Jewish Communal Professionals Unite

World Council of Jewish Communal Service draws professionals from 18 countries to Jerusalem conference

by Abigail Pickus

When Rabbi Bob Kaplan was tapped to be founding Director of C.A.U.S.E – NY, a division of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York that works primarily in coalition building and conflict resolution – he couldn’t have begun at a more volatile time: It was 1991 and the New York Jewish community was embroiled in the race riots in Crown Heights.

“When I began my position, my challenge was to put out the fires of a racial discord. I needed to develop a new methodology with limited resources and dialogue was not going to do the job,” Kaplan told a conference of Jewish communal professionals who had gathering in Jerusalem for the 12th quadrennial conference of the World Council of Jewish Communal Service (WCJCS).

Kaplan was one of a host of presenters who offered guidance and expertise to the 250 participants from 18 countries for the June 24-26 conference in Jerusalem. Other speakers included Israeli President Shimon Peres, Jewish educator Yonatan Ariel of MAKOM, writer and thinker Jay Michaelson and Member of Knesset Einat Wilf. With the theme of “Energizing the present – Envisioning the Future: Strengthening Jewish community,” the issues examined covered everything from Jewish Peoplehood and changes in the Jewish world to professional tools and skills training.

But the real power of the conference was the networking and one-on-one interactions among participants, according to conference organizer, and Israel Office Director at the WCJS, Assaf Astrinsky.

“What’s unique here are the opportunities for discussion groups on a small scale to really delve into a topic and to not just be in huge room listening to a bunch of panelists,” he said.

WCJCS is the only conference of its kind, according to Astrinsky.

“We’re the only interdisciplinary conference like this where we connect people from the broader Jewish professional world, from social services, Jewish education, community building and the Jewish Federation system,” he said. “This is important because professionals don’t have a chance to meet their colleagues working in different communities. This is an opportunity for them to learn from each other, to share ideas and best practices and hopefully, once they meet they can work together and start joint ventures.”

The conference is also an opportunity for those from communities with fewer opportunities for professional development to meet and mingle with their professional peers and to connect to Israel. With that in mind, 16 people from the FSU attended WCJCS through the help of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), according to Astrinsky.

In a break-out session on professional development, Michael Hoffman, Senior Vice President, Community Planning, Allocations & Operating Programs from THE ASSOCIATED: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, gave the group some valuable tips.

“We are only as good as the quality of the professional leadership that is guiding our organization,” he said.

In a time of limited resources, however, professional development is often the first thing that gets cut. This is short sighted, said Hoffman.

“Key leadership positions are starting to retire and we are not preparing the next generation to assume the mantles of leadership. When we cut our budget lines for professional development we are really failing to nurture the next generation of professional leaders,” he said.

An ongoing question employers must ask as new people come into the field is: How are you setting them up to be successful? according to Hoffman.

Some tactics used by The ASSOCIATED include “investing in professional development early and often,” including requiring employees to take a certain number of professional development courses and/or offering prestigious fellowships that would pay for intense continued education.

The professional development courses offered through The ASSOCIATED are strategic and cater to the individual’s talents, such as public speaking. But all courses are steeped in Jewish literacy so that they “understand the core Jewish missions and values.”

“Find ways to keep people working, ways for them to grow and develop. This is best for the organization and the community,” said Hoffman. “It also helps build a network of Jewish communal professionals so that we know we’re not islands lost at sea.”

Another successful approach to nurturing and sustaining committed employees is to not adhere to a rigid organizational structure. “We change titles a lot,” said Hoffman. “We raise people’s profiles and make sure they get a lot of kavod (honor) and exposure to give them the sense of feeling valued and engaged in core issues affecting our Federation.”

For his part, Kaplan from C.A.U.S.E – NY offered this advice. “Build in sustainability from the get go,” he said. “You need to know where you are going and where you have been. And inter-generational learning, dialogue and community building are essential.”