Darn tootin’, they’re honorin’ Gutin
Longtime USY director leaves post to fill educator role
It starts with a roar and then a solid wall of sound, pounding feet, voices raised in the production of what charitably could be called song but more accurately is described as pure gleeful noise.
Then there is the wind made by the rushing of many hundreds of bodies, the blur of brightly colored or piercingly pastel t-shirts and banners and flags and hats and costumes, and the onslaught of hormones so potent that a middle-aged observer starts worrying if she is late for homeroom.
It is the annual USY international convention, the huge, jubilant, incredibly noisy meeting that brings together the largest number of Jewish adolescents in any one place in the world. (USY is United Synagogue Youth, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s program for teenagers.)
|After a virtual lifetime as USY’s director, Jules Gutin is stepping down to become USCJ’s senior educator.|
Jules Gutin of Teaneck has been to every USY convention since the winter of 1964. That is a lot of conventions. Beginning as a teenager, when he took the first airplane flight of his life to get to the convention in Chicago, until now, he moved steadily forward, from the back tables where he and his equally awestruck friends sat and gawked, to front and center, where he orchestrates the convention as USY’s longtime director. He is about to leave that job to become a senior educator for United Synagogue, so a look back at his life seems in order.
Gutin’s story is quintessentially the story of a northern New Jersey Jew. He was born in 1950, in Paterson, as were his mother and his sister. His father was born in New York City, but grew up in Paterson. Gutin’s parents stayed in Paterson until they died.
The community was surprisingly large — it was New Jersey’s third largest city, Gutin points out — but families were intertwined. Jews from Paterson married other Jews from Paterson. His parents grew up next door to each other, and “we lived upstairs from my mother’s parents and next door to my father’s mother,” he said.
The trade at the city’s heart was textiles, particularly silk, so many local Jews had connections to that business, although eventually they branched out. Gutin’s mother was a bookkeeper, and at one point his father ran the luncheonette that was in the YMHA. (That is the one that is now in Wayne, partnering with the YMCA.)
Gutin went to the Yavneh Academy through eighth grade — now located in Paramus — and then he went to East Side High School, which was public. That is when he joined USY.
Was he Conservative or Orthodox growing up? “Yes and yes,” he said. Although it was not such a long time ago, it was a very different time. The barriers between the movements were porous. His family was intimately connected to Yavneh from its founding. The school was Orthodox, although Gutin says that when he was there, many of its students were not Orthodox. The school had its own minyan, and Gutin and his school friends davened there on Shabbat.
Another local educational institution was the descriptively and accurately named Hebrew Free School; there was a synagogue attached to the school (Temple Emanu-El of Paterson), which had been dedicated by two of early Conservative Judaism’s great lights, Solomon Schechter and Louis Marshall. Temple Emanu-El was the Gutins’ family shul. “It had separate seating on either side and mixed seating in the middle; eventually it became all mixed seating,” Gutin said. His uncles were active in Temple Emanu-El, which was Conservative (and moved a few years ago to Franklin Lakes), and that is where Gutin joined USY.
Once he joined USY, it is not too much to say that it became his life.
Gutin became his chapter’s president, and then regional vice president. During the summers, he went to the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah in the Berkshires and he studied at Prozdor, the afternoon Hebrew high school program at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He earned his bachelor’s degree at the joint program run by JTS and Columbia University, and became president of a United Synagogue program called Atid, for college students.
During his college years, Gutin became increasingly interested in informal Jewish education; this was a particularly natural move, given how much he had been shaped by informal Jewish education. He was a USY chapter advisor, working mainly in Verona, Kearny, and Linden, and he was a counselor at Camp Ramah, as well. During a Ramah summer, he was part of a program called Mador, a national leadership training institute. It was an intense leadership training program, he said, that included study of both educational techniques and Jewish texts.
Soon after he graduated college, Gutin began to work fulltime for United Synagogue’s youth department, working his way up to become director in 1991.
In 1979, he and his wife, Judy, who unsurprisingly also was a USYer, moved to Teaneck, where they are members of Congregation Beth Sholom. Jules and Judy Gutin are the parents of four children, all former USYers, and they are now the proud grandparents of a grandson, Lev.
USY has changed a great deal since 1964, and its conventions have gone from seemingly staid events, with boys in jackets and ties and girls in lovely but uncompromising dresses, to technology-heavy, visually informal gatherings. The basics have not changed, however, Gutin says. “The excitement, the noise, the feelings of being in the same room with so many Jewish teens, the energy — the Jewishness — it’s not something you find easily anywhere else, and it doesn’t change.”
“When we ask the kids what they like about USY, they say that it’s a safe space for them,” Gutin said. “They can be who they are. I don’t think that many of them have that same feeling in their school environment. In USY, they can be themselves.”