I meet with four to six new olim (immigrants) from North America each month as they seek my counsel and advice during their search for meaningful work in Israel’s voluntary sector. Most of the time olim are referred to me by people who know me or have heard of my work in the third sector in Israel. I have been on the new immigrant networking list for many years, and I am happy to share my suggestions, expertise, and experience with them.
I am always struck by the experiences they have had learning to negotiate the Israeli nonprofit sector. It is not unusual for bright, talented, experienced, creative, and personable professionals from a variety of backgrounds to feel a great sense of frustration as they meet with their Israeli colleagues working for various voluntary organizations. Often they are left wondering whether their experience has any relevance for the field in Israel and even whether they should look for something else to do in Israel.
I am not talking here about inexperienced or unskilled professionals. These olim have advanced degrees in education, social work, administration, and other similar fields. They have been employed by community centers, Jewish day schools, Jewish family service agencies, Jewish federations, and other nonprofit organizations within or connected to the organized Jewish community. In addition, many have either directed or worked for creative start-ups that were meeting new and emerging needs in Jewish communities in the United States, Canada, and other countries.
By the time olim have requested to meet with me, they have had many frustrating meetings and interviews with directors and middle managers of Israeli nonprofits. Almost all of them report the same dynamic. The minute their interviewer hears their American or Anglo accent and see they have worked in the nonprofit sector they immediately assume the oleh (m) or olah (f) is seeking a fundraising position. They want to pigeonhole them right away.
In fact, many of these olim have experience in a wide variety of areas: administration of services, staff development, training and education of volunteer leaders, initiating and overseeing program services, and human resource development, among other professional experiences. During the job-seeking process, these olim quickly gain the sense that their Israeli colleagues do not value these kinds of experiences and are only interested in having someone who can be involved in financial resource development in North America and other Western countries with wealthy Jews.
Olim have told me countless times that they were told their professional experience in areas other than fundraising might not be relevant to the Israeli nonprofit organization. Very rarely are they given the opportunity to explore how they could use the content of their knowledge and skills within an Israeli voluntary organization. Even when they are able to arrange a meeting or an interview they are frustrated by the inability of the Israeli professionals to understand what they have to offer.
To address this problem, I suggest that the best approach is to begin to create a network of people in the nonprofit sector and not to focus on landing job interviews. Olim should set up a series of information interviews with people whom they identify as being in a related professional area. Initially it is best to take a broad definition of a field of practice and not limit themselves to the same activities they were involved with in their home country.
As in any place in the world, connections and relationships are key factors in meeting the people who can be most helpful. Recently, I spoke to a social worker who made aliyah and has a very broad set of skills in areas from social service to education to community organization. I thought it was important for her to meet with people who would be open to conversing with her about her experiences and perhaps be able to suggest who else in Israel would be able to benefit from what she had to offer.
In making this suggestion and in identifying people for her to approach, I was quite clear that she would not be asking these contacts for a job and whether there were open positions in their organizations. The focus of this first contact was for her to learn about what the organization did and the professional approach of the person she was meeting. The goal of the meeting would be to provide an opportunity for her to learn about Israeli approaches to service delivery, professional and volunteer leadership development, administration of nonprofit organizations, and public-voluntary partnerships, as well as financial resource development in Israel. Once a relationship has been developed, she could then ask the Israeli professional she met for the names of other people who would help her better understand the Israeli nonprofit sector.
This indirect approach to meeting with people provides an opportunity for a discussion that could be cut very short if the first question was, “Do you have any open positions?” The open information interview provides both the interviewer and interviewee the opportunity to learn about each other and to be able to think in creative directions not limited to a specific professional role at the time of the meeting.
This approach is important both for olim and for veteran Israelis. Olim begin to learn about areas of services and organizations they might not know, and the Israeli professionals have a chance to see that Anglo nonprofit professionals are more than financial resource development professionals. This approach also makes a contribution to the professionalization of the Israeli voluntary sector because Israeli professionals can learn about the variety of skills and expertise that olim bring with them. Thus, olim should be more open about how they develop their network, and Israeli professionals should allow themselves to appreciate the contribution that veteran professionals who are new immigrants bring with them to Israel.
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.