The Jewish Communal Service Association of North America is pleased to provide this personal reflection on Jewish communal leadership by Richard A. Siegel, Interim Director, School of Jewish Communal Service, HUC-JIR Los Angeles.
Thoughts on Jewish Communal Service as a Calling
What is Jewish communal service? A career? A profession? A field? A setting? I have been struggling with this question for the past year as Interim Director of the School of Jewish Communal Service at HUC-JIR in LA with the primary responsibility to develop a new strategic plan for the school. What exactly is “Jewish communal service” and how do you educate someone to excel in its practice?
I come to a response out of my own experience which may well be idiosyncratic. Although I received an MA in Contemporary Jewish Studies from Brandeis (before it was called the Hornstein Program in Jewish Communal Service, now Jewish Professional Leadership), my most significant training was as a rabbinical student. While I was never ordained, I nonetheless still felt “called” by the spiritual resonance of Jewish texts and teachings. When I later became a “Jewish communal professional,” I brought with me an underlying conviction that I was involved in sacred work. My community may be different from a congregation, and my tools an annual report rather than a Yom Kippur sermon, but I would not have been able to keep doing the work for as long as I have (now over 30 years) if I did not feel on some fundamental level that I was mediating the holy and the not yet holy.
Most of my career was spent at the National Foundation for Jewish Culture (now simply the Foundation for Jewish Culture), which might be regarded as the epitome of secular Judaism, a Jewish home for those who were not comfortable in the synagogue. I, on the other hand, regarded Jewish culture as but another medium for expressing the indefatigable creativity of the Jewish spirit, another carrier of the pathos, humanity, and yearning of the Jewish people.
So for me, Jewish communal service is more than a profession. It is a “calling” because it calls to me, it speaks to me (in more contemporary language). It is a “vocation,” a term I prefer, in the sense of a compelling vision to which I voluntarily and passionately commit my energies. What is that vision? And does every Jewish professional have to share it or have one equally compelling?
Obviously everyone who works as a professional in a Jewish organization does not have to be motivated by a vision of shaping the contemporary expression of the 4,000 year old Jewish experience. However, anyone who aspires to transform the community, not just administer its services, who aspires to shape its future, not just manage its present, must be motivated by some version of this vision. We – those of us lucky enough to be living right now and right here in this extraordinary moment in Jewish history – have the opportunity to expand and enlarge the Jewish experience, shaped and tagged by our own world view, values, attitudes and practices.
Whether we work in Federations or day schools or community centers or community relations or social services or social justice, we are not just preserving what has come before, we are not just protecting our tiny remnant of a people, we are not just trying to keep the Jewish body alive. Rather, we are proponents of a vision that asserts that these are the best of times for the Jewish people and that we have the extraordinary challenge and privilege to figure out how to flourish in an open society, unfettered by fear, isolation, hostility and suspicion. That is our calling. That is our vocation. That is Jewish communal service.