Job Hunting in the Jewish Community

by Sherri W. Morr

In the Jewish community we attribute ‘kindness’ to the character trait of gemilut chasadism. Broadly speaking it means extending yourself on behalf of others so that you are kind, sensitive, and generally caring. In today’s job market on both coasts where I have been looking for a job, that concept is absent.

Even in not for profit volunteer opportunities, staffs are not jumping at offers of pro bono. Its summer you know they say. Or again, they simply do not respond to your offer of help via email. Yet another black hole.

Given the fact our unemployment is hovering at almost 10% nationally and thousands are out looking for jobs, I am one of those who worry over the fact there are 5 applicants for every one job. Many applicants have not had to look for jobs in decades. Open positions are becoming a ‘sandwich’ position in that an organization lets 4 people go, and consolidates their tasks into one new job; an applicant has to be prepared to say, “yes I can do all of that, sure no problem”. And the new employee, the one with the sandwich job starts their position under undue stress and nervousness. The Jewish Community has never been one to orient its staff in a thoughtful way. Most often new staff just start. Sometimes there is an orientation, or they attend a briefing or two, mainly dealing with medical benefits and vacation. Actual job training, learning the expectations, and culture of the organization are few and far between. Kudos to those who actually conduct such staff development.

Thus the HR staff, the head hunter, or the executive doing the interview become pretty powerful people. They begin somewhat pleasantly, but generally they are not nice. They are stand-offish. Seemingly trying to trip you up. Sometimes at a restaurant meeting if they are already seated they don’t offer you coffee, but continue eating and drinking as though you are a passerby opposed to a scheduled meeting. They look at you somewhat askance. They have the product, the goods; you are a shopper, a buyer, you need their product. But first you have to prove you are worthy of their product. And that’s just in person.

On the phone it’s worse. They can’t see you, and you cannot see them so you don’t know if they are interested in what you are saying; maybe they are even rolling their eyes, or otherwise engaged in something else while you are selling (i.e. begging) yourself, your skills, your experience. The long pauses mean exactly what you think they mean … they don’t have any response to your comments. They have the goods. The jobs, the positions … they are the search firms, head hunters whatever they call themselves, and you (like me) are trying to find a job.

Then there are the directors … of the organization, the head of the company, or the human resources department. Again they have the goods, and your job (who said looking for work was not a job) is to convince them you are right for them. More than right given the tons of resumes they receive for this one opening. You have to sell yourself, your experience, your expertise, your focus … how you (little you, big you, no matter) can alter their productivity, raise money, create more fabulous, more glamorous events, bond with their staff, or their donors, and most of all show you are a collaborative, creative, capable, convincing team player. You cannot threaten the interviewers. You do not ask why they have not done such and such. Heaven forbid you threaten them. Yes, give those new ideas, but not ones they have already tried even if you don’t know what they have tried. Don’t ask why they have not sent a proposal to the XYZ foundation. Don’t ask them why so and so is not a member of their organization; also best not to ask them why they have such a small membership in the first place. Oh and talk fast because generally they do not leave enough time for the list of questions you see in front of them. Be friendly, show wit, but don’t be too chatty, or long winded. They don’t have time because the next person is coming in 23 minutes.

They ask you why you left your last job. Some believe your story, others do not. They ask you what you have been doing since you have not been working; some believe you others do not. They ask you … your greatest accomplishment (not your children); they ask you: what your greatest accomplishment in changing staff attitude was; what do you do best, or worst. They ask you why you want to work at this company. You probably don’t, but you do want the job at this company. They ask you if you are familiar with the company mission. They ask you about your passion for Jewish identity, for your ability to communicate Israel, your caring about the Jewish elderly or poor, have you worked with generation X or Y, or services for youth and family. How would you communicate raising money for synagogues, or find new donors for a hospital that already has 500 people who give $50,000 or more? How would you find contributors for a dying organization who has lost their state funding and let 30 employees go last year? How would you communicate the goals of an organization where they haven’t sold a new product design in a decade?

And that’s only if you get the chance to speak to a human. In my experience and that of other Jewish community professionals, no call back is de rigor. Which of course beings me back to acts of kindness and sensitivity. Somehow I expect it to be different in the Jewish communal world. Many applicants spent huge sums of money attaining Jewish oriented degrees and training. They deserve at least an email that says thanks but no thanks. Or a call that says their experience is not right; maybe even some free advice or job counseling. How many articles are there about the lack of quality Jewish community professionals? Can we afford to totally ignore them, those who are trying? Can we possibly add a little gemilut chasadim? After all this is part of who we are as Jews, it is part of our culture to be kind, aware and sensitive. That’s why we have free loan societies and vocational and family service agencies.

I fully expect to have an offer soon, or sooner rather than later. I have 25 solid years in the nonprofit world, most of it in Jewish organizations. I am smart; communicate well in person, and on paper. I have excellent references, and numerous anecdotal stories of my success. I chose to leave my job which many see as just plain stupid, and others think displays enormous confidence and courage, and the willingness to take a risk. It’s not simple for sure, but lord knows I am trying. I am just looking for a little kindness along with a job.

Sherri W. Morr has spent the last several decades working and consulting in the Jewish community as a fundraiser, a teacher, and trainer, most recently as Director of the Western U.S. at the Jewish National Fund for 12 years. She has completed an MA and received an honorary doctorate from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Her work outside of the Jewish world at independent schools, the Baltimore Symphony and Tufts University have given her an awareness beyond practice in the Jewish community. Sherri has 3 grown sons and lives in San Francisco.