A “Must Read” List Is the Start of Something Bigger

Despite my leadership positions as executive director of a synagogue, vice-president of a federation, and executive director of a major Jewish foundation, the communal structure in which I work does not confer on me bona fide professional status.

by Chip Edelsberg

Last week, eJP invited the community to identify ten “must reads” for Jewish communal leaders. For this, I say thank you.

During more than two decades of having the privilege to work in the Jewish community, I have maintained a list of sources I routinely rely on to guide my “professional” practice.

I say “professional” because truth be told, despite my leadership positions as executive director of a synagogue, vice-president of a federation, and executive director of a major Jewish foundation, the communal structure in which I work does not confer on me bona fide professional status.

Why? Well, there are the matters of a body of content that a professional is responsible to study and master; essential work-related skills to acquire; research into the work practices commonly found in Jewish organizations; requirements for continuing education; certification for advanced training; a communally accepted code of conduct; and on it goes … all of which are lacking or entirely absent from the standard employment qualifications and formal performance requirements that my peers and I encounter.

With these inherent limitations, identifying the “top ten books list that all modern Jewish leaders should read” is something I honestly cannot contribute to with any degree of confidence.

What I can do, by contrast, is to identify texts I recurrently use to inform, guide and inspire me. In fact, I have been compiling an annotated list of 36 such sources in the hope that some day I will feel sufficiently comfortable with my choices to share them with the field. My notion has been all along that if and when I were to do so, it would be in the context of serious conversation about professionalizing the field of Jewish communal work.

This is not that moment. But I dream that eJP’s challenge to readers to start this discussion might spill over, eventually, into discourse about whether or not the thousands of us who serve the Jewish community should be expected to work with its stakeholders to create a true profession.

As part of that process, I offer a peek, for what it is worth, into the literature that is deeply woven into the fabric of my everyday work. These books are definitive in a fashion, to me. Some of them stand as widely-accepted seminal contributions to the field. All are written by accomplished, notable experts. Typically, the books are abundantly referenced around their time of publication and then routinely so as time passes.

Most importantly to me, these books are ones with the best ideas, lessons, theories, discoveries, recommended techniques and behaviors that I find stand above others in helping to make me the “professional” I am. Each gets richer with multiple readings. (I owe a debt of gratitude to Rabbi Larry Hoffman for his One Hundred Great Jewish Books, both for the criteria he used for the selection of the top 100 and for the book list itself).

One more prefatory comment: I group my best books into three categories: 1) all things Jewish, 2) the independent sector and 3) everything else. In the last category, I am constantly searching for books whose authors’ imagination, ingenuity, scholarship, and creativity ignite in me a passion for excelling, professionally (!).

Two books, then, from each of the three categories, that I would want my colleagues to read and study and discuss with peers who manage and lead Jewish organizations are as follows (I am excluding books from my listing that appeared in the original eJP posting entitled “Crowdsourcing: What Should We Be Reading?“):

All Things Jewish

The Jew Within, by Steven M. Cohen and Arnie Eisen, is a book that during the last 13 years I find myself going back to time and again to understand the complicated interplay of the Jewish self, family and community. Published in 2000, Cohen and Eisen persuasively documented a profound shift in Jewish American identity in post-modern America and presaged a future of even greater dynamism and variability in one’s construction of his or her Jewish self.

Community Polity, by Daniel Elazar, masterfully describes the exceptionally complex organization of the Jewish community. Elazar’s “encyclopedic” work (as Rabbi Hoffman aptly describes it), published first in 1976 and updated in 1995, is an indispensable map of the organization of the Jewish communal world.

(My other “all things Jewish” books of choice include ones on the history of the Jewish people, Israel, Zionism, the Holocaust, and classical texts from our illustrious canon.)

The Independent Sector

The Foundation, by Joel Fleishman. Virtually every aspect of the Jewish communal enterprise interacts with philanthropy. Fleishman’s narrative provides critical insight into the influence of foundation philanthropy and the expanding role that private wealth plays in the social sector’s well being.

Managing for Accountability, by Kevin P. Kearns, is one of countless books on advancing excellence in not-for-profit management. I find that Kearn’s laser focus on accountability and his comprehensive treatment of it distinguish it as an authoritative source to which I refer time and time again.

(While the literature in this category is not as rich as that in “All Things Jewish,” it is voluminous. I look for books written by credentialed individuals whose well-established expertise in analyzing social sector phenomena reveals critical information I need to learn and to understand if I want to excel in what I do.

Everything Else

Daniel Goleman’s Working with Emotional Intelligence is a work I regularly consult – 15 years after its publication. It is a landmark book, steeped in research and full of sound guidelines for practical applications to practice across a myriad of settings.

Kathyrn Schulz’s Being Wrong is one of the newer books on my list. It is a brilliant exposition on the thesis that “the relationship we cultivate with error affects how we think about and treat our fellow human beings.” One of Schulz’s startling insights is her dissection of the error that has given rise to the centuries old stereotype of the juif errant – wandering Jew. Schulz’s insights are profound and the ideas for practice emanating from them actionable.

(This third category is obviously unbounded. Typically, books that I choose for it are found in places far afield from categories #1 and #2. These select books awaken in me an entirely new way to view or to conceptualize some fundamental dimension of my work, and the “illumination” sticks with me for years.)

Again, I would never claim these books are the end-all-be-all for everyone’s “must read” list. But their persistent influence on how I think and react and approach workplace challenges puts them on a list of “important and indispensable” for me.

Following eJP’s lead, we could transition this open-ended conversation into a studied examination of what it takes to professionalize the field. Developing comprehensive lists of bodies of content is a fine place to start. However, sustained, collective efforts are needed if we want to seriously undertake the long-term effort of building a bona fide field of Jewish communal professionalism. If we begin that process, we may actually change the field and the “professionals” who manage and lead our Jewish organizations.

Chip Edelsberg, Ph.D., is Executive Director of the Jim Joseph Foundation.

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  1. says

    Those of us working in Jewish communal positions owe Chip Edelsberg a deep debt of gratitude for his article. During the next 5-10 years, Jewish organizations will likely experience a 75%-90% turnover at the executive level alone, and each new year we will continue to introduce more and more Jewish professionals into the field. So Chip’s piece begs the question – as we identify new organizational leaders and continue to hire people for entry-level positions – what core knowledge about the community they serve do we expect them to have? As there are many different types of Jewish institutions, and therefore different types of jobs, there is no doubt a wider variety of required technical skills than can fit into one useful curriculum. We should, however, develop a common understanding of what Jewish professionals need to know about how the Jewish community has traditionally been organized, and how it might be organized differently in the future; how Jewish history and current events informs our work; and how the integration of Jewish values defines our respective missions and mandates. I know that I would personally value such a professional education, and am willing to bet that our community as a whole would benefit greatly by the kind of professionalization Chip suggests.

  2. says

    Chip’s comments add a valuable context to any listing of important books to read for Jewish community leaders. A distinguishing characteristic of any professional field is recognition of a core canon of knowledge, yet Jewish community professionals enter our field from so many varied backgrounds there is little consensus or expectation that we are grounded in the same foundational principles. Supporting the creation of a canon of literature would be a valuable first step leading to professionalization of Jewish community practice.
    This matters because the complexities of our work require exemplary leadership. And, as community leaders, we should acknowledge that our work requires expertise and finesse that is rarely exhibited without rigorous preparation. Law, accounting, social work, education, marketing and numerous other professions all add to the richness and nuanced understanding of our communal enterprise. How very valuable it would be if we also recognized that literature on leadership, Jewish text, history and other disciplines also provide necessary grounding for successful work. Rather than bemoaning leadership’s entry into our field from diverse portals, let’s embrace a body of literature and standards which will ground and elevate our practice to professional expectations.

  3. Beth Cousens says

    Thank you (and EJP) for this.

    As I (think I) have said to you before, you are a master at integrating ideas that you gather from the outside world with your Jewish professional practice. In addition to the books that you read, my sense is that you follow people and their writing – Lucy Bernholz (before she had a blog – before there were blogs), Heather McLeod Grant, and others. (Who?)

    Both of these – the integration and the constant attention, as well as the following of thought leaders – are practices that I have learned from you and that you also can contribute to the wider field.

    Thank you!

  4. Barry Finestone says

    This is such an important conversation.

    For those of us who have spent a good portion of their careers in the Jewish professional world, we have have relied upon recommendations from colleagues as to what to read and what may be important to inform our work. Our own professional education and development has been in most cases by happenstance and/or the seeking out a good mentor and friend to help guide us. The need to have strong ongoing professional education for those currently in the field will go some way to solve the turnover crisis on the horizon. Imagine a Jewish professional world where we were all reading and learning from the same core curriculum and then from there becoming versed in different areas of specialty depending upon our roles and they type of work our agency was in. But the need to move on this is beyond urgent.

    With regard to attracting new people to our field- the current mantra is based around ” lets find someone out of the box… with business experience…” The need for a curriculum of sorts, for these individuals becomes even more necessary so that those new to our field can become versed in the nuances of this kind of work. If not, the current high churn and burn of these individuals will only accelerate. They will not have the professional network to rely upon and will need significant on-boarding help in order to be successful. They will need a very real, defined curriculum ranging from best practices, to what books to read, to how boards work etc.

    For what its worth,b below are-in my opinion- a few must reads.
    Thanks for the article Chip.

    In the Jewish Realm and very current- Shavit’s Israel My Promised Land

    In the Independent Realm- Governance as Leadership by Chait, Ryan and Taylor and Uncharitable by Pallotta

    In the everything else section- Brandraising by Sarah Durham

  5. Bob Hyfler says

    A work that is missing and perhaps never truly written is a critical history of the Jewish communal field over the past 70 odd years. There are first hand witnesses and remembrances that may still be mined and such a work might not simply catalogue those decades but give true insight on their successes and challenges in what was a true golden age of community building.

  6. Cindy Reich says

    We are fortunate to have a number of programs that prepare Jewish professionals for the field. The scholars and teachers in those programs have certainly thought deeply about what knowledge and skills a Jewish professional ought to have, and what literature (both Jewish and leadership/management) supports the development of communal leaders. It would be great to hear their voices in this conversation.

  7. Gil Preuss says

    Thank you Chip for initiating this conversation. While I am not sure that we need to establish a “core literature” for Jewish professionals, I do believe that an intense curiosity and passion for the Jewish community and the Jewish future are both critical. A willingness to question where we are today and where we must go. Professionals in Jewish organizations across a wide domain must be able to bring together diverse view points and mobilize people to address the most critical challenges we face. This requires both creativity and a willingness to make tough decisions.

    Nevertheless, it is always great to hear from others what books energize, challenge and move them forward in their thinking. For me, I have greatly enjoyed reading (and rereading)
    1) Future Tense by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (though To Heal a Fractured World is also great).
    2) Leadership in the Wilderness by Erica Brown
    3) The Promise of Israel by Danny Gordis

  8. Jennifer Zwilling says

    Thank you Chip for the conversation. As a graduate of a Jewish professional school, there were certainly core elements of the curricula, and requirements for Jewish and Israel literacy as well as Hebrew.

    One of the most exciting and challenging elements of our work is the ever-changing nature of the world, Jewish life, and by necessity, Jewish organizations. In grad school, my coursework, and in particular Schein’s book on Organizational Culture and Leadership provided a great foundation for thinking about organizational change. Today, Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch offers a sticky, helpful read for leaders of organizational (and personal) change.