Valuing Our Communal Employees

Why should Jewish communal workers have to ask for handouts from Jewish institutions?

by Rachel Fadlon

There has been a flurry of articles on eJewish Philanthropy recently about salaries in the Jewish nonprofit world, some criticizing the high salaries of executive directors, others suggesting that we raise the salary of entry level positions.

As one half of a married couple who both choose to work in the Jewish community (and are not executive directors), I would like to give my two cents:

The article “Is This A Job for a Nice Jewish Boy or Girl? You Bet It Is!” does make a valid point that paying workers at nonprofits more would incentivize them to stay. I do have a feeling, though, that those of us who have chosen the Jewish communal career path understand that we will not become millionaires. But when someone remarked in the comments section that “a very good point often lost in the search for a career: making money is not nearly as fulfilling and does not bring happiness as making a meaningful difference in the lives of others. It is not even a close call,” I got angry.

I cannot pay for my children’s Jewish day school tuition with happiness. The local JCC does not accept personal fulfillment as a form of payment. And when we think about joining a synagogue or sending our kids to a Jewish summer camp, we cannot sign “making a meaningful difference” on the dotted line.

I guess some of you out there assume that people who work in the Jewish community have a higher income-earning spouse who can pay these bills with actual money. Well, not all of us do.

While it is true that we do what we do because we care, it would also be nice to be able to provide our own families with the same services that we are so passionately giving to our Jewish communities. Sadly, it is often (financially) difficult for Jewish professionals to participate fully in Jewish life with their own families, especially if both spouses work in the Jewish community – or if they are single and trying to support themselves. My family is lucky to be able to send our kids to Jewish day school because of the generosity of the school. And when we were members of a synagogue (and its preschool), they were also extremely generous.

But why should Jewish communal workers have to ask for handouts from Jewish institutions?

Instead, I envision community-wide incentives within the Jewish community for Jewish professionals. I loved the idea in another comment to the article of discounts (and I mean substantial discounts!) or free memberships to JCCs, preschools, Hebrew schools, day schools, day/overnight camps, synagogues, community events, etc. There are typically special rates for young families and retirees, why can’t there be rates for Jewish communal workers?

To be clear: I am NOT bashing where I or my spouse work – we are compensated fairly. However, articles in various sources have alluded to the fact that participating in Jewish life is expensive. Pair this with the fact that by the nature of what we do, we earn less than those in other professions so that we, the Jewish communal workers, must face very difficult decisions regarding our own participation in Jewish life.

It is time for the Jewish community as a whole to recognize and make a commitment to the people who help keep it together. Our community should honor those who have made a conscious decision to sacrifice financial wellbeing for the wellbeing of our Jewish community. That would send a clear message to me – and to those who aspire to follow in my footsteps – that I am an important, valued, integral member of the Jewish community who deserves to be included.

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  1. Another Jewish Communal Worker says

    THANK YOU! I wonder if I can include this post with my financial assistance appeal for day care…

  2. Arnee Winshall says

    Thank you for posting this. I have always felt that one of the ways that our Federations could take leadership, would be to create funds that would be dedicated to ensuring that our Jewish communal workers could afford to live full Jewish lives: join synagogues, havurot or minyanim, send their children to Jewish day schools and camps, belong to JCC’s, etc. These are the kinds of bonuses and incentives that would be meaningful ways of saying “Rav Todot” and ensuring that we attract the best and brightest into our Jewish communal organizations while also ensuring that we have the next generation of Jewish leadership who are inspired by the role models they experienced growing up.

  3. Dan Ab says

    I think Jewish communal workers should be paid for their job at salaries+benefits that are roughly on par to similar jobs elsewhere. If communal workers cannot afford the “basics” of Jewish life on those salaries, then it requires a serious communal examination of what those basics are. I am strongly opposed to special funds/benefits to families just because someone works for the Jewish community. We already have an increasing number of professionals who are children of professionals, and special funds will increase this trend and isolate the people making decisions from the consequences of their decisions.

    For example, what would it be like if a day school principal had to explain to their teachers why they can’t afford to send their kids to the same school? What if synagogue education directors & other synagogue staff wanted to, but couldn’t afford to send their children to day schools? This would put real pressure on trimming expenses and making day schools more affordable in addition to pushing towards more high quality non-day school options. In our current world, where many of these leaders don’t have to look at the costs of their decisions in the eye, affordability is merely an abstract concept.

    These proposals for perks for Jewish professionals are essentially pushing more of the costs of these programs onto lay families and making sure that the professionals with the most authority and connections to effect changes are the least likely to complain.

  4. Sarah says

    Thank you for sharing your experience and making some extremely astute points, particularly about non-director positions. Comb the halls of most Jewish nonprofits and you’ll be astonished by how few Jews actually work at the organizations. They are turned off by the absurdly low salaries and the lack of advancement. I recently left the J nonprofit world and in my experience, the Jewish nonprofit professionals I encountered were either senior management or interns!

  5. Mark Young says


    Thank you for this piece and continuing to advance the conversation about compensation and investment for the professionals that serve the Jewish community. You point out correctly that achieving happiness in our roles is not an excuse to be paid below market-value, especially when this means that the professionals cannot afford the services its own community provides.

    My critique however is to suggest more positive realistic concrete solutions here. For example, when we are negotiating for our initial salaries (or raises), might we suggest discounts to day school or JCC membership in-lieu of a salary increase? This may be of financial interest to the employer who can pay for this without having to pay additional FICA-taxes or other costs to your salary.

    We also need to think about the JCC or Day School balance sheet too. They simply cannot provide discounts to multiple Jewish communal families, it will compromise the financial health of their institution. Instead how can we think about ways to advocate for our own situations, and advise our institutions that it is in their best interest to invest stronger in our employees – stronger compensation (and opportunities for growth) will lead to longer-retained and more productive employees – simply for the reasons Rachel, you just mentioned. Perhaps we can suggest partnerships that mutually benefit both institutions (and that reduces the financial burden of their staffs).

    If we can afford the lives we want (and yes, not be millonaries but still compensated pretty well), the Jewish communal sector will rise to new heights of success and employee satisfaction.

  6. Miriam says

    I frequently wonder if the terrible financial stress my husband and I suffer is in fact at all mitigated by the “fulfillment,” etc. we get through working in the Jewish community. Maybe we would have been better off in more lucrative professions, and experiencing the fulfillment that comes from not being tens of thousands of dollars in debt. We’re fighting the good fight, but it comes at a very high price.

  7. Andy says

    I’m a senior official (on the 990) at a serious communal institution.

    Can’t send my kid to jewish camp.
    Can’t send my kid to day school.
    Can’t afford the synagogue dues.
    Can’t afford to save for college.

    To paraphrase someone above — fighting the good fight and have lost.

  8. says

    Most businesses want to pay their employees better. But that can only happen if either the organization has revenues to spare, or it’s so hard to find a person to do the specific job. So I think it comes down to how do you increase revenues for Jewish organizations and demand for professional staff?

  9. Melissa Andelman says

    This is a Jewish problem, but not an entirely Jewish problem. The fact is that my husband and I have jobs that are not Jewish communal jobs. We needed scholarships so our children could go to synagogue Sunday school. We needed scholarships so our children could go to Jewish camps. We needed abatements so we could join a synagogue. We could not even think about day school.

    The real problem is the larger economic picture for all but the very richest families. I’m sure that Jewish communal workers are under economic stress. So are we. So are our children. So are my coworkers. So are my family members. The real problem is the overall concentration of wealth so that a larger and larger group of people are scrapping it out for a smaller and smaller piece of the pie.

    It is a Jewish problem that Jewish communal workers cannot afford what they say are the necessities of a Jewish life. It is also a Jewish problem that many other committed Jews can’t afford it either. In the short term, we need to figure out how to make Jewish life accessible to those of us who would love to participate and cannot afford to. In the longer term, we need to fight the inequalities that threaten us all.

  10. Dave Stein says

    Better said then I did. In my email I used the terms “elitism”
    The not so wealthy Jew cannot afford to participate fully in a Jewish life. This is also rampant in other organizations. The duse are way too high. NAMI has a program for people to join for only three dollars. You do not always get the full benefits of being a ‘full” member but you get most of them. Charity is not just for the wealthy

  11. says

    I don’t get the “I don’t want handouts” routine. The many good synagogues, schools and Jewish institutions who routinely offer discounts and free memberships to Jewish Communal workers are doing exactly what the author said we should do, letting those who work for the community pay for their membership with the good work they are doing, their “personal fulfillment” and their “making a difference”. I know of very few synagogues who do not take “work in the community” and “basic income” into account when assessing dues. ( and if you do come across a synagogue who insists that all members pay high dues, then join somewhere else. Join a congregation who will appreciate you for who you are.) I can’t speak for Day Schools or the JCC but most synagogues, the vast majority of synagogues, will accept membership at whatever level the family thinks it can afford. In fact, as readers of this website know, each year more synagogues abandon the dues model to live off of donations alone. More and more no longer adhere to the “pay to pray” model of HHD services.
    But here is the real point. Our institutions have become really experienced in cutting budgets. What we need to enhance now is our revenue stream. This mean seeking the donations that will make a difference in our being able to meet the different missions our institutions seek to fulfill. The key to paying a living wage and meeting the needs of the community is to raise the funds needed to do this. I look to the lay boards and boards of directors to find new ways to reach out to those who can afford to help engage those who can’t afford.
    I don’t think a Jewish community professional thinks they are going to get rich doing this work. I do think that the community does have the obligation to make sure they can pay their bills. Sometimes we do this by reducing the costs to be a part of the community and sometimes we have to make sure they are getting a living wage. How we combine the two is not as important as caring for those who care for our community.

  12. David Glickman says

    Rachel Fadlon writes a cogent and powerful piece on the reality of Jewish communal workers not being able to afford the very services that they provide. It is particularly tragic, because so many of the individuals choose this profession precisely because they believe in the values offered by the institutions they work for — but cannot afford to use. However, what is missing from this article (and other related articles) is that according to the Pew report, 1/3 of American Jews live on a combined income of less than $50k, and 20% live on a combined income of less than $30k. When we look at dwindling affiliation rates and engagement in camps, day schools, etc. — affordability, and dignified ways of being able to pay what families CAN afford should not be overlooked. Affordability is a matter of inclusion, and applies to families working within the Jewish community, and in the general community as well. Jewish social workers, school teachers, firefighters, police officers, etc. should also be able to join synagogues, have kids in day school, and send kids to cam.

  13. Jerry Isaak-Shapiro says

    As many others have written, I’m also grateful to Rachel for kicking off this newest iteration of what, sadly, is a perennial topic among Jewish communal professionals. That our professionals are hard-pressed to participate in organized Jewish life isn’t just ironic; it’s not only a Jewish version of the cobbler’s-children-going-barefoot syndrome. It’s frankly a busha – a disgrace and a shame on our community. With respect, I disagree with those who suggest that we not provide “special” assistance to families because they happen to work within the community; dafka, we should look toward that segment of our population. Hillel’s dictum may be old, but it’s not hackneyed – im ain ani li, me li? If we’re not prepared to reach out to our own, to those who work in and for the entire community, then who will?
    We worked for months – years, really – at The Agnon School (Cleveland) to come up with something that we hope will address at least a part of the issue. Offering a 40% tuition incentive to anyone working in the Jewish community (defining “anyone” will be at our discretion and will utilize the most inclusive understanding of the word – Federated agencies, synagogues, national agencies’ local offices, etc.) is not a panacea (there’s no such thing), but we hope it’s a start. For the (very) few who were concerned that “high-paid” executives and clergy don’t need the assistance: 1) you’re right; 2) many are already enrolling their children in day schools; and 3) many of those who will be eligible for this incentive will return a portion to the school as a charitable donation. But frankly the real target audience is the office worker at the Federation or the case manager at Jewish Family Service or the youth director at the synagogue or the JCC.
    To their credit, our board members didn’t take a lot of convincing – they quickly saw that this could be one of those elusive win-win scenarios we all want: doing right for the those who staff our Hillels and Jewish Homes for the Aged and Community Centers and synagogues; and at the same time, potentially filling some of those “empty seats on the bus” in our day schools. Offering such a substantial tuition credit is certainly an incentive to look at day school with new eyes; it is also a thank you.
    Of course this doesn’t alleviate the need to compensate all of our communal workers appropriately; and we can’t let the “you’re-paid-in-satisfaction” bromide be an excuse for inadequate salaries and benefits. As Rachel and so many others have expressed, the vast majority of us, irrespective of title or position, do what we do because it means something to us beyond the paycheck.

    Jerry Isaak-Shapiro
    Head of School
    The Agnon School

  14. Scott Aaron says

    This has been a great exchange to a very resonant post that many of us can personally relate to and I only want to add two quick points that I didn’t see above.
    1. I am married to a fellow Jewish communal professional so two problematic incomes. Some institutions take this “double mitzvah” in to account when we approach for assistance, some don’t.
    2. I once lamented to a colleague how much I resent having to apply for aid as a communal worker to send my kids to day school and camp and that it felt embarrassing on several levels. She told me to remember that we are doing the work of the community and setting examples of community commitment when we make the effort to participate, and that communal institutions should be honored to have us and doing all they can to help us fiscally. While that advice didn’t reduce the fiscal need issue, it has made signing the aid application a bit easier personally.

  15. Rose Barlow says

    By definition all Jewish communal professionals work for non-profits and many, if not all, of these non-profits believe/perceive that their donors require them to spend mere pennies in the dollar on ‘overheads’ and ‘admin’.

    Time to start educating the donors that ‘overheads’ and ‘admin’ are the human beings, many of them fellow Jews, who serve the donor communities and who have every right to earn a living wage (which includes in that definition access to Jewish pre-schools, shuls, JCC’s, summer camp etc.). Pennies on the dollar needs to become multiples of double digit percentages on the dollar to fund competitive pay for staff (and BTW will attract and retain the best and the brightest – rather than loose then through attrition or slow withering away of talent).

    Note: I deliberately left out Day School attendence because at anything from $18K – $28K per annum of AFTER TAX money, accessibility is a much more complex issue – affecting our community as a whole and not just Jewish communal professionals.

  16. A fellow Jewish communal worker says

    I agree with the points that Rachel has made in her article. I would like to state that while I agree that I cannot fully participate in Jewish life, I also have a difficult time making ends meet in my every day life. In fact, I’ve just taken a second job (on top of my full-time job) so I can pay my mortgage. I do love my job and feel a lot of pride to work in the Jewish community, but I know I will not stay here for long because I cannot afford to do so.

  17. Miriam says

    (Same Miriam who said above that my husband and I are fighting the good fight, and that it comes at a very high price)

    Many, many important points are being raised here. Of course economic inequality is not a uniquely Jewish problem. Of course Jewish communal professionals are not the only people who experience financial stress and cannot afford to participate in aspects of Jewish life. As a Jewish communal professional who is married to a Jewish communal professional, I don’t think my financial problems are unique to me or worse than other people’s—we are hardly below the poverty line and our problems are still ‘first-world’ problems. I can’t come up with the “realistic, equitable, scalable, sustainable, long-term” solution everyone knows we need, but I can throw in my own part to this conversation by sharing my experiences.

    My husband and I are both smart and educated and could have chosen other careers, but we only wanted to work for the Jewish community. Of course we never expected to get rich, and I for one assumed we would need to ask for scholarships from Jewish schools and camps, but I wasn’t expecting it to be like this. Forget membership dues or tuition anywhere, for camp or school—it’s out of the question. We can’t save for retirement or our kids’ college, we can’t make ends meet and we’re tens of thousands of dollars in debt. No one who sees our finances argues with our spending patterns, none of the people whose guidance we have sought thinks we’re irresponsible or overly entitled, and no one can find a way out, other than—make more money. There is no question that our employers would love to pay us more, but the money isn’t there. Our salaries are more than fair by the non-profit standard. It’s too late to change careers; we are both in our 40s and our professional experience is not transferable to the for-profit world. No one here is doing anything wrong. There is no one to blame, except ourselves for making this choice.

    So we ask for, and we receive, enormous “handouts,” we’re blessed with unspeakable generosity from our communal institutions—and we are as riddled with guilt and humiliation as we are grateful. We constantly second-guess ourselves, asking if it’s right to purchase this or that when we take so much from the community. Our experience has NOT taught me that working for the Jewish community is a bad idea—it’s taught me that maybe my heart’s desire shouldn’t have dictated my professional path. Would hating my job be worse, on balance, than feeling like a pauper, or worse than the day-to-day stress we face? It’s too late for me to choose differently, but I can’t deny that I very much hope my own kids don’t make this choice. I want them to share my values and experience fulfillment and pursue their dreams, but I do NOT want them to go through what we are going through. At the beginning of my career, I would scoff when Jewish people would look down their noses at me when I told them what kind of work I did (this happened not frequently, but not infrequently either) because they thought nice Jewish kids should become doctors or lawyers. I couldn’t believe the hypocrisy—didn’t they want the Jewish world to be served by smart, talented people?—but I’ve almost crossed over when it comes to my own kids. Let OTHER smart, talented people go through this. I want to protect my kids from this sort of stress.

    I know it’s just one of the world’s injustices that people in the nonprofit world, many of whom do things that are far more important for humanity than what I do, aren’t compensated financially based on the inherent value of their work. I thought being subject to that injustice would be “worth it” because of how much it means to me, but being trapped in this reality at this stage in life… getting less worth it by the day, and no resolution in sight. I don’t know what that means, for my family or for the Jewish community. It’s just what it is.

    Thanks again, Rachel, for adding to the conversation. I wish I had a solution. I’m thinking there probably isn’t one.