Putting the Jewish in Jewish Professional

I didn’t set out to be a Jewish professional. I wanted to grow professionally. When a Jewish job offered me that opportunity, I took it.

By Joshua Donner

[This article is the tenth 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..]

I didn’t set out to be a Jewish professional. If I had, I probably would have taken very different classes.

I got started as a policy analyst, slicing data and making overhead charts for a local business leadership organization. I was immersed in local government fragmentation, land use policy, and sewer infrastructure. Eventually, I didn’t just lug the overhead projector and take minutes, I got to make the presentations too. In time, I began to see how the civic world worked; how people were influenced, coalitions built, resources marshalled, things got (or didn’t get) done. My foundation in analytical thinking served me well for learning to understand people. Pretty soon I was ready to staff my own committees. I made plenty of mistakes, but with good mentorship, learned from them. Before long I was an influencer myself. I had learned how to manage within and up in the organization to achieve (some modest) change.

When I finally decoded the writing on the wall, I jumped ship. It was besheret that I landed in the Jewish world, in a joint human services planning role between Pittsburgh’s Jewish Healthcare Foundation and Jewish Federation. It was not a total accident. I had some involvement in the Jewish world, and a strong parent mentor. But in truth, the real trigger was that my non-Jewish former boss made the shidduch, based on his connection with the Foundation in the general world. I admit now to the world that I had to google “Jewish Federation” before my first interview.

Those first years, I applied everything I had learned in the real world to my Jewish job. I loved it. I built relationships with agencies, being firm where needed but respectful and supportive always. I helped redesign internal systems, with an eye for efficiency and the needs of people who would work in them. And oh, the committees!

But it was more than a good job. In a sense, I was hooked the first time I saw “Shabbat Shalom” in an email. I had already found a home in the nonprofit/social benefit sphere. But I was still blown away by this whole new depth of connection, my personal vision and goals for the world around me, and the mission of the organizations I worked with and for. Helping people was great, helping Jews felt right.

Fast forward a few years. Besheret again: the leadership in Jewish Pittsburgh made a bold investment in its Jewish workforce. I joined twelve other professionals from seven Pittsburgh organizations who were given the time, financial support, and mentorship to study through Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership for a Master of Arts in Jewish Professional Studies.

Again, a whole new world was opened. Spertus added depth to my beliefs and attitudes, and understanding of them.

Prior to Spertus I had read Peter Drucker and other works on leadership; integrating Moses and David helped me reach a personal understanding of what it means to lead Jewishly.

Prior to Spertus I had learned to build relationships with people as a means to achieve business outcomes; studying theories of the mind together with Jewish Journey theory helped me see that growing Jewishly together with others is an outcome in itself.

Prior to Spertus I believed better meetings resulted from better PowerPoint slides; marrying educational practice and lay/professional relations showed me that better business meetings are classrooms where engaged participants reach answers together by wrestling with real questions.

Prior to Spertus I knew it felt right to serve the Jewish people; through Spertus I came to understand this as a sacred responsibility: “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh la-zeh.”

Prior to Spertus I saw myself as working at a Jewish organization; through Spertus I learned to see myself as a Jewish professional.

What can those working to attract and retain talent to the field learn from my experience?

I didn’t set out to be a Jewish professional. I wanted to grow professionally. When a Jewish job offered me that opportunity, I took it. It was a great job. I brought outside skills and perspectives to the organization, and grew my skills along the way. With professional growth locked in, I was given the right environment and then supports to take a great job and make it even better – by making it and me more Jewish.

For communities looking to advance their Jewish professional field, I recommend making your organizations great places to work, and then working to help your professionals become Jewish professionals.

Joshua Donner is Executive Director of the David S. and Karen A. Shapira Foundation. Prior to this role, he was Planning Director at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

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
Professional Education Can Be a Game-Changer for Your Community by Michael B. Soberman
Prioritizing Learning by Karin Klein
The Aesthetic Lives of Jewish Identity by Judah M. Cohen

Jewish Leadership Training: Insights from a Lay Leader by Deanna Drucker