Jewish Communal Work: A Profession, or Just a “Job”

CoP networkBy Daniel Allen, Alan Engel, Lou Solomon and Peter Wells

Les Wexner, Chairman and CEO of L Brands Corporation, emphasized during his presentation to the JPRO Network Conference earlier this year that a key element for his Jewish philanthropic success was the volunteer-professional relationship. As a volunteer, he learned or refined his appreciation of community, shared values and working for the common good from seasoned Jewish professionals.

Today, we are at a crossroads for Jewish communal professionals. Young people are not coming into the field in sufficient numbers and those who are already working have few opportunities for guidance, training, and upward mobility. One question for us today is whether or not those who work in our communal bodies: federations, JCC’s, national and local Jewish organizations and Jewish social entrepreneurs, are in fact a Community of Practice, a profession. This question is not new. It has been discussed and debated for decades within the Association for Jewish Communal Professionals (AJCOP), as well as, JCSA which merged into what is now JPRO.

In the past few years, the trend has continued to grow that new senior staff need not have any prior experience in running a campaign, being involved with the Jewish community actively and professionally, or being in any Jewish organizational leadership position in order to assume a senior professional role, either locally or nationally. Organizational boards continue to turn to individuals who, while successful in their own chosen profession, have no demonstrated bona fides as Jewish communal professionals.

While these individuals may bring great skill sets to their new tasks, the flaw in the formula is that they do not appear to be interested in the collective, in the larger Jewish people’s needs as such, and do not seem to demonstrate a desire to be part of a profession serving our people. Rather it is a job. The buzz word of thinking “outside of the box” is code for hiring folks who do not have the basics of communal professional work in their souls. Thus, the need for professionals who are ready to inspire, to teach about, raise funds for, and support the larger collective, the causes of our people not just our locality.

Our “Profession” has declined. There are at least four key reasons: 1) There is very little if any sense of being part of a larger enterprise among senior federation and other agency staff in part due to their increasingly disparate backgrounds. 2) A decline in the effort by JFNA to cultivate such a community, to assist communities in their search processes for senior staff – now completely suspended so we have been told – and to help set the standard and requirements for our American Jewish collectivity. 3) We do not have a professional association/community of practice that is properly funded in order to be a key player and 4) The profound changes and shrill nature of the discourse in Jewish religious and organizational life that are now common and which reflect to our discredit the political/civic culture in both America and Israel and which our leaders and organizations are doing precious little to counter.

Some foundations like Weinberg, Schusterman, Bronfman, Wexner, Jim Joseph and others have addressed this topic for many years in terms of leadership. While we applaud their work, it has largely been focused on the support of the individual, not the profession as a whole. These same foundations to their credit have now re-recognized the need for not only creating, but supporting a broader Jewish professional cadre. These efforts, including Leading Edge, are currently focused on the growth of senior staff. It is hoped that a broader focus will emerge.

Yet the elephant in the room is can we continue to evolve and support Jewish community staff – not just senior staff, but all staff as a professional enterprise not merely as a job?

We had hoped that with the consolidation of the Jewish Communal Association and the Association of Jewish Communal Professionals into to what is now called JPRO Network – which at their height had nearly 2000 members combined and published its own scholarly journal – new professional support would emerge. While this has happened on local levels with good support group activity, there remains a void for training and placement opportunities for the field as a whole. We call on JFNA, JCCA, The Association of Jewish Children and Family Agencies, Large City Federations, Jewish foundations and the now mushrooming new Jewish organizations to join with JPRONewtwork and to provide the funding it needs to be one of the engines for Jewish communal professionalism.

Another possible response is for us to form a community of practice. A community of practice (CoP) is a group of people who share a craft and/or a profession. First identified as such by cognitive anthropologist Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger in 1991, a CoP can evolve naturally because of the members’ common interest in a particular domain or area, or it can be created deliberately with the goal of gaining knowledge related to a specific field.

With a collective biblical work experience of “120” years, we are optimists. We believe that among our colleagues, working and “retired,” there is a storehouse of energy, wisdom, ideas, abilities, and good will all of which can be placed in support of creating a community of practice which will serve our collectivity. We call on others to join with us in this quest, to unite with us as we begin the formation of a community of Jewish collective practitioners. This is not a request for funding – though it would not be refused. It is a request to use the vast human resources of our communities to be a link and strengthening agent for our people.

If you would like to participate in forming our Jewish professional community of practice, please email to Jcproactive@gmail.com.

Daniel Allen, Alan Engel, Lou Solomon and Peter Wells all served as lay President of the Association of Jewish Communal Professionals ( AJCOP) and as CEO’s of Federations and national Jewish organizations.