Jewish Communal Service: A Field for Professionals and Volunteer Leaders

Thought LeadershipOver the last few years a number of senior appointments at Federations and other communal agencies have been filled not by trained professionals but by active, involved, and committed volunteer leaders. This development has spurred much discussion among professionally educated and trained communal professionals on the direction(s) of Jewish communal organizations. When they entered Jewish communal service, most professionals envisioned that they would make a career of working with agencies and their professionally trained staff and their volunteer leadership. Few gave any thought to their being in competition for paid positions with those people who occupied volunteer leadership positions. It was understood that there were parallel leadership tracks for professionals and volunteer leaders.

Now the rules of the game seem to be changing, and there seem to be no set professional and volunteer tracks. How do we understand this development and what does it portend about the future?

First, although people speak of the profession of Jewish communal service, Jewish communal service, in and of itself, is not a profession. It does not meet the accepted criteria of a profession developed by Ernest Greenwood in 1957: undergirded by a systematic theory, authority in the special area, community sanction, ethical codes, and a culture (Attributes of a Profession).

Yet, Jewish communal service as a field comprises a number of different professions. For example, social workers, teachers, rabbis, nurses, counselors, and therapists work in the field of Jewish communal service. These various professionals work in Federations, Jewish family service agencies, Jewish day schools, Jewish Community Centers, Jewish homes for the aged, and many nonprofit organizations that provide services to the Jewish and non-Jewish community. It is important to understand this distinction between the field of service and the professions that have achieved acceptance, recognition, and sanction in the organized Jewish community.

Once we clarify this distinction between the field and the professions, we can then discuss the issue of volunteer leaders assuming positions formerly held by professionals. In our many agencies and nonprofit organizations, do we want to have professionals deliver their services, manage their programs, and/or direct their operations? We may decide that some organizations need professionals while other organizations can be led by involved, committed, knowledgeable, and competent people who may or may not have any formal training or professional education in any of the professions found in the field of Jewish communal service.

As we begin this discussion, we should look back a century or so when the Jewish community in the United States began to organize into the federated system. At that time many people who assumed the position equivalent to a CEO were philanthropists and volunteer leaders. Some were compensated for their time and received remuneration, whereas others saw their service as an extension of their commitment to better the lives of those in need. Of course, this was before the development of educational programs, which was part of the professionalization of the entire field of philanthropy. Over the last 100 years there has also developed a sophisticated approach to giving that has involved both professional and volunteer leaders.

It appears as if we may have gone full circle. After educating, training, and employing a cadre of professional Jewish communal workers in Federations and other agencies, the organized Jewish community is now asking whether these people really meet the organizations’ needs. Perhaps the nature of the educational experience has produced Jewish bureaucrats who have not been enthusiastic and inspiring leaders, but have focused more on the management of organizations. At the same time perhaps some trained professionals have not been appreciated for their charismatic and creative approaches to developing and strengthening communities.

The return to hiring philanthropic volunteers as senior leaders may be a result either of a lack of understanding of the respective roles occupied by professionals and volunteer leaders, or it may signal volunteer leaders’ frustration with those communities that have been professionally driven without providing meaningful roles for them. In years past the Jewish community made a serious investment in leadership development, and there was a commitment to clarify the roles played by professionals and volunteer leaders. With the decline in leadership development programs has come ambiguity and ambivalence about the appropriate roles for both professional and volunteer community leaders.

The recent appointments of a number of volunteer leaders are signaling a trend, to which the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) should be responding. It should develop a process to look at the reasons for these hires. What does this trend tell us about the communities that have engaged volunteer leaders to fill paid positions? What does it tell us about the needs of these communities? What does it tell us about what qualities experienced and seasoned professionals are lacking?

Once it gains some insight into these questions, then JFNA could be in a position to offer guidance and support to communities that are considering engaging a present or former volunteer leader. It might even be appropriate for JFNA to offer executives who come from the volunteer leadership pool an orientation program to acquaint them with aspects of their job with which they might not be familiar. It would also be appropriate to develop a mentoring program, matching them with others who have made the transition from volunteer leader to compensated leader, for lack of a better term.

Much has been said and will be said about the negative aspects of these appointments for the field of Jewish communal service and the lessening of the value of a professionally trained and educated communal leader. Yet these comments are missing the message that we are receiving from our volunteer leaders who want to occupy senior positions in an organized community. They have not found the positions they currently occupy to be sufficiently meaningful, and they want to make another kind of contribution to their community.
We should be prepared to respond in several ways to their desire to contribute. After we understand why they want to assume professional roles, we should assess whether our volunteer leadership positions are sufficiently meaningful. We can then explore how we make those volunteer positions more meaningful and support those who want to express their commitment by being employed by the community.

If we do not take these steps and instead continue to just bemoan this trend, we will miss another opportunity to build and strengthen our federated organized community. JFNA should meet the challenge and provide the necessary leadership to assist our communities in figuring out how to make the most of this new development before it loses another opportunity to demonstrate its meaningfulness to the Jewish community in the 21st century.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program. Stephen was Director of the Israel office of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), 1986-94, and Director of the Israel office of UJA Federation of New York, 1994-2008.

Print Friendly
Pin It
Send to Kindle


  1. says

    Stephen thanks for this addition to this ongoing conversation. While I agree with much of what you have written, one point needs clarity. The role of Executive Director/CEO is unlike any other position in organizations. The ED/CEO does not deliver services and programs. Rather they establish the vision and strategy, marshal the professional and volunteer resources and the fund to allow the professionals to operate effectively. One can argue that this position requires a unique set of skills that can be acquired by executives from a variety of fields. The import questions are why is there a sense among the volunteer leaders in all of the fields of Jewish communal service feel the need to look outside of their systems for executive leadership and will they allow great investment in executive development to address this need?

  2. Steve - NYC says

    Perhaps the explanation is that fundraising has become the “end” rather than the “means.” Staff are judged by how much they raise, rather than whether they are accomplishing their mission. Perhaps that is a reason why too many young Jews are not attracted to our major institutions — raising money is not appealing to them in the abstract — a well defined mission may well be more enticing.

  3. Steven Noble says

    Stephen and David raise excellent points; undoubtedly volume has been raised on this topic given two recent high profile appointments in large city federations. However, the imperative for entities to focus on the need for more proactive, comprehensive “actions” rests not only with JFNA but, as well, with other good associations representing virtually all Jewish Communal Service fields (e.g. social/human service agencies, JCCs, camps, etc). Given the imperative to identify more top professional leaders in increasingly challenging times, there’s no alternative to enlarging and enriching the entire applicant pool, whether in the field or not, AND… to ensuring play with a full deck- i.e. more gender representation. Last point: this is equally relevant for all size organizations; NOT just mega-agencies whose CEO-level appointments are spotlighted in the news.

    Steven Noble
    Noble Consulting Associates, Inc

  4. Rachel Barton says

    As a current graduate student in Jewish Nonprofit Management looking towards graduation this coming spring and a future career in the Federation system, conversations such as this one cause me to reflect much on the training I have sought to become a Jewish professional and how it will serve me in an evolving field. I do not feel that the investment I have made in my education is unwarranted in light of appointments of volunteer leaders as professional executives, nor do I feel threatened by the idea that institutions are casting a wide net when looking for new leadership. What this tells me is that as a newly minted Jewish professional, I should be looking to learn from the diversity of professional experience that is being brought to the field, while recognizing that at the core of our varying resumes lies a deep commitment to the strengthening of Jewish communal life. While I do not disagree with the notion that JFNA should be looking to support volunteer leaders who wish to make the transition into professional roles, I think instead there should be a focus on identifying the core leadership traits that build communities and an effort to create experiences that foster those traits in whomever is motivated to seek them out, at any point of entry into the field.