A “Must Read” List Is the Start of Something Bigger

Despite my leadership positions as executive director of a synagogue, vice-president of a federation, and executive director of a major Jewish foundation, the communal structure in which I work does not confer on me bona fide professional status.

by Chip Edelsberg

Last week, eJP invited the community to identify ten “must reads” for Jewish communal leaders. For this, I say thank you.

During more than two decades of having the privilege to work in the Jewish community, I have maintained a list of sources I routinely rely on to guide my “professional” practice.

I say “professional” because truth be told, despite my leadership positions as executive director of a synagogue, vice-president of a federation, and executive director of a major Jewish foundation, the communal structure in which I work does not confer on me bona fide professional status.

Why? Well, there are the matters of a body of content that a professional is responsible to study and master; essential work-related skills to acquire; research into the work practices commonly found in Jewish organizations; requirements for continuing education; certification for advanced training; a communally accepted code of conduct; and on it goes … all of which are lacking or entirely absent from the standard employment qualifications and formal performance requirements that my peers and I encounter.

With these inherent limitations, identifying the “top ten books list that all modern Jewish leaders should read” is something I honestly cannot contribute to with any degree of confidence.

What I can do, by contrast, is to identify texts I recurrently use to inform, guide and inspire me. In fact, I have been compiling an annotated list of 36 such sources in the hope that some day I will feel sufficiently comfortable with my choices to share them with the field. My notion has been all along that if and when I were to do so, it would be in the context of serious conversation about professionalizing the field of Jewish communal work.

This is not that moment. But I dream that eJP’s challenge to readers to start this discussion might spill over, eventually, into discourse about whether or not the thousands of us who serve the Jewish community should be expected to work with its stakeholders to create a true profession.

As part of that process, I offer a peek, for what it is worth, into the literature that is deeply woven into the fabric of my everyday work. These books are definitive in a fashion, to me. Some of them stand as widely-accepted seminal contributions to the field. All are written by accomplished, notable experts. Typically, the books are abundantly referenced around their time of publication and then routinely so as time passes.

Most importantly to me, these books are ones with the best ideas, lessons, theories, discoveries, recommended techniques and behaviors that I find stand above others in helping to make me the “professional” I am. Each gets richer with multiple readings. (I owe a debt of gratitude to Rabbi Larry Hoffman for his One Hundred Great Jewish Books, both for the criteria he used for the selection of the top 100 and for the book list itself).

One more prefatory comment: I group my best books into three categories: 1) all things Jewish, 2) the independent sector and 3) everything else. In the last category, I am constantly searching for books whose authors’ imagination, ingenuity, scholarship, and creativity ignite in me a passion for excelling, professionally (!).

Two books, then, from each of the three categories, that I would want my colleagues to read and study and discuss with peers who manage and lead Jewish organizations are as follows (I am excluding books from my listing that appeared in the original eJP posting entitled “Crowdsourcing: What Should We Be Reading?“):

All Things Jewish

The Jew Within, by Steven M. Cohen and Arnie Eisen, is a book that during the last 13 years I find myself going back to time and again to understand the complicated interplay of the Jewish self, family and community. Published in 2000, Cohen and Eisen persuasively documented a profound shift in Jewish American identity in post-modern America and presaged a future of even greater dynamism and variability in one’s construction of his or her Jewish self.

Community Polity, by Daniel Elazar, masterfully describes the exceptionally complex organization of the Jewish community. Elazar’s “encyclopedic” work (as Rabbi Hoffman aptly describes it), published first in 1976 and updated in 1995, is an indispensable map of the organization of the Jewish communal world.

(My other “all things Jewish” books of choice include ones on the history of the Jewish people, Israel, Zionism, the Holocaust, and classical texts from our illustrious canon.)

The Independent Sector

The Foundation, by Joel Fleishman. Virtually every aspect of the Jewish communal enterprise interacts with philanthropy. Fleishman’s narrative provides critical insight into the influence of foundation philanthropy and the expanding role that private wealth plays in the social sector’s well being.

Managing for Accountability, by Kevin P. Kearns, is one of countless books on advancing excellence in not-for-profit management. I find that Kearn’s laser focus on accountability and his comprehensive treatment of it distinguish it as an authoritative source to which I refer time and time again.

(While the literature in this category is not as rich as that in “All Things Jewish,” it is voluminous. I look for books written by credentialed individuals whose well-established expertise in analyzing social sector phenomena reveals critical information I need to learn and to understand if I want to excel in what I do.

Everything Else

Daniel Goleman’s Working with Emotional Intelligence is a work I regularly consult – 15 years after its publication. It is a landmark book, steeped in research and full of sound guidelines for practical applications to practice across a myriad of settings.

Kathyrn Schulz’s Being Wrong is one of the newer books on my list. It is a brilliant exposition on the thesis that “the relationship we cultivate with error affects how we think about and treat our fellow human beings.” One of Schulz’s startling insights is her dissection of the error that has given rise to the centuries old stereotype of the juif errant – wandering Jew. Schulz’s insights are profound and the ideas for practice emanating from them actionable.

(This third category is obviously unbounded. Typically, books that I choose for it are found in places far afield from categories #1 and #2. These select books awaken in me an entirely new way to view or to conceptualize some fundamental dimension of my work, and the “illumination” sticks with me for years.)

Again, I would never claim these books are the end-all-be-all for everyone’s “must read” list. But their persistent influence on how I think and react and approach workplace challenges puts them on a list of “important and indispensable” for me.

Following eJP’s lead, we could transition this open-ended conversation into a studied examination of what it takes to professionalize the field. Developing comprehensive lists of bodies of content is a fine place to start. However, sustained, collective efforts are needed if we want to seriously undertake the long-term effort of building a bona fide field of Jewish communal professionalism. If we begin that process, we may actually change the field and the “professionals” who manage and lead our Jewish organizations.

Chip Edelsberg, Ph.D., is Executive Director of the Jim Joseph Foundation.