Professional Education Can Be a Game-Changer for Your Community

[This article is the sixth in Advancing Jewish Leadership: A Series on Jewish Context and Professional Practices. Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership is currently marking its 90th anniversary with the launch of the Center for Jewish Leadership. In this series, faculty, mentors, graduates, and staff of Spertus Institute’s graduate degree, certificate, and professional programs share valuable insights relevant to all those working for and with Jewish organizations.]

By Michael B. Soberman

I often dream of a world where Jewish parents encourage their children to pursue careers as doctors, lawyers, accountants, dentists, and Jewish communal workers! I am not convinced we are there yet, nor am I convinced that working in the Jewish community is a profession known outside of small circles of people who work or volunteer in the field. Many of those who now work in the field arrived there by accident, rather than by design. So what would happen if we embarked upon a journey to recruit and attract the best and brightest to consider a career in Jewish communal service? Or, at the very least, we focused on those who have found themselves in the profession and we strategized on how we could keep them in the field as career professionals?

In 2008, Jewish Federations of Canada-UIA in partnership with local UJA/CJA Federations across the country took a serious look at the aforementioned questions and attempted to find an answer. Young professionals in the field, when informally surveyed about what might encourage them to remain the field, cited three factors, and much to our surprise compensation was not number one!

  1. A clearer academic path to becoming a Jewish Communal Professional
  2. Robust professional development opportunities for those in the field
  3. Fair compensation

Many young professionals enter the field as a break from school or their imagined career path. If during that period we can offer them an alternative academic path and keep them in the field for several more years pursuing that degree, the likelihood of them remaining in the field increases significantly.

A partnership with Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership provided exactly what we were looking for. The MAJPS (Masters of Arts in Jewish Professional Studies) that had been successfully operating for several years in Chicago could be modified to meet the unique needs of the Canadian model. Young professionals could work full-time in the field while pursuing a graduate degree in the field of Jewish communal services at a leading institution in the area of Jewish leadership.

The brilliance of the MAJPS program is that it combines study of professional skills with Jewish Studies – an area that is equally relevant and something I would argue has been lacking in the education received by many of our young professionals, as well as some of us who have worked in the field for many years.

Imagine a Jewish Community where all those in key positions – or professionals at all levels – had a consistent level of Jewish literacy along with a platform of professional training and a network of similarly trained peers. Lawyers, teachers, doctors, and the like all have similar training by virtue of the degrees they earn and the professional associations to which members of their profession belong. The same cannot be said about Jewish communal professionals who come from various backgrounds with diverse training in a multitude of disciplines. While this diversity is one of the strengths of the profession, it also provides the challenge of there being no academic common denominator amongst us.

Creating a field of Jewish communal service requires certification, professional networks, a common language and literature. The MAJPS program begins the road to certification, creates a professional network of colleagues who all speak a certain language based on their studies and who – through their final projects – begin the creation of literature helpful to the field.

As we prepare to launch our third cohort of the Jewish Federations of Canada-UIA/Spertus MAJPS program, we can look at the 25 students who have already completed or nearly completed the degree and can see how this type of training has the potential to re-create and transform the field. We are seeing more instances of collaboration between professionals who have completed the program. We are seeing Jewish values and learning being more regularly incorporated into the work that we do. And we are seeing the skills that participants have developed in the program serve them and those they serve in a more impactful way. Granted the Canadian Jewish community is significantly smaller than that of our neighbours to the south, but the principles upon which this endeavour is based nevertheless have the ability to impact the field in a significant way.

I would encourage any community – national, regional or local – that wants to make a serious investment in the field of Jewish communal service to consider offering such a program to its young professional staff. This will pay dividends in the short, medium, and long term. In the short term, this kind of significant academic experience will keep them engaged in the field and working toward Jewish communal work as a viable career option. In the middle zone, it will populate the field with networked and similarly trained professionals, all with an increased level of Jewish literacy. In the long term, we might create a respectable field of Jewish communal service that will attract the best and the brightest.

And just maybe, Jewish parents of future generations will encourage their college-age children to consider a career in medicine, law, or Jewish communal service.

Michael Soberman is the Vice-President, Canada Israel Experience and Next Generation Initiatives at Jewish Federations of Canada-UIA and he is the Canadian Program Director of Spertus Institute for Jewish Leadership and Learning’s Master of Arts in Jewish Professional Studies program, in which he serves as a member of the program’s practitioner faculty.

Previous articles in this series include:

Series Introduction: Insights from the Field and the Classroom by Dr. Dean P. Bell
The Building Blocks of Jewish Education by Dr. Barry Chazan
Timeless Lessons of Mentoring by Ellen Spira Hattenbach
Why is this Degree Different? by Aaron B. Cohen
The Important Role of Newcomers to Jewish Communal Service by Brian Zimmerman