Improving the Workplace Experience of Young Jewish Nonprofit Professionals
By Mikah Atkind

Jewish nonprofits hit the jackpot when they hire young, inexperienced professionals. They have brought on individuals who are enthusiastic about the work they are going to be doing, often having themselves been the beneficiaries of that work. They are in the field because their personal values are aligned with those of the organization, all the while knowing that they could be making significantly more money elsewhere. These professionals want to create a great future for their Jewish communities, and are investing their lives in doing so. They want to learn, they want to grow, and they want to lead.

Why is it then, that, as Tobin Belzer describes, young professionals more often feel “disempowered by their positions and dispensable to their organizations”?

As I interviewed seven young, non-managerial professionals in Jewish nonprofits in crafting my capstone project for HUC’s Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management, a dive into the experience of these young professionals in handling conflict, I found that, in line with what Belzer says, entirely positive workplace experiences were the exception, rather than the rule. This is not to say that these professionals did not see their organizations as sources of support and growth, but rather, they see many areas in which their experiences could have been improved. I set out to understand these professionals’ experiences related to workplace conflict but unearthed a variety of concerns.

These professionals generally experienced insecurity and a lack of ownership, beginning at the time of their hiring. Many could not recall if they had ever received an employee handbook, and if they had, had little idea of what was in it. Employee hierarchies were often wishy-washy, and work duties even more so. While professionals were hired on for a certain portfolio, they often found themselves taking on a variety of other roles that they were neither prepared for nor had time for.

Professional protocols and behaviors were frequently ignored. On one occasion, a young program coordinator working for a Jewish organization was called into an indirect supervisor’s office, unbeknownst to her direct supervisor, and reprimanded for several hours. When this professional asked to go to the bathroom to get a tissue and compose herself, she was denied the opportunity to do so. The professional was aware that she had made a mistake in her work, but felt that this interaction only caused her to resent her organization, rather than learn from the experience.

A development professional at another Jewish nonprofit often felt that the open and welcoming nature of his organization led to an overly friendly workplace environment, one that often crossed the line. In discussing the organization’s sexual harassment policy, he said that “the nature of [the organization] and what we were doing and the closeness of the staff … the boundaries were real loose … I learned on the first day that I worked there the way people talked to each other. If you talked to someone that way at Federation, you would be fired, and they were testing the waters with me to see how I would react.”

These examples are not to say that all experiences of young Jewish nonprofit professionals are negative ones. However, if we are going to keep up the ability to recruit young, dedicated individuals, and then keep them on for years to come, eventually turning them into the leadership of the Jewish community, there are three key areas that must be addressed.

  1. Human Resources: So often, organizations skimp on personnel or processes, putting their resources towards mission-based work instead. However, without the stability that strong human resources practices provide, young professionals can tend to feel helpless and unsupported. An investment in values-based onboarding practices and workplace expectations ensures that these professionals feel stable enough to grow in their positions and, ultimately, provide the most benefit to their organizations.
  2. Increased Networking for Young Professionals: As a niche field, Jewish nonprofit professionals often feel that they have few others with whom they share their experiences. By enabling young Jewish professionals to meet and network with others, they develop a web of emotional and professional support, sending positive interactions throughout the Jewish nonprofit world. In the long run, these connections can bring together their organizations, thus strengthening the entire Jewish nonprofit community.
  3. Making Young Voices Count: Some of the most positive experiences from those professionals I interviewed came from the times where they felt like their organization and coworkers valued what they had to say. Some mentioned the inclusion of all employee voices in staff meetings, while others had one-on-one mentorship meetings with their supervisors. In any format, giving young professionals the opportunity to share their voices and make changes in their organizations builds up their self-esteem and further motivates them to continue on in this important work.

Together, these three changes increase a feeling of a stability for young Jewish professionals in their organizations, give them others with whom they can relate and learn, and build their self-confidence and attitudes towards their organizations. These changes could inspire an entire generation of young Jewish professionals to dedicate their professional lives to the field and to make great contributions to the Jewish community.

Mikah Atkind is a third year Joint Masters student in Jewish Education and Jewish Nonprofit Management at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, and the Education Intern at Temple Judea in Tarzana.