Jewish Communal Leadership: Symptom of a Deeper Issue

by Jeffrey R. Solomon

A recent article by Rabbi Louis Feldstein and the response by Jerry Silverman speak to one of the most serious issues facing the Jewish communal landscape: organizational professional leadership. As Dan Brown later points out, the talent deficit is not limited to the Jewish communal world but is true for the larger nonprofit landscape.

Arguing the extent of the talent deficit is not necessarily a productive endeavor. There are a range of issues that are part of its cause, including the career choices opened to the best and brightest Jews, the increasing insularity of the field, the unwillingness of lay and professional leadership to see lifelong professional development and education a responsibility of theirs, the enormous growth in the nonprofit sector requiring leaders who can manage with environments of greater complexity and uncertainty, and the failure of the Jewish nonprofit world to stay on the cutting edge of the North American independent sector, but rather, transitioned to the trailing edge. Each of these factors merit comment and prescriptive approaches are proposed below.

The late Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg told a story of a lunch he had had with then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. He asked, “Henry, did you go to school before the War or after the War?” Kissinger replied, “After the War.” Hertzberg then stated, “Had you gone to school before the War, you would probably be the Conservative Rabbi in Kansas City!” From mid-century on, the United States opened itself to become a far greater meritocracy than it was in its earlier history. Many of the best and brightest chose professions within the Jewish community, in part, because of the perceived limitations in so many professions. The community has made few consistent and dynamic efforts to reach the best and brightest and bring them into Jewish communal work, embracing them and nurturing their continued development.

At times of increased budget scrutiny due to challenges on the revenue side, too many executives and/or lay executive committees view continuing professional education as a luxury rather than a necessity. Unlike other fields, our field has not self-imposed a requirement of continuing professional education credits/hours. The case has already been made in the referenced articles about the complexity of the work. If we believe in that complexity then we should demand of ourselves the availability of released time and reimbursement for continuing professional education efforts. No hospital, law firm, or public accounting agency would do less.

Some 200,000 nonprofits have been initiated since 1975. The growth of the field is extraordinary with more than 10% of the workforce working in not-for-profits and in some major cities such as New York as much as 19% of the workforce has been reported to be employed by nonprofits. This field demands a greater understanding of the art and science of organizational leadership.

More than 40 years ago when I was invited to enter the Jewish communal field following a leadership position in government, I saw a field that was the envy of the nonprofit sector. In human services many of the innovations of the past quarter century, including family therapy, daycare for the elderly, homecare, rehabilitation workshops came from the Jewish communal field. In terms of the proportion of donors and the amount of money raised, others looked at the Jewish communal field with respect and envy. Contrast that to today. The major communal bodies have lost 60% of their donors over the past 40 years. The NonProfit Times which does an annual Nonprofit 50 inevitably highlights more than a dozen Jews for their leadership in the nonprofit field. There hasn’t been one who came from a Jewish organization for more than a decade. The insularity of the field is choking off resources and choking off a sense of being part of a larger movement to improve our cities, improve our nations and improve the world. As a field, we feel like a shetl. Our language is stilted, our outlook is stilted and we shouldn’t be surprised that, with few exceptions, we are not seeing growth by any measure that is comparable to growth in the general North American nonprofit community. There are several notable exceptions to this such as American Jewish World Service which has grown more than ten times because it represents a Jewish vision of a more perfect world, Jewish Funds for Justice which has also found ways of consolidating mission-centered consolidation that has inspired greater and greater support and Birthright Israel which uses a combination of a disruptive technology and ongoing careful evaluation to have a truly participant centered approach.

As to some prescriptive approaches:

  1. What are we doing to educate our boards and leaders about the succession crisis both in the general field and in our own organizations? Educating leaderships is critical. No Fortune 500 company would not be having serious conversations about succession planning at a board meeting. Why aren’t we?
  2. With the enormous success of the family of Wexner programs for both lay and professional leadership, why haven’t we seen clones of this effort within continuing professional education and continuing lay education? Programs such as those of the Aspen Institute including the Crown Fellowship, along with well over a dozen ongoing professional education leadership programs in the general nonprofit community have transformed individuals and organizations. We need to do the same in the Jewish world and we need visionary funders to support these, especially at this moment in time.
  3. Finally, our organizations should tax themselves 1 to 2% of their budgets for continuing professional education. Part of this effort should be to rebuild the infrastructure that once existed that recognized a professional career as having various phases and requiring different kinds of development in each of those phases. The infrastructure built under this program should include the creation of standards and benchmarks so that organizations can measure themselves against a more visionary approach to the key resources that guide the Jewish community: the human resources within Jewish organizational life.

Jeffrey R. Solomon is President of The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies.