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Springboard Blog

Reflections on being a TYG advisor and this year's LEAD award winner by Neil Rigler

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Niel Rigler

It’s hard for me to imagine a time in my life when I was not working with Jewish teenagers. I grew up in a synagogue where both of my parents served as president, so I was constantly surrounded by that community. During high school I was an active participant in our temple’s youth group and in NFTY (JFTY at the time - go New Jersey!) events, both regionally and nationally. The day after graduation I started working at URJ’s Camp Harlam, where I spent 11 summer as counselor, unit head, and leader of their 6-week summer trip to Israel. When I moved to Chicago after college, I worked at OSRUI for two years and was hired as the youth advisor at North Shore Congregation Israel, where I have been honored to work for the past twenty-six years. I must take a moment to note I was initially hired as a co-youth group advisor - my partner then is my wife now - the world works in mysterious (or perhaps quite deliberate) ways! During my spare time I’m an English Teacher at Deerfield High School, where I enjoy the opportunity to work with a wide range of students but worry a bit less about boxes of costumes and ordering pizza.

To me, the different aspects of the LEAD award (Leader, Educator, Advisor, Dugma/Example) are all essential and interwoven components of what it means to be successful with this challenge. However, what they each mean is not so straightforward. For me, being a leader means standing on the side while my students lead. If I am the one in the front of the room or running an activity, they are passive participants instead of growing their skills in communication and organization and a hundred other areas. As an educator, my main roles are to ask questions and encourage reflection. After every program we consider not only what worked and didn’t, but also the parts each person played in everything from the brainstorming to social interaction to physical work. Being an advisor means being a listener - I long ago learned to be aware of the needs of each student, and that everyone carries a heavy backpack. I set a high bar of expectations and work hard to create it with each of them - the strengths and challenges of each student are unique. Lastly, being an dugma/example means I must be aware of our goals and the ways in which I model them. If I am being phony about it, students are aware of that right away. If I engage with my Jewish identity in a genuine and meaningful way, I can better help be a participant in the important conversations they have about what that can mean to them - about the role Judaism plays in their daily lives and how to explore those questions.

In my jobs as both teacher and TYG advisor I am constantly learning from my students. They are the ones who teach me about current ways of thinking and existing, about their ways of navigating our complicated political and social times, and about the galaxy of forces impacting their thoughts and beliefs. (As a music nerd I try to hold my own in that category, and always manage to surprise a lot of kids when I’m closer to the stage at Lollapalooza than they are). I like to tell people I have the best job in the world - that every day is different, and that I get to be present when teens are at their most curious. Yet those opportunities coincide with their most vulnerable moments, and times when they most feel like challenging and questioning everything. I embrace that. Those are the moments of growth and I’m truly honored to have the opportunity to be there and help guide the pathway for the next generation of Jewish leaders. I’m so fortunate to have so many fantastic people to work with at North Shore Congregation Israel. I’m thankful to Springboard and all of the great work they do, for this wonderful award, and for the chance to reflect on my journey up to this point.