Non-Jews in Jewish communal workplaces

In Short

So what contributes to non-Jews’ sense of belonging in Jewish communal workplaces, and what can organizations, leaders/supervisors, and colleagues do to proactively support these staff? From my own experience and from discussions with non-Jewish colleagues in the field, certain themes have emerged about what has contributed to our experiences of belonging. Unsurprisingly, much of what can be helpful in inclusion practices generally holds true here as well.

Over the 10 years that I have worked in the Jewish communal sector, I have experienced highs and lows in my own journey of belonging within the field. Last month, I had the privilege of attending JPro’s “Going Places, Together” conference where I connected with colleagues and friends, met amazing and inspiring professionals from across the Jewish communal sector, and spent many hours talking about the organization where I have had the honor of working for the past decade, Gateways: Access to Jewish Education. I felt a profound sense of pride, gratitude and belonging that was striking and deeply moving for me, given the one anomaly of my chosen career path – that I am not Jewish.  

Among those who have worked with me over the years that I have been in the sector, this is not exactly a secret. More recently, I have been increasingly open about acknowledging it outright, either in instances where I felt it might head off any awkwardness or assumptions, or in contexts where I felt that owning my own difference could be helpful in creating a safe space for others. Over this time, I have wondered about other non-Jews in the sector, and have had many conversations with non-Jewish peers about their experience of working in Jewish communal organizations. While each person’s story is unique, themes have arisen in my exploration of this topic on ways that both organizations and colleagues can help support their non-Jewish employees.  

First, it is important to establish that there are a significant number of non-Jews in this field. Leading Edge’s 2021 Employee Engagement survey report, the most comprehensive workplace assessment of Jewish communal organizations, found that nearly half of all respondents self-identified on the survey as something other than Jewish for religion (including atheist, agnostic and those who preferred not to answer). This number has risen consistently in every year of the survey, from 27% in 2016 to 49% in the 2021 report. While the survey is opt-in and thus may not fully capture the composition of the sector as a whole, Leading Edge estimates that as of 2021 as much as half of the field has participated in one of their  surveys. And while some of those who preferred not to answer regarding religion may indeed be Jewish, undoubtedly there is rich religious diversity within the workforce that powers Jewish communal organizations.

The Leading Edge surveys also provide  further insight into employee engagement and religious affiliation. The 2021 report noted a common factor when analyzing both employee engagement and whether employees will choose to stay or leave their organizations – their sense of belonging. On the surface, non-Jews might be expected to feel a lower sense of belonging in Jewish workplaces, and certainly those feelings do at times arise and can contribute to employees leaving their organizations and/or the field. However, in analyzing trends related to employees’ religious identities, the report states “Interestingly, employees professing religions other than Judaism report higher employee engagement favorability scores. (Catholics and other Christians are the most numerous of such groups, with smaller numbers of Muslims and Hindus.)” This data would indicate that perhaps contrary to expectations, non-Jewish employees may be some of the sector’s most engaged and dedicated long-term employees, an important distinction in times of significant employee turnover across the workforce at large. And in the conversations I have had, both through the affinity group I facilitated for non-Jews at JPro, and in related conversations before and since, this has rung true.

So what contributes to non-Jews’ sense of belonging in Jewish communal workplaces, and what can organizations, leaders/supervisors and colleagues do to proactively support these staff? From my own experience and from discussions with non-Jewish colleagues in the field (unscientifically), certain themes have emerged about what has contributed to our experiences of belonging. Unsurprisingly, much of what can be helpful in inclusion practices generally holds true here as well. While this is certainly not a comprehensive list, it can be a place to start in considering this important topic:

  1. Let people self-identify if, when, and how they choose. While many of those who did not select Jewish on the survey identified with another religious group, there is also a significant portion of respondents in each year of the reports who preferred not to self-identify with any religion. Even in organizations where religious values are a key underpinning of the culture, religious practice is deeply personal to individuals, and whether and how to discuss this in their workplace should be left to the individual to choose. This also helps in making space for those who identify as ethnically Jewish, but who do not practice Judaism religiously.     
  2. Avoid assumptions of who is or isn’t Jewish. Throughout my time in the sector, I have frequently been assumed to be Jewish. This experience for me, as a white person, contrasts with some experiences shared in recent reflections by Jews of color, who in fact are Jewish and yet are at times confronted with the opposite assumption. As many organizations seek to improve their practices and unpack assumptions about race and religion, understanding the interplay of these two elements is a key piece of that conversation for Jews and non-Jews alike.      
  3. Be inclusive in language choices and mindful of assumed knowledge. Translating Hebrew phrases used conversationally or providing brief context for less well-known religious references is helpful not only for non-Jews, but for many Jewish employees as well. When offered as a universal practice, without assumptions of who would or wouldn’t understand the subject at hand, it can be an important tool in leveling the playing field and ensuring that everyone can engage fully.    
  4. Be transparent about whether job opportunities are open to people of all religious backgrounds and identities. I have spoken with many talented individuals who professed deep concerns about whether a Jewish organization would be open to hiring them if they acknowledged not being Jewish. While there are positions where Jewish faith is an essential element (e.g. when hiring clergy), there are many other positions where it is not a requirement. Using language in your job postings that welcomes applicants from a variety of backgrounds sends a powerful message about the value the organization places on inclusion and diversity, in regard to both religious affiliation and other areas (for an example of this, from UpStart, see here).
  5. Ensure that appropriate career growth and development opportunities are available to everyone. The difference between indicating support for the professional growth and leadership development of “Jewish professionals” versus “professionals in the Jewish communal sector” is significant for individuals who can self-identify into one of those categories and not the other. Given the sizable number of non-Jewish employees in the field and their high levels of engagement, investing in these professionals is a smart move for the sector as a whole. For those employees who want to embrace more fully the unique characteristics of Jewish organizations, providing opportunities to help build their understanding of Jewish culture and values is a wonderful way to support their journeys.
  6. Consider whether religious diversity could help strengthen your leadership team. Many Jewish organizations, from JCCs to social service agencies to advocacy groups, serve significant populations of non-Jews as part of their core work. Ensuring that not only front-line positions, but also board and staff leadership seats, appropriately include a broad range of voices from your constituent groups is essential to informed and responsible decision-making. It can also shake up entrenched norms in a good way, just as inclusion of diverse perspectives can do in so many other contexts.  

At this time, the data available only scratches the surface of exploring what it means to be a non-Jew in a Jewish organization. In order to truly understand this segment of the workforce, there are many questions still to consider. What kinds of positions do we hold? What draws non-Jews into Jewish communal work? What value is derived from these working relationships for both the individual and the organization, as well as for the sector as a whole? There is also much opportunity to dig deeper into why some non-Jews have a more positive experience of belonging in their workplaces and others do not, including consideration of factors such as race and ethnicity, organizational size, role, and whether they have the fellowship of other non-Jewish colleagues within their organization and/or within their Jewish professional networks. As we seek to strengthen the essential work of Jewish communal organizations for the future, continuing to explore how we engage and support this significant portion of our workforce is a critical consideration for the long-term health and viability of our sector.

Deirdre Munley has worked in the Jewish communal field for the past decade, and welcomes conversations about how the Jewish communal world can continue to thrive through inclusion of diverse, passionate voices. She serves as chief strategy and operating officer at Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, and can be reached at deirdrem@jgateways.org.