Creating a New Model of Jewish Professional Leadership

Jewish professionals are today contending with an array of institutional and structural challenges.

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

On February 8th the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion will formally dedicate the Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management. The changing character of the nonprofit sector in general and the Jewish communal field in particular affords the Zelikow School a unique opportunity to prepare future Jewish professionals with the necessary skill-sets to lead and to manage 21st century institutions. In formally announcing this multi-million gift provided by Marcie and Howard Zelikow, Dr. Aaron Panken, the President of HUC-JIR, commented:

“There are young leaders at federations and organizations around the country that are looking to become the next generation of Jewish leadership. And we will be the organization that will allow them to learn the management skills that they can take back into their own communities,”

Setting the Context:

The founding of the Hebrew Union College’s School of Jewish Nonprofit Management (originally established in 1968 as the School of Jewish Communal Service) would represent the continuation of an idea that Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise had envisioned in the late 19th century.

This concept would be actualized by Wise’s successors, when in 1913 HUC launched in partnership with the United Jewish Charities of Cincinnati and the University of Cincinnati the first such training initiative. While that enterprise would fail, the New York Kehilla Project would sponsor in 1915 a “school of Jewish communal work” offering in-service training programs and individual extension courses for professionals serving the Jewish community of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

This abortive effort would be followed in 1925 with the founding of the Graduate School for Jewish Social Work, committed to offering over the next fifteen years Jewish leadership training. In 1947 the Training Bureau for Jewish Communal Service was established to conduct a study of the status of the field, and more specifically, to make recommendations calling for the creation of a training centers for Jewish professional education. In 1951 Yeshiva University would establish the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, building upon the recommendations as provided by the Training Bureau.

In 1964, HUC-JIR would initiate its own feasibility study that would give impetus to the eventual founding of the School of Jewish Communal Service four years later. In the words of its founder, Gerald Bubis, “This School could not have been created at another time or in another place.” The urgency for such a training program would be directly tied to two principle factors: the post-1967 Six Day War which would generate a new Jewish communal consciousness and the emergence of the Western United States, in particular its anchor cities as centers of Jewish growth and innovation. Other the years that followed other such professional training programs would be created across the United States.

The School’s success and uniqueness would be tied to Bubis’ creative genius. Initially, the School’s curriculum was built around a Certificate Program, consisting of two summers and the completion of 20 credits. From the outset, Bubis envisioned a School that could offer other services to Los Angeles agencies and organizations that would include “seminars, institutes, lectureships, staff training programs, and leadership training for lay people.”

He would write in 1971:

Balance was sought between the pragmatic and the idealistic; the cognitive and the emotive, the ideals of the Jewish community and the realities of the community. There was an attempt to begin with the contemporary and move back through time in trying to understand (a) the Jewish individual and his family; (b) the intellectual and ideological issues confronting him as a Jew and as an American, and (c) the community instruments which the Jew has created to encapsulate his values, meet his needs, and discharge his communal obligations.”

In designing this program, Jerry would find a willing partner, the University of Southern California. What emerged would represent one of the most unique intellectual and institutional partnerships in higher education. For this experiment to succeed, Jerry would align his commitment to the discipline of social work with his desire to strengthen and give definition and focus to the emerging field of Jewish communal service. Over the course of his nineteen-year tenure as the School’s director, he would remain committed to an interactive learning model, where he challenged students to uncover their own educational insights and professional talents and capacities. Bubis would demand a level of competency not only of others but even more of himself. This trait can be seen most clearly in the way he presented himself. He would be a pioneer in the defining of the many trends and social patterns of the second half of the 20th century.

He embraced the principles of mutual respect and diversity as he framed this School to embrace students from all different Jewish religious and cultural backgrounds. The School would symbolize the College-Institute’s outreach across denominations and reflect its commitment of service to the larger the Jewish communal network. Bubis would reference Rabbi Stephen Wise’s appeal decades earlier that Jewish professionals must cease being parochial in order to understand the universal imperative embedded within Jewish tradition.

The academic partnership with the University of Southern California and other institutions of higher education, including the School of Social Work at Washington University, would have its origins in the mid-1970’s. The SJCS would grow its academic connections with USC, adding at different times over a twenty-five year period, dual degree agreements in public administration, gerontology, communications management, and business administration, in addition to sponsoring a joint-degree in Jewish education with the College’s Rhea Hirsch School of Jewish Education and in providing opportunities for HUC-JIR rabbinic students to likewise benefit from the School’s professional offerings.

Core to the school’s unique and defining program has been its fieldwork internship requirement, a lay mentorship program, a capstone project, and an Israel seminar experience. Yet, as the field has changed, the School under the direction of it current director, Richard Siegel, would adjust its program content, reflecting the integration of nonprofit best practices and leadership studies into the framework of Jewish professional practice. In more recent times, the School would add additional course options including such classes as Jews and American Popular Culture; Conflict, Civility and Community in the Talmud; and Jewish Nonprofit Management in the Digital Age. In 2010, reflecting these broader social and structural changes taking place within the Jewish world, the College-Institute would approve renaming SJCS as the “School of Jewish Nonprofit Management.”

The New Communal Realities:

Jewish professionals are today contending with an array of institutional and structural challenges, prompting a rethinking of how programs such HUC-JIR’s Zelikow School ought to recruit and prepare its next generation of leaders. Among the basic trends that are impacting Jewish life include:

  1. The decline of the Legacy System of the Grand Jewish Organizations and in turn, the emergence of a form of Boutique Judaism, highlighting alternative forms of religious and communal institutional expression.
  2. Shift from centralized governance in Jewish life to distinctive focus on localized management, leading to a decline in Jewish global participation and engagement.
  3. The end of shared communal ideology, replaced by a set of competing ideas and alternative institutional models.
  4. The growth of a Culture of Experimentation, where different forms of social and structural expression are being embraced.
  5. The emergence of a Culture of “Free” featuring new forms and models of affiliation and participation.

Among the core outcomes of this new Jewish civic culture one finds the following:

Consumer Dominance: Where once institutions set the standard of practice, today individuals are driving the market. The Jewish consumer is today shaping the communal marketplace, reflecting the general social environment.

Social Networking: Today, virtual communications has replaced traditional modes of engagement. The full impact of this technology revolution is altering not only individual behaviors but also how institutions access and engage their constituencies.

Privatized Judaism: We are in the midst of a revolutionary transition as services, programs, and resources are being privatized. A growing portion of the Jewish enterprise will be provided not by communal institutions but through a privatized set of offerings. The “selling” of modern Judaism may represent the single most significant factor in shaping the new Jewish culture and its economy.

From One, Many: The Explosion in Choice: In many of the substantive areas of Jewish life, where we once experienced a narrow set of institutional options, today we are increasingly offered an array of organizational choices, available to us through new institutions and on-line services. In such arenas as Israel, arts and culture, social justice, and religious expression, this new Jewish culture must be seen as robust and diversified.

The Emergence of a Jewish Aristocratic Class: As a result of the concentration of wealth and the corresponding emergence of family and community foundations designed to manage these philanthropic resources, we are seeing a disproportionate amount of funding being generated from a relatively small donor base within the Jewish community. A new aristocratic class is increasingly identified with underwriting both the legacy system and the emerging boutique community. The dramatic shift from “umbrella” funding to targeted giving has been the financial engine driving this new Jewish cultural paradigm.

These and other social trends will contribute to the reconfiguration of the communal enterprise, and in turn impact the skill-sets required of our next generation of Jewish leaders.

Framing a Response:

In this changing environment, Jewish organizations are in search of new professional leaders to guide and engage our community. The Zelikow gift will allow HUC-JIR to increase its local offerings while experimenting with hybrid learning platforms across the campuses of the College-Institute, and beyond.

The School will be able ‘to go global’ – creating opportunities for HUC-JIR’s students in Cincinnati, New York and Jerusalem. We are going to take this program, which has been a fantastic program for the L.A. region, and we are going to expand it and see how we can make hybrid programs that combine online learning with classroom settings,” noted Dr. Panken.

Speaking about this new initiative, Marcie Zelikow stated: “We want to educate the next generation of Jewish nonprofit professionals, and we want to turn out rabbis and cantors that have training in nonprofit management.”

Writing in the 1990’s, Bubis would reflect a similar theme when he observed:

My plea is for a visionary boldness in exploring the parameters of training. …Unless a serious education program can be envisioned and implemented on a global basis the essential difficult and sometimes confounding issues facing the Jews will find few staff as serious players in evolving strategies to deal with them.”

Today, we are a different people, entering a new place in our ancient story. This investment in Jewish professional education represents an important step in what must be a national initiative to train a new generation of professionals who will lead the revolution in Jewish institutional and civic change.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. Steven served as the director of HUC’s Communal Service Program from 1995-2005.