Professional Development: If Not, Why Not?

ProfessionalDevelopmentOur community has real metrics to prove that when professional development is done right it makes a difference, and it has an impact.

By Dr. Hal M. Lewis

“Every question,” taught Nahman of Bratslav, “is an answer.” And so it is with Seth Cohen’s recent posting, in which he invites feedback on his question, “Are communities investing enough in the training, development and advancement of the professionals that are committed to working in the field?”

As Cohen correctly suggests, this is not such a hard question; the simple answer is no. I say this not to be glib or dismissive. Rather, I believe this to be true based upon my experience as the CEO of an institution of higher learning, dedicated to providing the very training and development his question presupposes.

It is, however, his more important question, ”If not, why not?” that requires the more thoughtful response. While I do not accept Cohen’s implication that Jewish federations are any worse when it comes to professional development than other Jewish groups (indeed, in some cases, they may be better), I am quite certain that the vast majority of Jewish agencies and institutions (including but not limited to the federation system) has much to learn and far to go if they are serious about providing professionals with the kind of training, development and advancement he asks about. (In deference to his request, I will limit my observations to professionals, that is, those who are employees of Jewish organizations, though I believe the issue of lay leadership training and development demands similar attention.)

The midrash in Song of Songs Rabbah offers an interesting perspective on the issue of leadership training and development. “One who would exercise authority over a community in Israel without considering how to do it is sure to fall and take his punishment from the hands of the community.” To the rabbis, it was simply inconceivable that those vested with the sacred task of leading Jewish communities would not place a premium on securing the proper training and development. The stakes are too high and consequences of failure too great to do otherwise.

And yet, failing to provide adequate training for Jewish communal professionals is the default position for many North American Jewish organizations. If we wish to understand why this is, we would do well to consider some of the most commonly cited “explanations” from employees, senior management, and lay leaders as to why professional development is so rarely valued in Jewish life.

  1. Money – (I begin with this first, not because it is the most significant, but because it often serves as a cover for deeper issues.) In times of tight budgets and fiscal constraints, professional development is often the first to go. Convinced that training is a luxury and not essential to the future of the enterprise, organizational leaders, working desperately to slash deficits and balance budgets, find professional development an easy target. And, not surprisingly, individuals are hard-pressed to invest their own limited resources if the ‘company’ does not think it is important enough to do so.
  2. We Don’t Need It/It’s Overkill – Our work isn’t “rocket science.” Pretty much anyone could do this stuff. Our staff already knows everything it needs to do the job. No professional development program will provide anything of value that we aren’t already offering. The school of hard knocks worked for me, it will work for my staff as well.
  3. Time – Staff members, many of whom already feel overworked, underpaid, and under-appreciated, are not willing to take time away from family and personal lives to attend courses or training sessions outside of work.
  4. And Time Again – Management is often unwilling to provide time out of the office for professional development, which too often is perceived as competing with the real work that must get done.
  5. What’s In It For Me? – Professionals are often unconvinced that training and development will accrue to their benefit. Absent the reasonable expectation of more money, greater responsibility, promotions or the like, the value proposition just does not seem to be there.
  6. They Won’t Stay – Why, asks management, should we fund employee development when that only increases the likelihood that participants will leave the agency in pursuit of other positions.
  7. It’s Not That Important to Me – I like my job as is; I have no desire to move up or change. I’m secure here and my bosses like me just the way I am.
  8. Not the Right Program – What our people need is training in specific skillsets. They don’t need some generalist or puff program.
  9. It Won’t Make A Difference Anyway – The truth is most of our people are mediocre at best, because that’s all we can afford. No amount of professional training is going to make B players into superstars.
  10. It’s Not Really My Career – Working in the Jewish community isn’t my long-term goal; this gig is only a temporary stop along the way. I’d rather get training for something that will really help me in the long run.

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The sad reality is that we who care deeply about the training and development of communal professionals have failed to make the case for why this issue matters. In many instances, we have not presented a clear vision of what professional development can mean for the individual, for the organization, and for the community generally. Too often we have taken a one-size-fits-all approach, conflating skill set training or organizational onboarding with leadership development. And in some cases we have made professional development an elite endeavor that is more exclusionary than exclusive.

In a Jewish world that has become quite deft at making the case for Israel trips, inter-faith outreach, and early childhood education, there is no excuse for our willingness to let professional training and ongoing development take a back seat. If we are serious about responding to the rapid changes confronting the Jewish world, if we really believe in transforming Jewish life, not just tweaking it, if entrepreneurship is not just a buzzword, then the training and development of those who lead or will lead Jewish life must become a priority – for participants, for their local agencies, and for the wise and visionary philanthropists who have brought us so many other innovations in the Jewish world.

Our community has real metrics to prove that when professional development is done right it makes a difference, and it has an impact. Increased productivity, expanded confidence, enhanced skillsets, the ability to handle new and more complex responsibilities, a shared vocabulary, the creation of a community of practitioners, all of these have been measured and found to be the direct results or the long term consequences of meaningful professional development.

Moreover, there is real and convincing data that links professional development to employee satisfaction and workplace happiness. If for no other reason than the ability to attract and retain first-rate professionals, reduce turnover and modulate costs associated with searches, transitioning, and new staff orientations, lay leaders and senior management should care about the state of professional development within their institutions and beyond. And given the interconnectedness of Jewish organizational life, far more foundations and funders should be willing to consider the link between the impact they wish to have and the quality of the leadership necessary to effectuate those dreams.

In the end, the rabbinic authors of the aforementioned midrash were right. If we really want to reinvent Jewish life we need to get serious about the training and development of our leaders. If not, we will take our “punishment from the hands of the community.”

Dr. Hal M. Lewis is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago. A recognized expert on Jewish leadership, he has published widely in the scholarly and popular press. His books include “Models and Meanings in the History of Jewish Leadership” and “From Sanctuary to Boardroom: A Jewish Approach to Leadership.” He can be reached at