Mentorship: Lessons Learned from Jewish Education

by Dr. Donald A. Sylvan

PresenTense is justifiably proud of its focus on mentoring Jewish social entrepreneurs. As a PresenTense NYC Mentor as well as President of JESNA, I would like to share some key empirically-based lessons presented in an analysis of Jewish education mentoring programs, JESNA’s 2008 publication “Making Jewish Education Work: Mentoring Jewish Educational Professionals.”

The fruitful application of these lessons by the PresenTense mentorship community strengthens the program and the development of relationships.

Lesson 1: Mentoring relationships are most beneficial when orientation and training are provided to both to mentors and mentees. PT follows through on this step both with a session bringing mentors and mentees together and with periodic guidance through electronic newsletters. Fellows and mentors might want to refer back to the orientation materials regularly, to obtain the benefits of this lesson.

Lesson 2: Mentoring relationships are most beneficial when mentor and mentee pairings are thoughtfully coordinated. While serendipity can deliver a productive match, it does not make sense to rely on that path. So, in the entrepreneurial context as well as the educational one, areas of expertise, personalities of fellow and mentor, and willingness to engage in an open dialogue should all be considered. However, chemistry between mentor and mentee can never be reliably forecast in advance of conversations getting underway. Fellow and mentors who find themselves in suboptimal pairings should concentrate on the areas of dialogue that have proven most fruitful in their pairing.

Lesson 3: Mentoring relationships are most beneficial when roles and expectations are clearly defined. This must be done both externally (by PT) and in person by the fellow and mentor. The multiple dimensions of advice needed for entrepreneurs to succeed make this a complex task. PT fellows’ projects would typically benefit from advice in the areas of business acumen, Jewish content, communication strategy, and many other foci. The chances of one mentor having expertise in each of those areas are slim. Fellows should know in what domains the mentor can offer expert advice, and in what domains the mentor and others should be seen as connectors to others with appropriate expertise.

Lesson 4: Mentoring relationships are most beneficial when multiple avenues of frequent communication and feedback are available. The JESNA publication emphasizes such elements here as the crucial role of giving frequent and sensitive feedback, as well as the mentor paying careful attention to the content of communication as well as the frequency. This, in turn, includes setting a positive tone by using open and supportive communication skills, as well as giving direct and honest feedback. The balancing act outlined by these points seems applicable in the PT world, too, but is no less daunting a challenge for the earnest mentor. Intense fellow-mentor interaction seems more likely to succeed on this count.

Lesson 5: Mentoring relationships are most beneficial when mentoring programs are thoughtfully managed and evaluated in an ongoing and systematic manner. PT should systematically evaluate each mentor-mentee relationship, mentors and fellows should reflect periodically throughout the process on whether the particular mentoring relationship is working as constructed, devoting a few minutes at the end of each session to reflect on the process underway and implementing process lessons from one session in the next session.

These five lessons learned from JESNA’s work in Jewish education mentoring will strengthen the PresenTense mentoring process.

This piece originally appeared in PresenTense Launch Book 2011.