspiring them. Their Jewish future can depend on it. Some of that, as well as the budgetary issues, will be someone else’s responsibility.”

The Conservative movement has changed dramatically during Gutin’s lifetime, from American Jewry’s largest denomination to one faced with shrinking membership.

USY “has not grown since I was a teenager, and that is one of our big challenges, especially because high school-age kids generally are not joiners,” Gutin said.

Internally, USY is focusing on a debate as to whether it should continue as a dues-based organization or as one open automatically to the sons and daughters of members of Conservative synagogues. “How do we get people in the door so we can provide programs that we know will be appealing to them?” he asked. “Part of our responsibility is to give them the tools so that once they’ve graduated from high school they will take their experience on to new levels.”

Teenagers have changed as well.

“The way they communicate is very different from the way they communicated in the past,” Gutin said. “In 1964 we were very politically involved” with civil rights and antiwar issues. “Now I think the approach is much more hands-on, physically doing things to help other people. It may have a Jewish focus in terms of what we learn, but in terms of who we help there are no barriers.”

All four of Gutin’s children inherited his commitment to Conservative Judaism, and all were active in the Hagalil region. His son Eitan served as Hagalil president — as did his sister Ariella, and later, Eitan became its international president. He is now director of lifelong learning at Tifereth Israel Congregation in Washington, DC, and the father of Gutin’s grandchild, Lev.

Gutin’s other two daughters — Rachel and Batya, staffed USY programs for years and are still involved with the organization.

Gutin and his wife Judy are residents of Teaneck, where they are members of Congregation Beth Sholom.

The Sept. 18 reception will feature a special musical performance by Josh Nelson, whose website describes his group, the Josh Nelson Project, as “delivering high-octane Jewish rock.”

As he reflected on 40 years of service to USY, Gutin said, “Any job cannot be all positive, but I cannot think of any job in the Jewish community that could be better than this. The rewards, the personal satisfaction, just don’t go away.”

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