It’s Who You Know! Lessons and Insights from My Podcast Conversations with Jewish Professionals

By Michelle W. Malkin

“…’nothing time’ is important time. Some of the best times we can have is when we’re “bored,” our mind gets to wonder and creativity arises. Gifting ourselves this time will allow us to do our best work. Then when we’re in front of our computer, in front of our learners or whatever we’re doing in the Jewish world you’re more set and ready to go.”
Mark S. Young, JTS – Podcast Episode 002

Eight months ago, I moved from southern California to the tri-state area. I spent my whole life and career in LA. I could talk for hours about the organized Jewish community, who was who, and what organizations were doing what work. Almost overnight, I found myself in a whole new world. I knew no one and nothing about how the Jewish community worked on the east coast.

Luckily, I found a great job in NYC and began having lunch with some professionals I knew in the area. They gave me names of other professionals to speak with in my quest to understand my new surroundings. I was gaining so much from these conversations, I wondered whether other people might benefit from their insights. After months of planning, in January I launchedIts Who You Know!: The Podcastof, by, and for Jewish professionals. To date, I have had 12 conversations with Jewish professionals in various fields about their career path, current work, reflections on the larger Jewish community, and advice for other Jewish professionals. Here are some lessons and insights I have learned thus far:

1. I chose to work in the Jewish community for a reason, so did everyone I spoke with. At some point along our path, we realized that our choice to become Jewish professionals, was not an accident, rather an accurate reflection of our passions. We help kids have a great summer experience, grow people’s Jewish identity and connections, instill values of tikkun olam, help secure the future of Israel, and provide a safe place of worship.

Look around at the people who you work with, most have made that choice too. The choice to be of service to a larger communal purpose. Keep the following in mind as you conquer the work challenges you face together.

“It didn’t happen by accident exactly. There were a series of “happy accidents” that led me here… the one thing that ties all of the moments together, beginning with [Rabbi] Stephanie [Ruskay] and Ruth [Messinger] and beyond, is that there were people who understood what it was to mentor, who understood what it meant to pay attention to young professionals. Those talented people who cared about professional development, and giving of their time and attention in that incredibly generous way. And each of those [career] inflections were characterized by that kind of support.”
Ilana Aisen, JPro Network – Podcast Episode 001

2. Let our skills determine our professional goal. For many professionals, seeking the top position (Executive Director, CEO, President) is the professional goal. The “top,” though, is a tough demanding role. Not only is the Exec. the face of the organization, they are responsible for the health of the finances, the politics of the board and volunteers, the level of happiness and satisfaction of the staff, and more.

This type of position may not be the place where many people’s skill-sets best fit, or where they would personally feel fulfilled by the work. We can instead focus our professional goal on discovering what we are best at, what areas we understand better than others, and where we can use those skills to do the most good and be the most fulfilled in that work. And if you discover that your skills are perfect for the role of CEO, go for it!

“I think a lot of it is actually about people understanding themselves and really where they want to end up. I think there is no specific formula for that though I’m pretty sure it has a piece of passion involved, a piece of self fulfillment, and a piece of happiness. I’m a big believer that people should like what they do and that doesn’t always mean it has to be easy… people who are best positioned to overcome challenges or to work through them and who get people to join them on a journey are people who really understand what their direction is, where their course is, and what their ultimate goal is.“
Dara Klarfeld, DRG Executive Search – Podcast Episode 006

3. Innovation and change are an ongoing process, not a goal. Strategic plans are a popular way to take a snapshot of where our organizations are and where we want them to go. The downfall of this process, however, is when it produces a document that gets put in a drawer and forgotten. This one-off approach limits the creative and collaborative process of innovation and change.

Rather, if these qualities are present in our daily work, we are then always looking for the ways we can do things differently, inspiring us to create new projects that better align with our mission, and without fear, doing away with outdated offerings that simply don’t work. Constant evaluation, introspection, and change only serve to help our organizations flourish.

“…I think the way a lot of synagogue leaders can feel at times is under attack from certain thought leaders in the Jewish community or just the narrative of synagogue life, that Hebrew schools are terrible, prayer is boring, and this and that. It creates this kind of defensive mechanism as opposed to walking alongside a person and helping them understand what it is that is good that we’re trying to hold on to, while also understanding where’s the space to actually do something a little bit different.”
Rabbi Joshua Rabin, UCSJ – Podcast Episode 003

4. We are all on the same side, lets start acting like it. In the politically diverse world we live in, there are many topics in which people’s opinions can be put in one category or the other. From these first conversations, I notice that we are actually all on the same side when it comes to the future of the Jewish community. That is, we see and understand the challenges we are facing and we know that we need to deal with them head on. A strong future for the Jewish community, however that may look, is important to all of us and the more we realize that we are all working toward the same goal, we can strengthen our networks and connections between our organizations.

“…I came here and I was a little bit shocked by the level to which I felt people had their guard up. I really think it’s incumbent upon us to create a community where we are all trying to rise the tide to rise all boats… if we want to thrive as a community we cannot bring that toxicity inside, we have to find a different way. I really think this is incumbent on every Jewish professional to say, ‘how can I be a good collaborator, how can I be a good partner, is there a colleague around me that I can help lift up in some way?’”
Aliza Mazor, Bikkurim (UpStart) – Podcast Episode 003

I have been constantly inspired from my guests’ insights and reflections. I expect something simple and I am astonished (though perhaps I shouldn’t be) when I receive deep, complex, thought provoking answers that I am not sure even reply to the question I asked but leave me with 20 more questions and new insights into my own path.

It is a privilege to broadcast my conversations with our extraordinary colleagues to a larger audience who I hope benefit from the collective wisdom of our leaders. In the coming months, my bi-weekly interviews will highlight areas of innovation, education, youth, advocacy, professional development, research, synagogue communities, and much more. I hope you will join me. After all, it’s not just who you know but what you can learn from them.

“Now go out and find your Shabbos!“
Concluding remarks from Podcast Episode 005 with Rabbi Cheri Koller-Fox, NewCAJE

Michelle W. Malkin, is the creator, producer, host, and editor of the podcast It’s Who You Know! The Podcast. Michelle earned her Masters in Jewish Nonprofit Management from Hebrew Union College and Masters in Public Administration from USC in 2014. Having worked with over 20 Jewish organizations over her 9 year career, she brings a unique perspective to the Jewish communal field in her conversations with Jewish organizational leaders.