Education for Practice in Jewish Communal Service

We are in the month of June when university students are graduating from their baccalaureate and master degree programs. There was a time when the entrance degree to organizations in Jewish communal service was a social work degree and preferably an M.S.W. However, it has been years since that was the union card required to enter a Jewish communal organization. Over time educational institutions of higher learning granted degrees in Jewish communal service, management of Jewish nonprofit organizations, and programs that focused on public policy and governance. The field of Jewish communal service has become more and more open to focusing on who the person is, rather than what degree he or she holds from which university, and on how the educational experience prepared the graduates to work in their organizations. Employers want to know whether the graduates have clarity about what it means to practice their profession in the field of Jewish communal service.

Commencement is the term used for the graduation ceremony at most universities. When we look at the meaning of the word, we find that its synonyms are “start, beginning, inauguration” and its antonym is “end.”

It seems paradoxical that a ceremony designed to acknowledge the successful completion of a university degree-granting program would be referred to as a beginning. Yet I maintain that this is appropriate, and particularly so, for educational programs that prepare people for professional practice. When the student completes the program and becomes a graduate, he or she is then prepared to begin professional work in the selected field.

When graduates of one of the recognized programs for professional education and training focused on the Jewish community or of those for general professional development enter the field, they are beginning a new phase of their career, no matter their age or previous experience. The graduate may be a young adult completing a BA or MA degree or a midcareer professional who has decided to go back to school after a number of years working for a Jewish organization and has earned an advanced degree: both are “beginners.” The young adult just starting out will be looking for a first job in the Jewish community, and the more senior professional will be looking for new opportunities and experiences having completed a second or third degree. Each one will be encountering and engaging with a process of new beginnings.

The organizations that are now interviewing and selecting new staff members or considering giving a veteran staff member a new position after the person has completed an advanced degree are also engaged in a new process. It is very important for both the organization and the graduate to have consistent and appropriate expectations of each other. When the new graduate begins working, the executive and the supervisor must understand that they have not hired a finished product but rather are providing a novice with an opportunity to use what he or she has studied and learned. If these new professionals or returning veterans who have completed a second degree are able to engage with the organization with clarity as to their use of professional self, then the university educational experience will have been successful.

Of course, some graduates will be more knowledgeable, skillful, and sophisticated than others, and employers should shape and mold employment opportunities that meet both the needs of the organization and the abilities of the employee. The efficacy of the educational experience is judged by how the graduates have been prepared the future professional responsibilities they will assume when they begin or resume working in the field. If they are able to demonstrate their use of professional self, then the university educational experience will have been prepared them for practice in Jewish communal service.

The learning process of becoming a professional does not end with graduating; instead, it is just beginning. When both the employer and the graduate understand this concept, then the transition from university student to agency employee can be smoother and more productive.

When professional education and training programs have focused on preparing graduates for practice, then those professionals will enter or re-enter the field with a strong sense of their professional identity and a desire to consciously use of themselves in their respective roles in the Jewish community. One hopes that the agencies that employ these people will also have clarity about positively exploiting their knowledge, skills, and passion to make a difference in the field of Jewish communal service.

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.