Jewish Studies PhDs and Jewish Nonprofits
By Josh Lambert
“How can I find a job like yours?”
That’s probably the most common question I’ve been asked over the past six or seven years by the freshly minted PhDs I’ve met through the mentorship program run by the Association for Jewish Studies (a professional association for professors and scholars of Jewish Studies). With the difficult financial situation we’re all facing because of the pandemic, I imagine I’ll be hearing that sort of question even more in the coming months.
The people asking me this question tend to be very impressive. They read and speak and write in 3 or 4 or more languages, they’ve taught courses at schools like Harvard or Wayne State or the Jewish Theological Seminary, published learned books and articles in newspapers, magazines, and academic journals, and, most of all, they’ve honed their expertise in some area of Jewish history or literature or philosophy.
They’re also pretty resilient people, if they’ve gotten that far in academia: they’ve been willing, in pursuit of their intellectual interests, to put up with a lot of hassles, including living on very tight budgets, leaping through all kinds of bureaucratic hoops, and accepting many other inconveniences. (I had it pretty easy, overall, but in my 20s, as I worked on my doctorate and postdoc, I moved apartments and cities every year for ten years, packing up more and more books into a U-Haul every time.)
When they say they’d like a job like mine, these recent PhDs don’t mean a tenure-track professorship. They know, as everyone does, that tenure-track jobs are vanishingly scarce – and what’s more, many of the young scholars I meet don’t want the campus politics, the publishing pressure, or the meat-grinder of a 3-3 teaching load. What they want is a job like the one I’ve had for the past eight years, as Academic Director at the Yiddish Book Center, in Amherst, MA.
They want, in other words, a position at a Jewish nonprofit organization that is nimble, creative, and growing, that, like the Center, reaches a wide, enthusiastic public, and that values their academic training and abilities.
Notwithstanding the qualifications and strengths of the younger scholars who have asked me that question, and the leadership gap in Jewish nonprofits, I haven’t been able to answer them very optimistically. “There really aren’t any jobs like mine,” I’ve had to say. “My only hope is that soon there might be.” That’s my hope that not only because I care about these young PhDs, and know how much they have to offer, but also because there’s a powerful need for them in nonprofit leadership.
I’m thinking about all this at a moment of major transition for me, professionally: after eight years, I’m leaving the Yiddish Book Center this summer, to become the (tenured) Sophia Moses Robison Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and English, and Director of the Program in Jewish Studies, at Wellesley College, outside of Boston.
At the risk of tooting my own horn, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve achieved a lot during my time in the nonprofit world. Under my direction and with my help, the Yiddish Book Center’s academic programs expanded from serving a few dozen people each year to serving hundreds, from across the U.S. and around the world. We developed new programs for high school students, 20- and 30-somethings, teachers, writers, translators, and librarians. We received major grants, including a $1.12 million dollar grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation to support our work with educators. We created innovative programs to get Yiddish literature in translation into the hands of thousands of new readers. We created a website for educators and, most recently, produced a rollicking anthology called How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed Yiddish that’s been getting lots of positive reviews.
Through it all, I’ve been able to keep up my academic profile and activities: I’ve regularly attended scholarly conferences (and was elected to the Board of Directors of the Association for Jewish Studies); I’ve published many peer-reviewed articles and a prize-winning book, pursued archival research, given guest lectures and community talks all over, and taught courses at UMass Amherst and Princeton.
All of this has been possible because of the Center’s thoughtfulness in structuring my position. Much of the thanks is due to Susan Bronson, the Center’s Executive Director, who has a PhD in Russian history, and, having worked for many years in nonprofit administration, understands the opportunities and the challenges facing someone entering the nonprofit world from an academic background. Working with the Center’s founder and president, Aaron Lansky, and the organization’s remarkable board of directors, she has been able to create several positions for academics like me that use our skills and knowledge and allow us to pursue our interests while advancing the work of the Center.
Some of the benefits or allowances that the Center has made for employees with PhDs, including me, include:
- Dedicated time for research and writing. In my case, I could devote some time each week, and some longer stretches once or twice a year, to my journalistic writing and academic research.
- Financial support for archival research and attending academic conferences, including the Association for Jewish Studies conference, the Modern Languages Association conference, the Association of Literary Translators of America conference, and so on.
- Arrangements with local universities. In my case, we worked out an agreement with the English department at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, whereby I would teach one course for them each year. After vetting me, the university and department were pleased, because they didn’t have to pay for my course (my salary was paid by the Center), and I was pleased for several reasons: I valued the teaching experience in and of itself; I felt that the affiliation helped me to be seen as a “real academic” by colleagues (who sometimes mistakenly assumed I was a tenure-track employee of the university); and, crucially, the position conferred academic library privileges – JStor, Project Muse, InterLibrary Loan, and so on – which are absolutely necessary for anyone who wants to continue to pursue research in the humanities.
These were non-trivial commitments, on the Center’s part, and at many nonprofits I suspect they would be perceived skeptically, as major concessions. I imagine that many nonprofit directors or managers, might feel that they could never afford to do for a recent PhD what the Yiddish Book Center offered me in 2011 – especially with the current, difficult financial outlook. And I know first-hand, from my time at the Center, how hard a nonprofit’s development staff works to raise the funds for salaries.
But I want to make the case that it can, absolutely, be worthwhile. The leadership of the Center understood that structuring a position this way was necessary to attract and keep a committed, hard-working academic at the organization. I like to think that that’s what they got. People who pursue PhDs, and put up with all the hassles to publish and teach, are not just working at jobs; they’re pursuing vocations—they’re committing their lives to teaching the history, literature, and culture of Jews—and that’s the kind of commitment and investment a budding scholar can bring to a nonprofit.
In my case, the generous support from the Center allowed me to feel deeply, warmly supported by the institution, and it helped me to feel that committing to my work there, and to the organization’s mission, complemented my own scholarly and intellectual goals. In very specific ways, and sometimes unexpected ones, my academic work bore fruits for the Center. Because I was an active member of the academic community, I was more successful than I otherwise could have been in drawing in extraordinary faculty and students to our programs: as I was increasingly a known quantity, professors knew they could trust the Center as a place to teach and to send their best students. I could make introductions to other institutions, both traditional universities and museums and other cultural organizations that had hired folks like me, and I brought ideas from Jewish Studies back to the Center.
It’s remarkable, and unusual, that the faculty, administration, and trustees of Wellesley College, and my colleagues in the academy, have understood the nonprofit work I’ve done over the past eight years as equivalent to the achievements of a junior professor, and conferred tenure on me. But it’s also a sign that academics understand and value the work of cultural nonprofits like the Yiddish Book Center.
Going forward, I hope that more nonprofits will recognize the knowledge and skills of recent PhDs, and will not only deign to hire them (as they sometimes do), but give them the support they need to pursue their research and teaching while being committed to their nonprofit positions. As far as I can tell, this is the most obvious way to fill the leadership gap in Jewish nonprofits with dazzlingly qualified, talented staff members, and to bring deeper knowledge and understanding of Jewish history and culture into the day-to-day operations of a wide variety of Jewish communal organizations.
From 2011 until the summer of 2020, Josh Lambert was the Academic Director of the Yiddish Book Center and Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Beginning in July 2020, he will be the Sophia Moses Robison Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at Wellesley College.