by Rabbi Louis Feldstein
Truth be told I don’t know Andrew Rehfeld, the law professor long active as a volunteer in the St. Louis Jewish community, who was just named the chief executive officer and president of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. He may in fact be an incredibly talented and skilled individual with a great personality. He may be a deeply committed Jew and Zionist who truly believes in the purpose and need for Federation. He may be the next coming. He may be lots of things, but he is also the most recent sign and symbol of a deeply troubling trend.
Over the past several years more and more of the top local Federation and agency positions have been filled with people whose career trajectory traveled the road of volunteerism – not professional communal service. Is this because more and more committed Jewish professionals have decided they know too much about these jobs and have determined they are just not worth the trouble or headache? Or is it instead a reflection of a far more nefarious perspective – the continued devaluation of the expertise, wisdom and experience that comes from a lifelong commitment to professional Jewish communal service.
If I was the head of any of the academic programs that train communal professionals, or for that matter the programs that offer MBA’s in Nonprofit management I would be worried … very, very worried.
While few of us would ever consider going for medical treatment from a non trained professional, or being represented in court by someone whose training comes from regularly watching Law and Order, there appears to be an overwhelming belief that just because someone was a volunteer in the Jewish communal arena they have what it takes to be a successful professional. The record, in fact appears to be mixed, but the trend continues and raises challenging and perplexing questions.
If one doesn’t need to be trained to be a Jewish communal professional, then why keep such programs alive?
If quality training is imperative then who is training these new hires on the nuances of changing from volunteer to professional?
If “anyone” can do these jobs then are they truly positions of prestige and expertise that warrant such salaries?
These are just a few of the questions that demand consideration and debate.
Change can be good, and perhaps this is a change for the good. Our system clearly needs new thinking and innovative strategies and this may be the kind of seismic shift that propels us forward. If it is not, however, what will be both the short and long term impact to our communal institutions and our communities?
It is time to at least start to seriously study and debate the impact of this direction. It is neither too early nor too late. Now is the time. But, with that said, I wish Mr. Lehfeld only success and may he go from strength to strength. I know he will need it.
Louis Feldstein is the Founder and CEO of Dynamic Change Solutions, LLC a change management consulting practice focused on nonprofit and faith based organizations, academic institutions and mission driven businesses. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.