Our Brightest Lights: Supporting the Miracle of Jewish Communal Workers

While dreidel games get all of the glory around the Hanukkah table, the game of guessing which candle will burn longest or fastest is a game that (seemingly) relies more on skill rather than chance. Everyone has their opinion and logic as to their guess, and after the bets are placed, everyone sits back and watches carefully. Then the game ends, and there are winners and losers.

One night earlier this week, as I watched the racing candles, I thought certain lights in our communities that burn much longer and brighter than we all should reasonably anticipate – our Jewish community professionals. In many ways, just as the dreidel gets all the songs, our community volunteers often receive much of the glory. But behind the games and the songs stand the burning candles, the professionals who illuminate the world in which we celebrate.

So as the candles melted down that evening, I couldn’t help but worry that our professionals are burning to fast as well.

Like many of us experience, in my dealings with community professionals I am always amazed by the passion that brings them to, and keeps them working in, our community. While volunteers get to return to their “regular” jobs and their homes after engaging in the business of the community, for professionals the business of the community is their regular job, not a supplement. And while many of us deal with complicated constituencies in our occupations and families, even the most philo-Semitic among us will admit that the Jewish community isn’t always the easiest customer base. Moreover, during the past few years we have pushed our communal workers harder then ever, with even fewer resources, just as human needs have increased. We have trimmed their ranks and asked them to take on multiple roles. We have asked them to give more time, while in many cases we have paid them less. Lastly, while we have praised their tenacity, we have under-realized their miraculousness.

So in the spirit of the eighth day of Hanukkah, the day where all of the candles are lit and the menorah radiates the brightest, I submit four ideas to strengthen our own community candles:

  1. Reinvest and Rehire. While there is no question that resources remain limited, we cannot continue to expect our community professionals to do more for less. Yes, we need to be maintain a level of fiduciary reasonableness in our approaches to staffing and salaries, but we also must recognize that our communities are not just customers, but employers. With than in mind we have to look at our workforces and ask: “Can we do more for them, and if so, how?”
  2. Praise and Promote. I can’t recall a meeting where a lay leader didn’t recognize a staff resource as being an enabler of that volunteer’s success. It is usually a sincere gesture and one that is appreciated by the professional – but is it enough? Even if we can’t pay large bonuses, there are ways to recognize and praise achievement internally and externally. All of those continuing education and conference resources we cut during the downturn? We need to bring them back, even at the expense of some other costs. We also need to continue to promote (especially women) and have better pay parity (especially for women), even if limited budgets mean pay increases will remain less than optimal. The professionals that are powering through this recession are going to be stronger and wiser when we are in better times. Let’s promote them into positions now to capitalize on this experience later.
  3. Encourage Experimentation. While professionals must often work according to a plan, they also have ideas of their own. We need to make sure that both professional and volunteer leadership make room for these ideas to develop and, when appropriate, make time for them as well. Sometimes when we are to busy doing what we planned, we forget to imagine what we can achieve – the capacity of our professionals to create is tremendous and we should encourage that capacity to be utilized.
  4. Get them to Israel (or to the Diaspora). We need to expand our investment in getting all sorts of Jewish professionals, not just educators, to Israel (or if in Israel, to elsewhere in the Jewish world). It is a shot in the arm and a refresh of sorts – it reconnects them with a place that is not home, but is inextricably connected to their community. We send thousands of young adults to Israel in the hope that they will have a deeper connection with the country of Israel, we need to reward and re-energize those professionals that already have demonstrated a deep connection with the nation of Israel.

So as we pack away our dreidels, menorahs and leftover candles to be used next year, let us set aside our game of watching candles burn. Rather, let’s make sure that the candles of our community, our Jewish community professionals, burn longer and brighter than ever before. That is a gamble in which we all will win.

Seth A. Cohen, Esq. is an Atlanta-based attorney, activist and author on topics of Jewish communal life and innovation. He is a Vice Chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, First Vice President of Jewish Family and Career Services of Atlanta and member of the board of Joshua Venture Group. Seth can be contacted directly at seth.cohen [at] hklaw.com.