Who’s Going to Lead the Jewish Community in the Future?

Most will agree that a critical factor that will determine the future of the Jewish community is the quality of the professionals leading our organizations.

by Avi Rubel

Many Jewish professionals think that there is not enough young talent interested in leading the Jewish community in the coming years. From my vantage point, heading Masa Israel Journey North America, I couldn’t disagree more.

In a recent survey we conducted of Masa Israel participants on post college programs, 441 alumni responded to a question about Jewish professional interest. Of those respondents, 47% said they definitely want to work in the Jewish community, and an additional 40% said they would “potentially consider” a Jewish professional job. The Jewish community has been desperately seeking ways to engage alumni of Birthright Israel; I am happy to report that the percentage of Birthright alumni represented in this sample was 41%. These people are not disappearing – they are investing even more time in their connection to the Jewish community through Masa Israel, and when they return, they are chomping at the bit to get involved.

The data is compelling – many of our graduates are returning to the US eager to get involved in the Jewish community and to explore careers in Jewish communal service. Their experiences in Israel on Birthright and then on Masa are so powerful that they want to get involved in Jewish life full time.

According to a Rutgers University study, and reporting from the Associate Press, approximately 53% of recent American college graduates are either unemployed or underemployed. The trend is no different for those looking to become Jewish professionals. Our alumni desperately want to work for the Jewish community, yet we continue to talk about a leadership vacuum.

Where is the disconnect?

A large percentage of college graduates finish their degrees without a clearly defined career plan. Many Jewish college students major in the social sciences and humanities and often have no clue what kind of job, or even career path, they would like to pursue. Or, if they know what they want to do, they need concrete experience to help solidify their plans and get them started. For many young adults, the time between college and graduate school is critical to acquiring initial career experience and crystallizing a career plan. How can we reach young adults at this critical time?

Take Jenn Handel, who participated on Birthright in 2010 and returned on the ten month Masa Israel Teaching Fellows program the next year. An education major, Jenn taught English in Rishon L’Zion, and planned on returning to the US to teach history. However, she was so excited by her Israel experience that her plans took a turn.

“When Masa Israel Teaching Fellows was finishing, I felt that I wanted to get more involved in the Jewish community and to find a ‘Jewish job.’” But having had no experience at all in the organized Jewish community, she didn’t know with whom to speak, or where to even start to learn more about the professional possibilities. Jenn thinks that a job at a Hillel would be a perfect match, but she has still not found a full time position.

Or look at Hallie Cohn, from Rockville Centre, NY on Long Island. Hallie went to public high school, never went to Jewish camp, and had few Jewish friends growing up. After college she thought she would go to law school. But after participating in Birthright in 2007, she returned to Israel on the WUJS Intern Tel Aviv program. They found her a five-month internship at a law firm in North Tel Aviv doing legal research for two senior partners, the field she planned on pursuing. When Hallie finished her Masa Israel program, she came back to New York still planning on law school, but found that working in a law firm was boring and didn’t have any meaning.

A friend of Hallie’s from the Masa Israel Alumni committee in New York took Hallie to a JDC young leadership event about Jewish life in Kazakhstan. Hallie fell in love with JDC, applied for and was hired as an Executive Assistant to the CFO and COO for Global HR and Administration. She’s been on the job for a few months. Hallie is now considering graduate school in public administration and feels that she is gaining real-world skills to help her advance her career. Her family is thrilled with her career choice. It was unexpected, but they’re happy that she loves what she’s doing and that it will be a career that she loves and not just a job. Hallie now sees herself building a career in the Jewish community.

More organizations need to follow JDC’s example and develop creative programming for this population with an eye toward attracting top future lay leaders and professionals.

I make it a point to meet personally with any Masa Israel graduate who wants to begin professional networking in the Jewish community. I have countless examples of bright, talented, motivated young adults who are hoping to establish careers full of meaning and purpose. Like Jenn and Hallie, many are returning to the US needing a job, wanting to build a career – and many are asking the question: what if I could find a job in the Jewish community?

A significant number of these young adults, who participate in Birthright and then in Masa Israel programs, come from backgrounds without strong Jewish networks, and they have no idea how to explore the possibilities of a Jewish communal career.

As another Birthright and Masa Israel graduate, Cara Walden told me, “Until I did Birthright and then Masa, I always felt unable to connect with Jewish organizations because I didn’t feel that I was Jewish enough for them. Only through my Israel experience did I gain confidence in expressing my Jewish identity, and now I think I am qualified and could fit-in in a job in the Jewish community. ”

Most will agree that a critical factor that will determine the future of the Jewish community is the quality of the professionals leading our organizations. Therefore, we should have a goal to attract and retain “top” talent.

It’s critical to note that while many Birthright and Masa alumni are eager to find a job in the Jewish community, they are young, smart and energetic and many are looking for jobs in a variety of fields. The question for the Jewish community is whether it’s worth investing in attracting more of them to explore Jewish careers. If engaged with and empowered successfully, this population has the potential to add diversity and critical, vibrant new ideas and perspectives to the Jewish community in the future. They’re also a population that feels passionately about Israel and can talk about Israel as “insiders.”

We’ve already invested in them to participate in Birthright and Masa Israel. To leverage that investment, we need to meet them halfway.

If there really is a leadership vacuum in the Jewish community, Birthright and Masa Israel graduates provide a crucial long-term solution.

So, what should the organized Jewish community do about it?

As with most innovative projects in the US Jewish community over the past few decades, private foundations are in the best position to effectively design interventions. More research certainly needs to be done on the population to understand their interests and needs.

However, a few potential ideas that could be implemented include low cost options like job and professional networking fairs. Perhaps more complicated, but also possible, would be the creation of mentoring programs where aspiring Jewish communal professionals would be paired with seasoned veterans.

Even better would be the creation of a fellowship for the best and brightest of these young adults. This could be developed as a kind of junior Wexner Fellowship. Whereas Wexner Fellows have already demonstrated their Jewish leadership and have serious Jewish experience and are in graduate school, this cohort would receive pre-professional development, basic to intermediate Jewish literacy and a variety of other skills and tools. For the brightest and most talented 5-10% of Masa Israel alumni interested in Jewish careers, a fellowship that would set them on a life-long Jewish communal career path would certainly be a worthwhile investment.

A wide range of Jewish communal organizations should also begin systematically recruiting from this population. Masa brought a group of Fortune 500 Talent Acquisition/Human Resources professionals to Israel in 2010 to help us think about how to scale up our internship offerings. Representatives included executives from Citi, Ernst and Young, Delloite Consulting, Cisco and other companies. These professionals were so impressed with post college Masa interns that several representatives hired Masa participants on the spot! “Along with colleagues at many other major U.S. companies, I recognize the value of a Masa Israel internship experience,” said Deb Bertan from Citi. “Here at Citi, we’re always looking for strong candidates with diverse experiences – a Masa Israel internship program is a great way to get international experience on your resume.”

I regularly get requests from these Fortune 500 executives to refer the best and brightest Masa alumni to them. Yet the Jewish community has yet to engage this population in a serious way. We have the opportunity to attract more of these young, energetic talented young adults to Jewish careers or they will find other fields that are easier to penetrate. It’s time for the Jewish community to start investing in them so that they will choose to invest in us.

Avi Rubel is Masa Israel North America Director.

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  1. David says

    This is a fantastic piece on attracting the next generation of Jewish nonprofit leaders. I would caution though that when organizations decide to wake up and put a priority on the points Avi raises, that they do so with care and thoughtfulness. Often times, in my opinion, organizations are quick to jump the gun on a candidate they THINK is amazing, only to find out later, they’re really not ready to be the professional to take the next step. Don’t hire just to hire, hire with purpose! It also wouldn’t hurt Jewish organizations to invest in some of the jobs like Talent Acquisition/HR positions that other big secular organizations have.

  2. says

    If you look at the current young leadership in the Jewish Community, many of them came from the ranks of Hillel’s Steinhardt Jewish Campus Service Corps Fellowship. While the economics made it difficult from Hillel, the next generation of Executive Directors of major agencies will come from that group. Reinvesting in these training programs that enhance Jewish life in the community and for the professional builds and grows Jewish Life.

  3. Dean Bell says

    Thanks to Avi for an important and provocative piece. We have all heard about the lack of future Jewish communal leadership, and he provides some reassuring examples of interested and talented young individuals who fit exactly the profile of people who have entered and may very well enter the workforce as Jewish communal professionals. Often such individuals have done so because of their own personal commitments and interests, and often despite the fact that they have little idea about the opportunities and needs within the community or little support for professional development and nurturing once they begin their communal work.

    I agree about the need for creative programming and networking to serve this group. Avi’s comment about mentoring strikes me as particularly important. At my own institution—Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership—we have had a mentoring program in place in our MA program in Jewish Professional Studies and more recently in our Certificate in Jewish Leadership (offered jointly with Northwestern University). We hear regularly from both students—many of whom are new or mid-career professionals—as well as from the mentors themselves—seasoned professionals—about how exciting and beneficial the mentoring relationship is for both. For younger professionals, there is a real opportunity to discuss issues with a senior colleague and to learn from the mentor’s experiences and insights. Mentoring also affords the opportunity to examine the intersection of personal and professional interests and challenges. And, it provides a remarkable chance to weave the lessons of the classroom with the day-to-day experiences in the workplace. As we have learned, mentoring also benefits the mentor—particularly as many senior professionals have not had many opportunities to engage formally in mentoring and as they themselves are forced to reflect on a range of issues and are exposed to important trends and concerns of younger professionals—who represent a diversity of community voices and perspectives.

    It is unfortunately true that mentoring has often been neglected in the Jewish community—perhaps for lack of time amidst busy schedules, or perhaps simply because it has been seen as a sign of weakness and inexperience. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Without a robust and meaningful culture of mentoring the Jewish community will have difficulty recruiting and retaining future generations of communal professionals and leaders. Investing in these individuals now, through development programs, networking, and mentoring not only makes sense professionally, it is arguably a very Jewish endeavor and a sacred obligation.

    Dean Bell, PhD
    Dean and Chief Academic Officer
    Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership

  4. says

    Avi, thanks for raising this tremendously important issue. Like you, I have many of these meetings with early career professionals, and they fill me with optimism for the future of our community. Over the past several years, I have seen more and more come out of Birthright Israel and MASA, feeling inspired to make their mark on the Jewish community after returning home to jobs in the corporate world that now feel unfulfilling.

    As you know, being excited and inspired is a first step, but to create top-notch leadership, these young people also need tools, resources, and training. At NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation, we believe that one of the ways we can attract (and importantly, retain) the talented individuals in our sector is to invest in them, especially early on in their careers. Starting last year, NEXT began a concerted effort to support, train, and network professionals who are focused on young adult engagement, many of whom are themselves Birthright Israel alumni. Already, we see that this work is having an impact. After convening a number professionals in the Midwest recently for a day of skill-building and networking, one from Kentucky told us that she’s already making serious headway at her organization: “I recently made a presentation to the board about shifting our budgeting and organization focus in the coming years to more young adult engagement and outreach opportunities. I asked them to also change my title and shift job responsibilities so that I can take on this new role full force. To my surprise they were 100% in favor of the change.”

    It’s clear that professional opportunities in the Jewish community are one path toward identity building. For many, the first entry point is as a camp counselor, or congregational school teacher. NEXT is excited about the conversations we’ve already begun with JCCs, youth movements, synagogues, religious movements, and others (like our friends at Spertus, above) about creating and enhancing more of these pathways. I’m personally inspired by the conversations you and I have already had about ways to make it happen through a partnership between NEXT and MASA. These conversations need to grow and continue. If anyone wants to develop more pipelines to involvement and enhance those that exist, call me, email me, tweet me (@Liz_Fisher). Let’s make it happen together.

  5. says


    You describe a challenge that many of us have been discussing and have looked for more effective ways to attract and keep these committed young people for a career in Jewish Communal Service. Our challenge is to “get them while they’re hot” to reach out to them when they are most excited by their experience in Birthright and programs like MASA and engage them in opportunities throughout the Jewish world. One challenge is to keep them as employees after they join us in what is often their first position after college or graduate school. Research shows that our millennials will likely have 4 different careers during their lifetime. Starting their career in an agency within the Jewish community may develop individuals for a career path and provide professionals that remain in varying agencies within the Jewish community; or for those that choose to leave to the for profit world may develop a cadre of lay leaders, many years down the road. In either case engagement as Jewish community with this cohort of young, excited potential professionals provides us with an opportunity we cannot miss.

    It is true that we need appropriate job opportunities and internships; we also need good supervision and opportunities for growth. JCC Association and our network of JCCs throughout North America have begun to bring on a number of these young professionals, but if we are all going to do this right, we will need to allocate the resources to attract, and retain the best.

    One of the challenges is that the list of Birthright participants is not universally accessible to agencies within the Jewish community. If we are going to effectively engage these committed post Birthright individuals we need a coordinated approach to reach them effectively – as potential professionals. Beyond engagement.

    This is a continuing discussion that requires action by all of us. JCC Association is prepared to be a part of the discussion.

    Alan Goldberg
    Vice President, Professional Leadership
    JCC Association