Hillel U: Democratizing Professional Development to Strengthen the Jewish Sector

All our efforts to build a cadre of more and better leaders will remain insufficient unless our sector addresses a significant blind spot in our approach.

By Adina Danzig Epelman

The Jewish nonprofit sector has seen numerous investments in selective, high quality leadership programs for its top professionals over the years. Like those in the private sector, these investments are based on the high return that substantial investments in “high potential” professionals can have on organizational success. But, despite substantial investments in leadership development, the lack of skilled leaders to fill top positions in the Jewish nonprofit sector has caused concern for decades and remains a challenge today. Efforts to address the problem have led to renewed investments in leadership development as well as new approaches, such as the groundbreaking creation of Leading Edge.

However, all our efforts to build a cadre of more and better leaders will remain insufficient unless our sector addresses a significant blind spot in our approach. While we have seen investment in selective leadership programs over the years, our sectorlike the nonprofit sector more broadlyhas underinvested in the development of all professionals. By neglecting the importance of creating an environment in which all employees’ continual learning and growth is embedded in organizational systems and cultures, I believe we have undercut the impact even the best leadership programs can have. Strengthening the nonprofit sector – Jewish and beyond – requires not only good leadership, but also workplaces that support all employees’ continued learning and growth.

The original Bridgespan study that led to the birth of Leading Edge found that most Jewish nonprofits – like other nonprofits – do not offer their employees sufficient professional development and job-integrated learning opportunities. Fund the People makes the case that more and better professional development are key ingredients to increasing the impact of nonprofits in general. Many Jewish nonprofits are service oriented; like companies in the service industry, our sector’s “product” is our people.

It has pained me to witness over the years the professional neglect of passionate, early career, new professionals within some of our Jewish nonprofit organizations. Often, these new professionals report to supervisors who have had no management training, and who are not equipped with the skills to motivate, empower and develop others. Many early career professionals have entered the sector with a passion for building Jewish life, only to leave the sector frustrated by the lack of opportunities to grow professionally.

One year ago, Hillel International launched Hillel U, which emerged from Hillel’s new, deep commitment to investing in its talent. Indeed, “Recruiting and Developing Talent” is the first of three pillars defined in Hillel International’s strategic plan. We know that our ability to impact students rests upon the quality of our professionals.

The concept of Hillel U was designed as a comprehensive professional development initiative for every one of the 1,200 Hillel professionals around the globe – across roles, levels of experience, professional background and geography. No other Jewish organization or movement has ever endeavored to create such a comprehensive approach up and down the full spectrum of professional roles.

When we first conceived of the idea of Hillel U, some cautioned us that we were starting too big, and that we should focus on a smaller, specific segment of our professional population. But core to the establishment of Hillel U has been our commitment to every Hillel professional’s continued growth and development. While we continue to invest in selective leadership programs for high potential employees, our selective leadership programs are part of a broader professional development strategy. We are committed toand we are beginning to realizeour vision of engaging every Hillel professional in at least three quality professional learning experiences every year.

While we haven’t yet fully built out Hillel U, our successes in the first year are notable. Last year, we launched Hillel U’s Center for Jewish and Israel Education (CJIE) as the central and largest area of learning for Hillel U. In the first six months following CJIE’s launch, nearly 300 Hillel professionals from 115 Hillels engaged in one or more Jewish learning experiences (over and above the hundreds of professionals who engage in learning at our movement-wide conferences).

In the Management and Leadership arena, we developed and launched the Leonard and Tobee Kaplan Supervisory Leadership Program. The three-month program reflects best practices in adult learning, blending cohort-based, in-person learning with online sessions, hands-on job-related assignments and reflection. While the program is open only to those supervising a full-time professional, it is not a selective program. We aim to get every supervisor through the program, so that we can elevate the norms of talent management across our movement and ensure that more and more local Hillels are great places to work. The program has resulted in statistically significant improvements in participants’ key management skills. In the first year, 110 Hillel supervisors completed the program, representing roughly 1/3 of all Hillel supervisors in the movement. We aim to reach the rest in the coming years.

Importantly, Hillel professionals across roles, ages and stages have taken notice of the increased investment in their learning. Within six months of Hillel U’s launch, our employee engagement survey showed a six percent improvement in scores in the Learning and Development area. Many Hillel professionals have conveyed their appreciation for working for a movement that invests in them. Some professionals who originally viewed Hillel as a short-term stop on the way to a different career have shared that they are so thrilled by the learning opportunities as a Hillel employee, they now envision building a long-term career with Hillel. And it is from these inspired, committed professionals – who are attracted by the learning and growth Hillel provides them – that we will find our next generation of leadership.

As we move towards the eighth night of Chanukah, I hope we can look at the chanukiah in a new way. For me, there is tremendous significance in the fact that a kosher chanukiah requires that all eight candle holders are at the same height. All eight are treated equally. And then there is the one shamash, which is generally set apart, often placed higher in the menorah. Without the shamash, we would not be able to light any of the candles. But without the eight candles glowing brightly, we would not have nearly as much light.

Hillel envisions a world where every Jewish student is inspired to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life, learning and Israel. If we truly are going to inspire every student, we must invest in every professional. Hillel – and the Jewish nonprofit sector – can’t afford to leave even one candle unlit.

Adina Danzig Epelman is Hillel International’s Vice President for Talent and Hillel U.