Moving Beyond Professional Practice: Some Observations on the State of the Jewish Community

By Rabbi Denise L. Eger and Dr. Steven Windmueller

On January 5th I (Steven Windmueller) published on this site an article focusing on “Jewish Professional Practice.”

This piece would evoke an array of comments, including a Facebook note from my friend, Rabbi Denise Eger. She would write:

I really enjoyed your article. I do think a follow up on this would be worthwhile about why some of these things happen in a professional environment. Often the agency is understaffed for the amount of work required by the professionals and there is inadequate support staff to handle certain tasks. Jewish organizations [are] often demanded by their funders and in particular certain grantors to be so innovative all the time that basics of running a sound organization gets passed over. The pressures on professionals to fundraise when that is often not their scope of practice because the lay partners have demanded an economic model rather than true social service or religious model is also not what many of us trained for. I agree with your basic premise. But I think there is more to this story!

Indeed, in the aftermath of the rabbi’s email, here is “more to this story” as we collaborated in preparing this article!

As noted in the email above, the ten lapses in professional conduct occur in part as a result of the structural and economic changes that are taking place within our synagogues and communal agencies. With the downsizing of staff, the reduction of budgets, and the growing pressures to be “innovative” and “cutting edge,” the fundamental construct of our established organizations is changing. In the process of reconfiguring our agencies, communal organizations and congregations, we believe that our rabbis and Jewish communal professionals have been required to fundamentally redesign their positions, adding and adapting to the new expectations of temple and community boards. Rabbis today have taken on the tasks of administration, fund-raising, public relations, and planning, while their communal professional colleagues are expected to become Jewish educators, spiritual counselors, and program specialists. Indeed, the skill sets of our Jewish professionals are being tested, often without the prerequisite training associated with these new job expectations.

These changes for rabbis, cantors, educators and Jewish communal professionals seem to blur the lines between the distinct professional knowledge and experience of each of these areas of expertise. Rabbis who are song leaders replace cantors. Cantors are expected to be educators and often administrators. As mentioned above, as Jews move away from synagogue affiliation, communal professionals end up in performing the roles of spiritual counselor and teacher. Indeed rabbinic students who already have five years of graduate education are encouraged to pursue additional educational degrees, nonprofit management certificates, and chaplaincy specializations. This brings about other concerns including the debt load for young rabbis and delayed child bearing for women and men which contributes to the decline in births for young liberal Jewish families. These new operational challenges will limit us in recruiting the best and brightest to become spiritual leaders. But most importantly it sends a message from synagogue and communal lay leaders to these young professionals “We want one person to do it all.” This message “to downsize” and to “do more with less” we believe creates burnout, untenable expectations, and to Dr. Windmueller’s original point, basic mistakes and sometimes sloppiness.

We note with concern the qualitative limitations of our Jewish communal and synagogue boards. Our lay leadership has likewise been compromised by the new challenges facing our institutions. Many of those being tapped for positions of leadership have minimal knowledge of religious or nonprofit organizations. But more acutely, our laity is often only marginally equipped Jewishly to understand and perform the functions essential to be effective. There is little discussion by laity of healthy boundaries needed by our professionals to nurture their own family lives. Also a review of what is possible given the many constraints on Jewish professionals we have outlined needs to be revisited.

The Jewish literacy deficit and the minimal organizational knowledge of many of our current lay leaders and prospective leaders ought to be seen as a collective concern involving the welfare of our community.

How can we assist our synagogues and community agencies in facing these challenges? We are reminded that cross-agency/synagogue collaboration may represent one helpful model. Take for example the initiative now under way involving the professional associations of the Reform movement, as they coordinate their interests and shared concerns. Here, rabbis, administrators, educators, cantors, and youth professionals are collaborating around a common agenda.

We are proposing the establishment of a think tank that will bring together rabbis with their communal professional colleagues, along with lay leaders and funders among others, to explore the challenges facing our respective institutions. Our proposal involves a shared understanding of the operational issues that today negatively impact our organizations, contributing to the decline in the performance records of our professionals, accelerating tensions between boards and staff, and the ultimate weakening of our effectiveness as institutions and synagogues seek to perform and serve at their highest levels.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger is Founding Rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami, West Hollywood, CA and President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service, Jack H. Skirball Campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles.