Reimagining Jewish nonprofit culture

The Jewish nonprofit world is facing a crisis of culture. It seems like every day I hear about another colleague leaving Jewish professional life for the for-profit sector. Many of us who choose to work in the world of Jewish nonprofits love the Jewish people, love Jewish values and deeply want to make an impact on Jewish communities; at the same time, we may find ourselves drained by a daily grind of budgets, management and marketing, not to mention back-to-back meetings, evening programs, organizational politics and communal traumas. Even the most idealistic nonprofit, doing incredible good out in the world, can fail to offer its employees the spiritual nourishment necessary to retain them. It’s a challenge, to varying degrees, for every nonprofit. 

I propose a solution: Jewish nonprofits need to incorporate Jewish values internally, not just pursue them externally, in order to build spiritually thriving workplaces. By offering employees something experientially rich — a form of spiritual compensation, if you will — we might be able to compete with the higher salaries and often lower stress levels offered by the for-profit world.

Here are three Jewish cultural elements that might help us build healthy workplace cultures where teams feel spiritually valued and engaged and morally supported. 

  1. We are a middot-centered culture 

The Jewish concept of middot offers us a built-in system for asking ourselves what character traits — and the values behind them — are important to us. When an institution examines itself through the lens of middot, it can become a place that offers personal growth on the level of the collective and the individual. 

Considering the value of simcha (happiness), for example, we might ask: How might our work be joyful? Regarding anivut (humility): How do we bring empathy and a celebration of others to the workplace? And in moments of kaas (anger): How can we help people respond rather than react, and do so in that way cultivates menuchat hanefesh (equanimity) and hitlamdut (an opportunity to learn from each moment)? 

It is one of the great joys and luxuries of working in a Jewish workplace that we can have a shared language for these values and a shared process for implementing them. We should be leveraging middot not just to achieve our goals as institutions, but to shape our internal processes. How we work matters, and by focusing on middot we can offer employees a deeply rewarding workplace. It’s not just on CEOs and managers to implement this, either; we can all take responsibility for implementing and modeling middot that reflect our Jewish values. 

2.) We are a learning-centered culture 

Jewish institutions should embrace the Jewish value of ongoing learning. To be clear, I understand that not everyone who works at a Jewish nonprofit is Jewish — that’s more than OK, that’s wonderful! — but many people who choose to join the Jewish nonprofit world have done so because of their love of learning. By love of learning, I mean not only the attainment of professional knowledge (data, facts, history and specific skills) but also learning on a deeper and more personal level. Jewish nonprofits could be more appealing places to work if they offered consistent space for processing our lives and meaning-making beyond the scope of office tasks.. 

The core of the Jewish learning process is the hevrutah approach to learning together. Imagine a Jewish nonprofit that began meetings by reading short, impactful Jewish texts in hevrutah — giving employees a chance to wrestle with big-picture questions together. Not everyone wants to share personally at work, and some boundaries are always needed. What I am describing is not therapy or coaching, but rather a value-centered processing space that many Jewish nonprofits can be uniquely equipped to offer. It shows everyone on our teams that we care about them as whole people. 

3.) We are a spiritual culture

Jewish organizations should be pluralistic, never imposing monolithic theologies or one way of religious observance; at the same time, we should embrace our awareness of the needs of the spirit, part of our institutional DNA. 

One way to do this could be emphasizing the importance of meals. After all, so much of Jewish spiritual life takes place over food. We could promote a healthy eating culture, one in which employees do not always eat at their desks but take time to nourish themselves with a walk, breathing and recentering. We might consider creating a dedicated space for communal eating in the office. This can be as simple as a breakroom with a table. With a few carefully chosen pieces of artwork, or even some candles or water fountains, this table can become the spiritual center of the office where employees go each day to connect and recharge. Taking time to eat meals can help the work culture become a little less frantic with doing and instead focus more on being. We can adapt to temporal demands but also root ourselves in the eternal. Sitting and eating together, for those who want that, does not make a work environment less professional — to the contrary, it can allow leadership to happen from a deeper and more meaningful place. 

Jewish nonprofits must focus on ways to internally cultivate the Jewish values we externally pursue. These values and processes exist already in Jewish culture; our task is simply to cultivate them in the office. From the CEO to entry-level staff, everyone can be leaning on these values. Jewish nonprofit work will always be demanding, requiring a lot of adaptation to new realities and involving a certain inevitable level of stress, but we can do more to add depth, authenticity and meaning to the herculean tasks involved. We may not be able to do it all at once, but together teams can take baby steps forward — and in this way come to offer workplaces with appeal beyond the larger paychecks of the for-profit sector. 

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, a national Jewish pluralistic adult learning and leadership center. He is also the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, a Jewish Social Justice organization; Shamayim, a Jewish animal advocacy movement; and YATOM, a Jewish foster and adoption network.