The Business of Meaning

small stars mosaicIn so many places, we’ve taken the Jewish out of the experience of working at Jewish communal organizations.

by Liz Fisher

As a Jewish communal professional myself, and as someone who has interviewed, supervised, and mentored dozens of young Jewish professionals, I’ve read the recent eJewish Philanthropy stories by Mark Young and Ken Gordon with great interest. Rather than compete, they actually complement one another; compensation and passion, the two theses presented, are indeed crucial.

I can’t help but wonder, though, where the Jewish piece comes in. We are not MIT Media Labs. We are not Google. We are Jewish organizations with budgets of varying size, finding ourselves under constant pressure to operate more leanly and to spend less on overhead (i.e. ourselves) while spending more on programs and our clients. Yes – we are getting more professional, strategic, and efficient, all very important things. And as we do so, it is crucial that we continue to remember who we are.

While money and perks are important, they are not what ultimately drive us. What does? Meaning. A recent article in The New York Times highlights organizational psychology research that indicates that people feel – and are – more successful when they believe that their work is meaningful and that there is a beneficiary.

This is why I’m saddened when, in my conversations with young professionals across the country (particularly those in larger organizations), I find that the system has moved away from meaning.

In our quest to professionalize, hire more MBAs, focus on results, and better use technology, it’s possible we’ve begun to forget who we are. In so many places, we’ve taken the Jewish out of the experience of working at Jewish communal organizations. We lament the lack of quality candidates knocking at our doors while competition to join the Teach for America corps grows to rival that of Ivy League schools, and millennials take unpaid internships at social justice organizations just to get their foot in the door. Millenials want to change the world, and were raised to believe they can. We’ve forgotten to make the case for how they can do it within our community.

Every morning, I wake up knowing that there are over 233,000 people who have been on Birthright Israel trips living in the United States (not including the thousands more that will depart on trips this summer). 233,000 people who were sparked, if even for a moment, to believe in something bigger than themselves – to feel a part of something wonderful, important, and holy.

In my work to harness that spark, I’m driven by the opportunity to empower an entire generation to explore their identities, build their communities, and enrich our American Jewish experience.

This is my meaning.

I feel lucky, because I work for an organization that has the resources to compensate me. I have a passionate team, and we have a lot of fun. But the reason I come to work each day? The stories of those 233,000 Birthrighters. The ones who return home from the trip and start their own Jewish projects in their communities. The ones who host a Shabbat dinner for their friends for the first time. The ones who become activists and advocates and artists and Jewish parents.

How many young professionals truly have this? How many fundraisers deeply believe, as John Ruskay often says, that when they ask for a gift, they are giving someone an opportunity to do the mitzvah of giving tzedakah? As my colleague and friend Shuki Taylor points out in the comments on Ken Gordon’s piece, this seamless integration of our day-to-day work and our Jewish ideals may be on the minds of many Jewish educators on a daily basis, but many of us working in the community don’t get the routine and immediate sense of enforcement that educators and social workers do. Most of us sit behind our computers. We write grant reports. We plan fundraising events. We respond to our bosses’ emails and those of our colleagues.

Of course we need to continue to professionalize our organizations, and to think about standards, accountability and efficiency. Of course we should aspire to provide increased compensation where it’s deserved, access to mentors, a creative workplace environment and professional development opportunities. But we also need to put the Jewish back into Jewish communal work.

Let’s take the opportunity to collectively remember why we got into this business in the first place. We are here because we are deeply committed to the future of Jewish identity and Jewish communities. We are here because we believe, deep down, that we have the opportunity to change our world.

Liz Fisher is the Managing Director at NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation.

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  1. Mark S. Young says


    First and foremost, I loved your piece and thank you for keeping the conversation going. Indeed, Ken and my’s articles complement much more then they disagree, and he and I have since connected directly to discuss and find areas for collaboration around these issues (thank you eJP!)

    Second, the meaning of our work is critical and perhaps why most of us are in this field, and what really is the meaning of our work if we don’t identify (and identify with) the Jewish components, both in the content of our work and in the values we aspire to live up to within our work. Like you Liz, I come to work everyday because of the work I am doing (for me training Jewish experiential educators is at true love and passion), not for the paycheck.

    But it is here where I also disagree with you. Raising compensation, management standards, and professional development opportunities would be and IS putting the Jewish back into our work. I’d posit to you that you love your job because of its meaning, but if your organization did not have the resources to compensate you well, hire a strong fun team around you and provide you with good management, then no matter how much meaning you got out of the work, you may find it difficult to stay in the role for a significant amount of time. To value your work properly is Jewish, it’s acting with Kavanah (intentionality) for how we use our human resources and Kavod (respect) respect for them, two invoke two Jewish values.

    What I hope is that one’s compensation no longer acts as the reason to leave or feel undervalued even from jobs where the meaning of one’s work is evident and is the driving force behind one’s career choices, and one’s passions for their work shouldn’t be taken advantage of when offering compensation, management support and career growth far below that they deserve and we can offer.

    Thank you Liz, would love to connect directly! – Mark S. Young

  2. says

    In 1991 I graduated from college and looked for a job in NYC during a recession. I took the first job offer that came along, a receptionist at a small legal search firm. The people there were unfriendly business sharks and every day I felt on trial for my job.
    After three months I got a new job, being a secretary at Jewish National Fund’s national office. From the start, I had meaning and a boss who didn’t look down on me, but saw that I would not be an assistant forever and gave me a leg up in starting my career.
    In the following 20 years, I have made a career in Jewish journalism and now synagogue communications. I have made peace with a much lower salary trajectory because my heart has peace and passion for the community I’m helping every day.

  3. Barry Rosenberg says


    Nice piece. So glad to see your continued leadership of the field.


  4. Yoni Sarason says

    @Mark, while you are correct that more professional development, better compensation, and management do bring Jewish values into the work place (and can help retain talent), that doesn’t put you in disagreement with Liz. This conversation is actually about the relative utility of extrinsic and intrinsic motivational factors.

    Compensation, development, and HR benefits of a job are all, ultimately, extrinsic (and often transactional) motivational factors. You are absolutely right that if we barely pay living wages (or at least wages that don’t allow us to actually purchase the goods or services produced by the jewish community), we are not living our values. The data connecting performance and job tenure directly to pay, however, is inconclusive.

    ‘Meaning’, as Liz is using it, is an intrinsic motivational factor. As a Millennial, I’ve been conditioned to look for intrinsic rewards (having several times walked away from better-compensated positions in order to find work that could give me intangibles like knowledge, experience, and growth).

    It is this meaning that often attracts us to Jewish communal work, and while appropriate compensation may allow us to afford being in the field longer, if we lead with compensation as the main point of attraction, we’ll attract those who care most about extrinsic, and not intrinsic rewards. That, I believe, would ultimately be doing our values and traditions a disservice.

    Happy to follow up

  5. Renanit Levy says

    Thank you, Liz, for this great piece. As someone who came into this field almost fifteen years ago, faced with many other professional options which would have given me a much cushier life financially, I continue to find meaning in my work day to day. I know that I am contributing, through my work now at Hazon and my years at UJA-Federation of New York and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, to building a stronger Jewish community that engages the full diversity of the community in meaningful Jewish life. I absolutely agree with the recent proposals that we need to have better compensation, benefits, training and supports in place to keep talented professionals in the field. I have seen many strong professionals leave for financial reasons; I have even considered doing so myself, but ultimately it IS the meaning I find in my work that keeps me here in the long term. I remind myself, during long days behind a computer screen, of what my efforts are actually doing to build my community and change our world. Those of us who make a long-term career in the Jewish community find this work to be a calling as much as a profession, and we would do well to recognize and celebrate that calling as a community.

  6. Yechiel Hoffman says

    Liz, thank you so much for stressing the importance of finding meaning within Jewish professional work. I want us to be careful how we use the role of meaning in our work, and not to offer meaning as a replacement for the lack of the standards for professionalization in our field. Prior to working as a Jewish professional, I worked in the entertainment industry. In that field, lower level employees and interns work for far below fair wages under great conditions of duress in order to get a taste of the possibility of the fame, fortune and glamor that Hollywood sells. I would hate for our field to sell our best and brightest on meaning as compensation in place of higher professional standards and a quality of life that other fields provide.

    Jewish values dictate that we take of our employees, and act ethically in our workplaces as a fundamental aspect of our holiness. Which means, I should not have to sacrifice the quality of my work, or the degree of my compensation, in order to contribute to this holy work. Rather being compensated appropriately, and doing this work at a high professional level, makes the work holy.

    I wonder if we can also raise the bar of what it means to be a “Jewish” organization? Does it simply mean that our mission serves a Jewish population or reflects Jewish values? Does it mean that an organization employs Jews, because Jews need jobs too? What if Jewish organizations did see the ethos and models provided by innovative companies and institutions as an opportunity to rethink the paradigm of what it means to create meaning in our work. I read about google and the MIT media lab not with envy for their creative process, or wall street firms with envy for their compensation packages. I explore these different models because our system of professional Judaism is flawed and closer to broken.

    We need to instill meaning, but not by worrying about continuity or intermarriage. We nee to instill meaning, but not be superficially associating our work with abstract Jewish values. We need to instill meaning by fundamentally making the process of work our and relationships reflect the essence of the Jewish ethos of engaging in creativity, responsibility and human connectivity.

    So, I encourage you and others to join the #jedlab conversation, now on twitter and facebook, to ask how can we createa media lab for Judaism professional work. We want to create a time and space within a network structure to meaningfully transform our work and our organizations to be Jewish. This occurs when we flatten the conversation, enable collaboration and design new models for Jewish professionals to serve the Jewish people. This starts by caring for and nurturing the whole person that serves Judaism as stakeholders, whether they be professionals, volunteers or lay leaders.

  7. says

    Thank you Liz, for a beautiful and thoughtful piece. I remember that when we were first staffing up at NEXT, we hired one individual with many years of experience as an informal educator. When he came aboard, he told me, “this is the first time in my career as a Jewish educator that I’ve been paid with dignity.” That remains one of my fondest moments in this work, at the intersection of the Jewish values of ethical pay to workers, responsible stewardship of communal resources, and the passion and commitment of our educators despite years of lack of dignity and compensation.

    As for myself, early in my career, I had to walk into the office of the senior professional of the major organization I worked for and explain that it was erev Rosh Hashana, that I had not been paid for over a month, and that I could not afford the costs of the holiday. That humiliating experience didn’t deter me from continuing a career in Jewish service – if anything, it strengthened my resolve to do this work – but that kind of experience should not be a prerequisite for this work.

    While I agree with Liz that absence of meaning is a problem, I disagree that the absence is caused by an overemphasis on strategy, accountability or efficiency. Just the oppposite! In places where people have a clear sense of what the organization stands for, why that work is important, and how the mission will be achieved, there’s is great meaning and motivation. But at organizations with muddled and unclear purposes, who fail to measure consistently or transparently, and who cannot articulate why what they do is truly important, staff tend to be listless, passive, and resigned. Unfortunately, too many of our organizations suffer from this malaise. If Jewish organizations could articulate as compelling a purposes as Teach For America, they would be mobbed by meaning-seeking Millenials. Unfortunately, we haven’t managed to articulate such a purpose, and perhaps it’s time we looked beyond continuity and towards the contributions we wish to make to this world to find that purpose.

  8. Adam Weisberg says

    I found this piece compelling and insightful. One example of an institution that is taking seriously the value of Jewish values is the JCC in San Francisco. How did they make this manifest? Two years ago they created and filed a position of CJO, Chief Jewish Officer. Full disclosure: my wife holds the position. But I cite the JCC not because it provides my wife with a livelihood and paycheck, but because it’s leadership recognized the centrality of elevating Jewish to the “Chief” and the “Officer” level. The title and the role herald to all that the JCC values its Jewish roots, content and meaning making as much as it does operations, finance, etc. Perhaps — no, certainly — in this way it is modeling what it means to deeply honor a collective commitment to the Jewish past, present and future, just as strongly as we moght value financial controls, professional management and the bottom line.