From a very young age, children are sent the message that they need positive relationships with adults in their lives. Quite often, these will be teachers, sports coaches, parents, and, yes, even clergy and Jewish professionals. We ask our children to learn from their teachings (both formally and informally) and incorporate those traits/skills into their own lives. 

Which type of relationships should we be encouraging, fostering, and developing? Role models? Mentors? Coaches?

There is a more important question that must come prior to answering this one, that of the difference between the three.  While they are similar, there are distinct and important differences between them.

Role Model

A role model is someone who is observed from a distance. It is very likely that the role model is someone that the individual has never met, but this person has certain qualities or practices that are admired by the young person. These might be athletic abilities, charitable contributions, or success their selected occupation. Emulating these attributes is perfectly fine, but the drawback to having a role model is the lack of two-way interaction. It is an observational relationship with no form of discussion, and it is difficult to get life lessons from the role model.


The biggest difference between a role model and a mentor is the one-on-one interaction. A mentor is someone that the individual works with on a fairly regular basis. Usually, they are in the same occupational field or the mentor served as a teacher of the mentee at a previous point in their life. The guidance of a mentor is based on behavior. For the mentee, it answers many of the following questions: “What did you do get here?”, “Have you encountered this problem before?”, or “I want to succeed but am unsure how?” It involves observing the mentor (similar to a role model) but also includes the opportunity for discussion, evaluation, and personal growth through ongoing communication between the mentor and the mentee.


We’ve all had some sort of coach throughout our lives. When you think of coach, you think of sports. A sports coach looks at a player’s skill, evaluates it, and gives them advice and training on how to do it better. The basis of this relationship is the same in any form of coach. People have skills. The individual and their coach have a task-based relationship. This is contrary to the behavior-based relationship mentioned for the mentor. A coach looks at you work and gives you advice on how to improve your results. You can be coached in public speaking, writing, piano, singing, dancing, and more. For every skill there is a coach to help you!

While it’s interesting to tease out the differences between all of these of relationships, we should also understand their implications for working with Jewish teens. Every day, we encounter students in programs and communities that need guidance. It’s up to us to look at the issues that they are facing and determine what type of help they need. It is also possible, and perhaps probably, that you may find that you are serving all of these roles at once!  A teen may observe and respect you from a distance, ask for help on life, or even seek you out for specific training on how to be better at something.

Take a minute and look around. Whether or not you know it, you may already be a role model, a mentor and a coach for a Jewish teen in your community.  As we work to teach and inspire the future Jewish leaders, we should be actively seeking out roles in which we can serve as all three for our youth.

Despite what they might tell their parents, they really do need our help, and they will ask for it.

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