Being a Professional in the Jewish Community

I have been teaching and working for the Jewish community for more than 40 years. I have been blessed with opportunities that span working with groups at a JCC; being a social worker on the streets in the Bronx reaching out to Jewish youth at risk; directing a Jewish Family Service in North America; teaching at a school of social work and Jewish communal service; representing North American Jewish communal agencies in Israel; and teaching in an international program on nonprofit management in Israel. All of these experiences have been part of my quest to understand what it means to be a professional in the Jewish community and what it means to supervise and train others to fill professional roles in Jewish communal organizations.

First, and foremost, is a commitment to the Jewish people. This is demonstrated by having a concern for the present and future needs of the Jewish people where ever we live, on one hand. On the other hand, possessing a sense of passion about the continuity of the Jewish people through enabling communities, families and individuals to make informed choice as to how they want to live their lives as Jews. The combination of concern and passion with developed professional knowledge and skills become the foundation of the Jewish communal professional.

There are a number of disciplines within Jewish communal service and the list includes, rabbis, cantors, teachers in day schools and afternoon school programs, social workers, health care professionals, staffs of Jewish summer camps, among others. These professionals work in a variety of settings from synagogues, schools, Jewish homes for the elderly, community centers, family service agencies, vocational services, camps, youth movements. The educational programs continue to provide the needed professionals to staff the agencies, organizations and their programs.

In addition to the commitment and passion and the relevant professional training it is crucial for the professional to have a basic set of skills in his field of practice. It is not enough to want to do something for the good of the Jewish people and it is the reason that young people pursue a professional education. Upon graduating with a college degree or an advanced degree many of these people seek appropriate positions in organizations whose purpose reflect the rainbow of issues the Jewish community confronts.

However, frequently the reality they confront does not match the idealism and commitment that motivated them to enter the field of Jewish communal service in the first place. Not infrequently the reality of organizational life reflects contradictions in values and ethics that are not expected within the context of the Jewish community. There are issues that seem to turn these aspiring idealistic professionals away from the Jewish community.

Whether it has to do with inappropriate professional behavior; competition between and among staff members; volunteer leaders who appear to have a conflicts of interest; or policies and practices that are not reflective of Jewish values, to name a few issues that often exist in communal organizations. Young professionals become disillusioned with Jewish communal service and seek other venues for their interest working in organizations. At times beginning professionals identify such issues and seek to pursue them with veteran professionals in their organization. Unfortunately, all too often they are told it is either a waste of time to raise the concerns or they will be risking their future in the organization.

For me, the essence of being a Jewish communal professional is the continual striving to confront the difficult issues and to work with those around us to resolve whatever conflicts we encounter. One of the most important characteristics in the development of Jewish life has been the process of disputation. Our rabbinic tradition developed on the guiding principle of open disagreement for the purpose of achieving unity within the diversity of perspectives, ideas, concepts and ideas. Although it may seem like a contradiction in terms, this process of disputation has been one of the reasons we have remained together as a people and continually maintained our own sense of Jewish Peoplehood.

At a time when our organizations speak of alignment of mission and purpose and seek clarity in the way we interpolate our values into the communities’ priorities, we should be prepared to listen to the voices that question what we do and the way we work. It is not enough for someone to be employed and receive remuneration. The organizations that are included in the umbrella of Jewish communal service must be prepared to not only tolerate the questioning by beginning professionals, but also support and encourage their interest and desire to make a difference as they strengthen the Jewish community.

One of the most salient experiences in my career was when as a young professional working for the Jewish Family Service in New York and Ms Francis Beatman, the Executive Director, z’l, supported my expressing differences of opinion in meetings with other more seasoned agency executives. She continually encouraged me to express my thoughts and share my perspectives that were different than other people attending planning and evaluation meetings. In her mind the expression of difference would only enhance the quality of the discussion and the search for the best solution to the challenges and issues. Through this process she taught me the importance of hearing the voice of difference and supporting it as we build and strengthen our communities and agencies.

During the week of the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America I hope that the young professionals present enjoyed multiple opportunities to share their perspectives, to ask probing questions, and to be perceived as a valued asset to Jewish communal service. As they return to their communities they should be encouraged to do the same and we will all benefit from their passion, commitment and professional skills.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.