Jewish Professional Practice: Focusing on Ten Behaviors

By Steven Windmueller Ph.D.
On behalf of the Wind Group, Consulting for the Jewish Future

In my retirement from Jewish professional work, I have had occasion to experience the Jewish nonprofit world from the “other side” as a donor, board member, congregant and consultant. Indeed much of the work product is extraordinarily impressive, but certain elements of communal practice and professional behavior warrant attention.

More meaningful however than my observations are the comments made to me over the years by donors and organizational participants who at times have expressed their frustration with professionals. Having directed Hebrew Union College’s School of Jewish Nonprofit Management from 1995-2005 (now the Zelikow School), community leaders, synagogue members, and donors see the School and my past role as possibly being responsible in part for setting the standards of best practices. Currently, in my role as a consultant to Jewish organizations, these professional standards are critical to the success of communal practitioners.

Indeed, I believe that each of these oversights or mishandled situations can be readily addressed and rectified. The first test of a quality professional is his or her openness to being reflective and in the process accepting the guidance and input of colleagues and even lay leaders.

Emails That Go Unanswered: Don’t ask any of my friends to provide an accounting of how often our email messages simply go unanswered. As the Internet has replaced other forms of social connection, there now exists an expectation pattern around email exchanges that, as with other forms of communication, individuals will be responsive to inquiries in an appropriate time frame.

Thank You Notes That Remain Unwritten: Currently, I am giving lectures and presentations to a broad segment of organizations, synagogues and universities. Rarely, do I or many of my colleagues receive any type of acknowledgment after the fact. This is particularly disappointing to us. Considering that we often provide these professional services gratis, the absence of a phone call or written “thank you” demonstrates a lack of “menschlichkeit.”

Phone Calls That Are Not Returned: On a number of occasions, lay leaders reported that they had to call the same nonprofit organization more than once to elicit a response to their inquiries. This lack of follow-thru in a timely fashion appears to be happening more than one would imagine or should expect.

Donor Gifts That Are Not Acknowledged: Indeed, this seems to happen more than many of us would like to believe. But the essential act of acknowledging pledges and charitable gifts would appear to be a given practice, yet this is not always happening! On a number of occasions, donors will inform me of their unhappiness in connection with what they describe as “sloppy” work habits. A “thank you” note or personal phone call goes a long way in cementing the relationship of a donor to your institution or synagogue. As we also know, a personalized response is particularly meaningful to the recipient.

Following Up, or Not: How many times have I or others requested information or had conversations with professionals where a promise was made by the staff person: “I’ll get back to you with the answer.” The absence of a response is frankly quite revealing and contributes to a loss of confidence in the individual, and in turn the institution that he or she represents.

Mistakes or Carelessness in Preparing Materials: Some major donors remind me of what they describe as “the lack of professionalism” when they receive written materials with grammatical mistakes and words misspelled. They frequently ask, “So didn’t you train professionals to be accurate and careful in the preparation of information for public distribution?

Acknowledging Agency and Synagogue Line Staff: Too often we observe professionals praising their colleagues, junior executives or associate rabbis, but rarely do we encounter senior leadership paying tribute to their line staff, administrators and clerical personnel, the maintenance and janitorial team, or security professionals, etc. We miss a special opportunity to offer praise and recognition to folks who are rarely singled out. Donors and members feel good when such honor is accorded, just as your entire work force is appreciative of this type of collective praise.

WashingDirty Linenin Public: When is it okay to complain? Indeed, professionals need a venue to express their frustration or unhappiness. But these types of discussions need to be handled in an appropriate way. Conversations of this type ought not to be carried forward in front of lay leaders. Understanding the importance of discretion would suggest that professionals be strategic and appropriate when dealing with institutional conflict and policy disagreements. There is a time and a place for such matters to be resolved!

Badmouthingthe Other Guy”: We all take pride in our respective organizations but to publicly disparage another institution is simply poor judgment. Too often one hears senior executives taking aim at other institutions in public settings. Donors, we are reminded, may be contributors to such organizations as well. Pointing out the different approaches or policies that guide these respective institutions maybe helpful, even educational, but marginalizing them is a problematic tactic.

Misrepresenting Information: Integrity is the name of the game! Professionals who provide inflated numbers or misrepresent the organization’s record of achievement are actually hurting their cause and certainly their reputation. Lay leaders are quite savvy and if they believe that the financial figures provided are problematic or the information offered in connection with the work of an agency is misstated, they will likely check your facts! You really don’t want to be confronted by knowledgeable board members or donors calling you out “over the facts.”

Closing Notes: Indeed, most Jewish professionals are demonstrating a high degree of competence, often seeing their work as essential to the welfare of the Jewish people and to the larger society. Their dedication and commitment needs to be acknowledged by their lay leadership, a practice that sadly does not readily happen.

Others from both the business sector and the nonprofit world have offered some cogent comments and advice on such matters as noted here.

As I have written elsewhere, the work undertaken by communal professionals needs to be seen as sacred, as represented by efforts to create a liturgy honoring those men and women who serve the Jewish people.

Dr. Steven Windmueller on behalf of the Wind Group, Consulting for the Jewish Future. Dr. Windmueller served as the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website: