Jewish Literacy for Jewish Professionals: Why We Need to “Speak Jewish”

Screenshot: The Wilson Quarterly

By Anita Silvert

“I can explain it standing on one foot.”
“Yada yada yada”

You know where “yada yada yada”comes from, right? Of course, because Seinfeld is a known cultural reference point that brings people together through shared experience. How about “standing on one foot?” Maybe not, if you aren’t versed in Rabbinic midrash. The difference comes down to cultural literacy.

Cultural literacy is vital to feeling part of a group, part of a community. As Americans, for example, we learn some of the same nursery rhymes, read some of the same books in high school, watch some of the same TV shows at specific stages of our lives, and those reference points give us a shared shorthand. We have our own in-language and it connects us. We give a wink in our mind to others. Those in the know wink back and get to come to the party.

In her ELI talk, Stephanie Goldfarb, director of Youth Philanthropy and Leadership at the Chicago Jewish Federation, says that there are plenty of people working in the Jewish world that have great communication or organizational skills, but they are lacking in Jewish content deeper than “cultural Judaism.” She contends it’s easier to teach Jewish content to someone who is a natural communicator or teacher than the opposite. And it’s important for Jewish institutions to do so. In fact, it’s remiss of Jewish institutions not to invest in their staff’s Jewish knowledge. We at Spertus Institute of Jewish Learning and Leadership couldn’t agree more.

In the years since I received my Masters in Jewish Education from Spertus Institute, I can honestly say that the knowledge I gained about Jewish customs, history, and literature, about Jewish text and practice, about denominational differences and similarities, all these and more have all helped me successfully serve organizations throughout the Jewish world. I am comfortable communicating with Jewish constituents and clients, no matter what slice of the communal pie I’m tasting. That’s cultural literacy, and for any professional in communal work, it’s vital.

More than ever, our Jewish community is distinguished by its diversity. To be most effective, communal leaders need a background of shared understanding across the range of Jewish perspectives and practices. To be more inclusive requires knowledge of the variety pack that is the Jewish community. We don’t need to practice or believe the same way, but to effectively communicate, to address problems, and forge a vibrant future, we need to be literate professionals, literate Jews.

For some professionals, that may mean going back for a degree in Jewish Studies, with the ability to tailor it to the particular work they’re doing in their organizations. Spertus Institute offers its unique, non-denominational, rigorous academic training to learners from across the communal spectrum. Some study to advance their careers, some for Torah l’shma (in-language for “for its own sake”). For others, it means learning Jewish approaches to leadership. Our graduates do their jobs better because they have honed their skills through Jewish content and Jewish context.

Yes, it’s important to know about organizational management, nonprofit needs, and strategic thinking. But a whole additional layer of effectiveness is added when you don’t have to translate from “business” to “Jewish”; when you’re learning with Jewish examples, in Jewish historical context, with Jewish models to apply. You are “speaking Jewish” because it’s your job’s language.

In 1994, Roger Kamenetz author of The Jew in the Lotus, coined the phrase “BUJU,” Buddhist Jews. Many under-affiliated Jews had forsaken their birth-faith because they believed the levels of spirituality attainable through Buddhist mediation weren’t available in Judaism. They were wrong, but it took dedicated re-education (and a whole new denomination, Jewish Renewal) to prove it. Now, most clergy from any denomination are “conversant” in Jewish spirituality, so they can reach more seekers. Perhaps it is simplistic, but I believe when people know their own faith, they can find what they want in life through its wisdom. Kal v’chomer (another reference to Talmudic reasoning, meaning “how much more so”) for the institutional leaders of our community – the programming directors, educators, and family engagement directors. You will reap a more resilient “crop” of Jews if you know the soil and seeds from which they grow.

For everyone to be able to come into the tent (another reference to Biblical Abraham and the story of his hospitality), our leaders need to be Jewishly fluent. That doesn’t mean a particular kind of observance, but rather being comfortable with the events and people and moments that have added links to the Jewish chain of life. We wouldn’t expect our public school teachers to do their jobs well without knowing about literature. We wouldn’t expect corporate CEOs to lead without knowing about their industry. Why would we want Jewish leaders who haven’t drunk deeply from the well of our tradition? Why wouldn’t we want…no, insist on… literate Jewish leaders?

At a recent graduation ceremony, Dr. Hal M. Lewis, President and CEO of Spertus Institute, spoke to the newly-minted alums, all who had come back to formal study as adults. He quoted an early Hasidic master who taught that “If you think you’re finished learning, you are.” Our sages (if you speak “Jewish,” you know who some of those sages are) said, “Do not say, when I have time I will study, because you may never have the time.” (Pirkei Avot 2:5)

For business leaders to be their best, we expect them to be grounded in their fields and to keep learning, to stay abreast of recent studies and research. The same should be true for Jewish professionals. If we don’t keep up with our own Jewish education, how will we lead authentically, effectively, and meaningfully? How will we build Jewish communities that are welcoming, inclusive, and engaged? If we don’t know our own “language,” how will we ever teach it to others?

Anita Silvert is Director of Enrollment Management at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership. She writes a monthly column for JUF News, a weekly blog called Jewish Gems, and serves at the Great Lakes Naval Academy Recruit Training Center.