Millennial Mishegas

Steven Chaitman

Steven Chaitman shares what's on his Millennial mind and brings some re-Jew-venating perspective to contemporary issues in our rapidly evolving world.

The Kvetching Intellectual

Some (Jewish) experience preferred

 Permanent link

When I graduated college I really wasn't ready for what would come next.

I entered the University of Missouri in 2005 eager to be certified as a professional writer by the best journalism school in the country; I left Mizzou in 2009 with as much a sense of direction as the struggling field I was newly qualified to work in and hoping to find a job just months into the worst economic downturn since an era I had to read about in history textbooks because my grandparents were barely old enough to remember it.

I had also made entering the prospective working world as challenging as possible. I didn't have a clear idea of what I wanted to do or where I wanted to work. I was neither picky about the details nor certain of them. I saw myself happy in a lot of different jobs and my experience reflected someone with diverse interests but no clear focal point.

Covering collegiate women's tennis, criminal justice reporting, my movie blog - I enjoyed all of it. But in a job market that demanded a concerted effort and one's best foot forward, being happy to wander in any direction wasn't going to get me anywhere.

Why? Because this is what I saw on job postings:

"The ideal candidate has 2-4 years experience working in [insert niche field]"

"3-5 years [insert niche field] experience preferred."

"Knowledge of [insert software or specialty skill]."

And these were listed as "entry level jobs," which I soon realized were creatures of 20th Century working world mythology; if they appeared or were reported to exist, I never saw the evidence. In an industry with way more writers than writing jobs, employers had a range of experience to choose from.  When I applied for these jobs anyway, namely when I had connections on the inside, I found myself turned away each time because someone else always had that niche experience.

I was left in a desperate state. I had gotten some freelance work, which would keep me writing and my portfolio fresh, but would not allow me to save up. So I looked to my other niche experience and turned where I had always turned when I needed work: the Jewish world.

The first job I ever had was as a machonik (teaching assistant) for my congregation's Hebrew school. In college, I went back to my Jewish overnight camp to be a counselor and train as a song leader. I then took those skills back to school during the year and began working as a Hebrew school teacher and song leader at the local synagogue.

My degree may have read "Bachelors in Journalism," but I left school equally qualified to be a Jewish professional without having any intention of doing so.

It turned out there was a need for young Jewish professionals in the Chicago suburbs. I found part time work as a religious school song leader, youth group advisor for pre-teens and conversational Hebrew teacher - at three different synagogues. As each year went by, I moved up and on: high school youth advisor, b'nai mitzvah tutor, song leader-for-hire at several more synagogues and early childhood music specialist at the JCC. The more I took on and the longer I stayed with it, the more opportunities that came along.

There are lots of words and phrases we use to describe our Jewish communities. Caring. Giving. Loving. Welcoming. A kehilah kedoshah (holy community). Mine was a metaphor, a safety net. I jumped into the working world, and though I fell, the hands of rabbis, educators, cantors, lay leaders, children - they kept me upright.

As grateful as I was for these opportunities, however, I had to recognize where the credit belonged. My Jewish upbringing, Jewish learning experiences, Jewish curiosities and the Jewish people who encouraged me along the way were all responsible. I never went to religious school and camp with the intention of acquiring a skill set that I could use in my professional career. Almost no one does. Developing those skills was the fortunate byproduct of a life full of positive Jewish experiences and a commitment to Jewish values.

So it surprised no one that my first full-time writing-based position - though nearly four years later and after falling short once before - came from the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. Although it calls upon my journalism and communications skills, my 3-5 years as a Jewish professional in Chicago became my niche experience, experience that didn't matter as much to other employers - except for this one.

Our lives are often said to be the accumulation of our experiences, and mine has to this point been filled with a great deal of Jewish ones. I never once thought aloud that I should pursue any given experience because it was Jewish. My previous Jewish experiences just naturally pointed me to my future ones - every time. And it will continue that way, because that's what I've chosen for myself.

Although I have taken an important and positive step with JUF, I can't guarantee that my professional and Jewish paths will remain converged throughout my lifetime; one step does not constitute a commitment in direction. But what I do know is that if I continue to let my Jewish experiences and values guide me, I'll never have to be concerned with where I fall.


Sign up for our weekly newsletter featuring issues and events in the Jewish world.

IL Holocaust Museum Desbois
Chicago Loop Dudu Fisher 2016

Want news of Chicago, Israel and the Jewish world in your mailbox each month? Subscribe to the print JUF News, by making a contribution to the Jewish United Fund.

Claims Conference