Getting Our Groove Back

by Brenda Gevertz

The publishing industry likes to promote light reading for the beach in summer; slick stories and slim novels that require little thought but provide lots of entertainment. But some topics and some reading simply can’t offer an easy escape. This is a quick story of how the field of Jewish community leadership lost its groove. And, oh yes, how we can have it back.

Any regular reader of eJewish Philanthropy would understandably surmise that the field of Jewish community leadership is in deep trouble, if not a crisis mode. A slightly closer examination of the articles might bring the conclusion that we lack agreement on what should be done or worse, that we do not know what to do. These conclusions are off base. The problems stem not from a lack of creativity or knowledge, but truly in a willingness to confront the realities of what brought us to this situation and investing in what it will take to rise above it.

Jeff Solomon, President of ACBP, is correct that our field is not what it once was. Entering this field, almost 40 years ago, I was excited to earn the 2nd highest salary of any of my peers getting jobs out of a large and prestigious graduate school. The highest salary went to a friend taking a community organizing position at a Jewish Family Service agency. Jewish community agencies could compete and win in hiring the top candidates, not only because of the attractive salaries, but also because our agencies and institutions were at the forefront of innovative programming. We were in that short-lived afterglow of Israel’s ’67 war when Jewish pride was intense; the Jewish counter culture movement (forerunner to the innovation eco-system) was gaining traction and the disparity between social service jobs and other professional positions was relatively small. We were entering exciting and creative positions in which we were expected to bring about change. We had regular supervision, opportunities to participate in professional development conferences, and role models we admired and who took time to mentor us.

Several factors have taken us away from that nourishing support system which kept us in the field inspired and committed to working in the Jewish community. Certainly the economic downturn in the 80s with its subsequent layoffs and hiring freezes was a contributing factor. Conference attendance and professional development budgets were easy targets and they remain so. Regrettably, the entrance of more women into our workforce often wrongfully resulted in lowering pay scales. Many talented women left the field when they hit a glass ceiling or the inability to work part-time. Hiring local or available talent to take jobs at lower compensation often resulted in filling positions with employees lacking requisite skills or knowledge. Reduced staffing curtailed supervision and then, in time, the employment of individuals lacking training in supervision simply undermined the potential use of this effective tool.

The Jewish Communal Service Association – once known as The Conference of Jewish Communal Service  – was both a contributor and victim of the demise of the Annual Professional Conference which brought several hundred participants together for learning, networking and celebrating our field. Various sectors became silos for job-specific training and conferences, closing off avenues for career building and sharing across fields of service within the Jewish community. Not that long ago, the cross-fertilization among the community’s various sectors was commonplace.

At one time, many Federation executives began their careers in camping, became BBYO directors and then moved into JCCs. They earned a Master’s degree and built their skills and knowledge of the community. By the time they rose to top levels of management they had a good sense of what it took to work with lay leadership, supervise staff, manage budgets and collaborate with their colleagues. Today we marvel at companies such as Fed Ex and Disney as profitable and creative employers that require their management to experience jobs on all levels of the organization – but we also had our own diverse preparatory system and abandoned it.

While other fields and segments of the nonprofit sector became more attractive, raised salaries and recruited top talent, the Jewish community was losing ground. The openness of North American society enabled Jews to enter virtually any field without discrimination and, reflecting larger societal patterns, the disparity between nonprofit and for-profit jobs grew enormously.

This litany of negative forces might lead one to conclude that we are in a hopelessly downward spiral with few options. This is simply untrue.

Over the last several years, we can thank birthright Israel, a scarcity of good jobs in the broader community and the invigorated social justice movements with helping to bring many talented individuals to our agencies and start-ups. As community organizations and institutions continue to struggle with shrinking budgets, we are seeing a handful of Jewish foundations and organizations investing in building our talent pools. As both David Edell and Lyn Light Geller have pointed out, we have some solid ideas of what can be done to strengthen our workforce. And there is evidence of success.

While passionate discussions continue on whether or not “outside” talent is good for the Jewish community’s leadership, the fact that we can attract such talent is a healthy sign. It helps that our missions and values are strong and that top positions are paying competitive salaries. Whether our newest leaders – either internal or external candidates – will be able to succeed will ultimately depend upon their knowledge, skills and, most certainly, the support they receive. These same factors should be enforced at every level: a strong adherence to mission and values, competitive salaries, knowledge, skills and support.

We only need to look at such organizations as Hillel, BBYO, and the Foundation for Jewish Camp to see that it is possible to raise the standards for service and significantly impact systems. Setting standards and providing incentives for education and training not only create the expectation of excellence, they infuse a sense of pride and commitment to the work. Opportunities for networking build collegial relationships which, in turn, develop the support networks that lead to greater job satisfaction and collaboration. Coaching and mentoring – investing in our talent – will deepen the bench which appears bare now.

The Jewish community has a history of responding well to crisis and perhaps we have finally reached the point at which we collectively say it is worth our attention and resources to address our workforce problems. Simply stated, we and our future generations require excellent leadership. Why would we settle for anything less?

Brenda Gevertz is Executive Director of Jewish Communal Service Association of North America.