After Leading Edge, Best Practices for Engaging Millennial Jewish Professionals
By Oz Fishman and Samantha Levinson
The Pew Survey of 2013, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” shook our community and its institutions. It was a wakeup call for all of us to take a good look at the kind of Jewish life that exists and what that looks like into the future.
Recently, another study was published by Leading Edge, called, “Are Jewish Organizations Great Places to Work?” with less fanfare than the Pew Survey, but with implications as far-reaching.
Leading Edge focuses on the human capital piece and asks the question: what is the experience like for the people who are building our communities as their careers?
The framing of the question here is both a question of history and of philosophy. In the United States, we have built our communities around institutions: federations, synagogues, Jewish Community Centers, and more. And, as American Jews have secularized, these institutions have needed to find new ways to engage community members primarily through programming – a strategy that is human-capital intensive.
The survey gave us the raw data and we urge you to check it out. We’re writing this piece to offer a personal vantage point to the numbers, and maybe even a glimmer of hope or part of “where do we go from here?”.
But first, a little background about why this survey is so important to us. A little over seven years ago we were elected the international co-presidents of BBYO, the world’s largest Jewish teen movement. After high school, we spent the year traveling to Jewish communities across North America and the globe as “teen communal engagers and managers” of sorts, working alongside teens and professionals to build strong, enterprising, and innovative Jewish communities. The goal was to create an interconnected, interdependent network of Jewish teens leading a sea of change in Jewish life.
Two years ago, as we were getting ready to graduate college we started discussing next steps – what did we want our impact to be? Where was our energy needed? What debts had gone unpaid? We kept returning to the million dollars invested collectively in the two of us by Jewish philanthropists between day schools, summer camps, and scholarships. Though we didn’t have a lot of money, we did have time – and that’s what we decided to pay forward to the community that gave us so much. So we applied for JDC Entwine’s Global Jewish Service Corps.
Over the past two years, Samantha has been working through Junction – a partnership of the Schusterman Family Foundation, JDC, and Yesod – to empower young European Jews to build community and Jewish life in their own image. Oz spent a year working for the Jewish community in Argentina, helping build up BBYO across Latin America, and today works in JDC’s Jerusalem offices working on projects that enable the organization to be more agile in its response to Israel’s biggest social challenges.
Today, we’re standing on the precipice of what we hope will be a long career as Jewish professionals helping to shape the next generation of Jewish life. When we read the Leading Edge Study, we saw a lot of those statistics illustrated in our own experiences. We’re the product of every innovation North American Jewry has tried with millennial Jews and we’ve gone through the pipelines we all work to strengthen, but we still feel like there’s a piece missing.
Young Jews might say that many legacy institutions don’t reflect their values, that they don’t feel spoken to by the traditional avenues of participation, and that secularization makes practice feel less relevant. We want to put forth the idea that if all the big dogs playing in the field turned to building strong Jewish talent that had the leverage to make some big changes, many of those problems might disappear.
Between the two of us, we’ve seen Jewish professional life on four continents, and we can say that our peers make similar observations. Though we are young, we hope we can take this chance to share with you all our hopes for what our lives as Jewish professionals could be like.
First, strong institutions are dependent on strong professionals. And strong professionals require not only a financial investment but management that actively demonstrates that they care about their employees. There is a large investment in lay leadership and cultivating donors for large institutions, but not enough in grooming Jewish professionals or making those positions look like attractive career options. We need the continual investment in lay leadership, but we also need to think about who that lay leadership will work alongside. We can name tons of sleeping giants out there, who grew up with us, who love being Jewish and are leaders in their fields, but ran from Jewish institutional life as soon as they could because they didn’t see a future for themselves professionally.
Second, we want to debunk the myth that Judaism or working for a Jewish organization isn’t “cool” or “relevant.” In the same way that identity has overtaken our political landscape, the search for meaning has dominated the social sphere. People are looking to connect and value their Judaism. This seems silly to say out loud, but unfortunately it’s not totally obvious: there are plenty of “cool” people who would take Jewish jobs tomorrow if the conditions were right – and the fact of the matter is that many of them are in much less “cool” jobs where they don’t find meaning.
The assumption that our lack of participation is for lack of caring is a dangerous fallacy that will put institutions at risk for running out of talent and selling themselves short. The reason why young Jews don’t aspire to be community professionals is because it hurts so much to see the institutions we love not grow up with us as our values change. This might sound like a dog whistle for Israel but it’s not, necessarily. We want an inclusive place to meet a significant other. We want Judaism to be compatible with all aspects of our lives and paint our priorities living in a secular world. We want Judaism to be a place where we can find ourselves and help build identity. We want Judaism to fill our lives with purpose and give us tools for making a better world. We want Judaism in the tough times and the good times. We want a Judaism that grows with us, that listens to us, that welcomes us, and that feels as dynamic as we are.
The talent is out there – we’ve met them, they’re just waiting for you to ask them to join you at the table. So what does that ask look like?
- Give us as much space as possible to be fulfilled. 57% of American millennials place fulfillment as their #1 priority in choosing a career. If you come to work in Jewish life, you do it because it’s close to your heart. So we would hope that our employers would help us to find room for that fulfillment as much as possible. Maybe that’s doing direct service more often, or getting a designated percentage of our hours for a pet project. Young Jews today were born with “Tikun Olam” as the spine of their Jewish identity – so give us a chance to live and lead with our values.
- Teach us and nurture us. The trajectory of our careers will be different than those of our parents. While they may have studied something super-specific, worked in that field for most of their careers, and then retired, we might repeat that cycle every 5-10 years. We will spend every moment of our careers learning and planning for the next step. The more chances we have to learn and have someone to guide our professional journey, the more likely we are to stay working in Jewish life. We need to see a future for ourselves in you, and if it doesn’t exist then take the time to dream with us.
- Make room for innovation and disruption. Even the largest of tech giants today have managed to build an organizational framework that is both horizontal enough to encourage innovation but structured in a way that rewards success with advancement. Nothing turns young people off more than inefficiency, and nothing kills an organization faster than preventing new talent from refreshing the system. It will take a lot of patience and a lot of restraint from senior management – seasoned over a lifetime of hard work and dedication – to make that space, but if they manage to pull it off, our community will see another generation of renewal and rejoice and in Jewish life. Let’s not see the disruptors as subversive, but rather welcome the fresh perspective they can bring.
- Yes, the number on your paycheck is important. As much as all of the above are key, you can’t talk about improving the state of Jewish professional life without talking about salaries, especially when Jewish professional work is concentrated in some of the most expensive cities in America. At the end of the day, the number of your paycheck not only determines your quality of life but is also a reflection of your employer’s investment in your well-being. Many of our friends from college have taken high-paying jobs across different sectors. And when we speak to our peers or go out with them to dinner, the idea of spending a lifetime being the only person who eats at home before the dinner party will end up pushing us away from choosing a career in Jewish life. Nobody is trying to get rich off Jewish professional work, but if the work we’re doing really is critical to our community, our compensation should reflect that.
Six years ago, we delivered a speech to hundreds of our peers at BBYO’s International Convention in Atlanta Georgia. We said, with the same conviction as today, that being a leader in BBYO inherently meant that they were leaders of the Jewish people. Today we hold this to be true for our roles and for our colleagues – being a great Jewish professional inherently means being a shaper and guarantor of the Jewish community today and tomorrow.
It’s time we, as a community, think critically and then strategically invest our time and resources in who we want these holders of faith to be and what we want their experience to look like. Millennial professionals are known to be enterprising, creative, nimble, and deeply thoughtful. For Jewish institutions wrestling with what the next step might be or how to keep their mission relevant in a rapidly-changing world, we are a workforce that wouldn’t be overlooked. As young Jews and fledgling professionals, we want to be your partners in creating a new generation of community professionals who will lead us into the future.
Part of that has begun with a virtual speaker series we’ve put together for our peers in the JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps – 20-30 young adults who will overwhelmingly choose Jewish life as their career paths. We’re inviting the all-stars of our community to get on a video chat with us and tell us what keeps them going. What keeps them in the field? What’s their vision for our people’s future, what challenges stand in our way, and what role do they see for young people like us in all of it.
This is our first small step in changing what it means to be a Jewish professional – but there’s so much left to do. So, what do you say? Will you join us? Let’s build what’s next, together.
Oz Fishman and Samantha Levinson, both 24, live and work respectively in Tel Aviv and Budapest. This is their first co-authored piece.