Defining the Jewishness of a Jewish Non-profit

The response to last week’s column raising questions about the Jewishness of a Jewish non-profit organization stimulated a great deal of discussion and response among readers. I would like to begin to define two aspects of the Jewish non-profit organization’s Jewishness. This is not meant to be the definitive statement on the issue but rather to begin a dialogue among those of us involved in Jewish communal life. It is also a recognition of the challenge the definition of the agency’s Jewishness presents to boards of directors, staff members and to the community.

Aspect I – The Mission and Vision of the Non-Profit

The boards of directors of a Jewish organization define its purpose and mission and many agencies have a statement of their mission and vision as part of their by-laws or as a separate document. The mission and vision statement needs to reflect the Jewishness of the organization. The exact focus of the statement is dependent on the function of the organization. For example, if the non-profit is a Jewish day school the mission statement will reflect the school’s purpose in providing a Jewish educational experience. If the non-profit is a Jewish family service it would reflect the organization’s commitment to strengthening Jewish families. In each case the statement encompasses the values and emphasis the organization places on its interest in having an impact on members of the Jewish community.

The mission statement is not a static document. Boards of directors develop and approve the statement given the present needs of the Jewish community and their understanding of what the community will face in the near future. These statements are tools, and as the community develops and the needs change so the board can review and rewrite a mission statement. It is good idea to review the mission and vision of any non-profit organization every 5 or so years. The same would hold true for an agency in the Jewish community.

The process of developing a mission statement should involve various groups in the community including Jewish leaders in the other communal organizations. For example, continuing to use the example of the Jewish day school, there should be consultations with the leadership of the local institutions like Jewish Federation, the Jewish community center, synagogues, etc. People involved in other organizations in the community would be a source of information and potential support for the aims and objectives of the Jewish school as unique part of the Jewish community. Thus, once the mission statement is adopted it will not only reflect the thinking and values of the school’s board but also the values, concerns and commitments of the broader community.

Perhaps the concern for the broader community is also one of the unique aspects of a Jewish non-profit organization. It is not only founded by those people who are committed to its purposes and services but also a reflection of the needs of the community and the desire to strengthen the community as a way of ensuring Jewish continuity. For some agencies it is through education, either formal (the school) or informal (the Jewish community center). For other agencies it is through the provision of mental health services (Jewish family service) or the relationship between the Jewish community and the general community (the community relations council). In each of these areas a concern for the status and growth of the broader Jewish community is an integral part of the statement of its mission and vision.

Aspect II – The Agenda of the Board Meetings

The agenda that guides the meetings of the boards of directors needs to reflect the Jewishness of the non-profit organization. This begins with the calendar that is arranged for meetings of the board and the importance of avoiding conflicts with dates that are important to the Jewish calendar. Whether it be formal religious holidays or dates of significance to the Jewish people (e.g. Crystalnacht; Israeli Independence Day; community wide events; honoring Shabbat) or days where there might be competitive with other Jewish organizations or institutions.

Recognizing the importance of avoiding these conflicts communicates the emphasis placed on strengthening the Jewish community through coordinated efforts. It seems like a small effort to make, however, occasionally it can become a political football that becomes quite divisive. Thinking ahead in terms of the timing of meetings can avoid unnecessary tensions.

Another aspect of the board’s agenda is building in a “Dvar Torah” at the board meetings. When one of the members of the board makes a 5 – 10 minute presentation reflecting on some aspect of Jewish thought and shares it with the board it reinforces the Jewishness of the organization and sets a tone for the quality of the meeting. The idea is built on the premise that the Torah belongs to all Jews and one does not have to be a rabbi to share in the exchange of ideas and Jewish learning.

If the members of the board do not feel comfortable with this idea one of the rabbis or Jewish educators in the community could lead a discussion at a board meeting on writing a Dvar Torah. Of course, it should be someone who is open and supportive of the idea of peer learning and the informal sharing of Jewish ideas. One does not have to have rabbinical training or ordination to exchange ideas and concepts that add to the Jewishness of the organization’s board of directors.

This posting has discussed two aspects of the issue and future postings will explore the implications for the staff and the community. I welcome your responses and your sharing your thinking as we attempt to clarify this complicated and important dynamic in Jewish communal life.

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