By Dani Serlin
Despite recent headlines, and ongoing challenges faced by Jews and Jewish communities in Europe, Jewish life is thriving in many places, fulfilling to those who are engaged, and a phenomenon very much of the present.
This is in large part due to the hard work, commitment, and passion of our fellow Jewish community professionals, educators, and activists.
And at the same time in European Jewish communities, like countless other Jewish communities around the world, the attitude towards a career in the Jewish community is not generally met with great enthusiasm or respect from family, friends, and even wider Jewish circles.
We have been slow to recognise this problem as a challenge to our sustainability and growth, and to put meaningful comprehensive structures and narratives in place to address this. If we don’t value this contribution and don’t invest in it, we cannot fully realize the potential of our staff or our communities.
Building on existing foundations, imagine how much more creative, impactful and widespread engagement in Jewish life could be if individuals working for the Jewish community, literally on the front lines, were significantly invested in in new and sustainable ways. What opportunities for personal growth, development, inspiration, and connection would they bring to their peers?
Given the investments we make in our institutions and community programs, it’s obvious that working as a Jewish community professional or educator in Europe is important and results in significant contributions that benefit us all. Let’s take the next step then and give the people who are the backbone of our communities the best chance to be successful, both personally and professionally.
We can start by investing in access to a choice of quality training, resources, and support. We need to offer shared learning spaces for pan-European connection that combat working in isolation – especially among local Jewish communities facing an array of challenges – and are an intensive source of inspiration.
I believe it is important to have a framework of initiatives that allow us to be responsive and flexible in meeting the professional development and Jewish fluency needs – knowledge, understanding, questioning, and application of Jewish concepts and text – of European Jewish community professionals at different stages of their careers and in all different types of roles.
Recognizing that there are some great standalone opportunities for development – one-off trainings, consultancy, mentoring – our aim should be to create not only our own quality training to fill the gaps, but to provide access to other opportunities where funding, training in languages beyond English, geographic location of events, and time would no longer be barriers to progression.
At Yesod – an initiative of American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, and the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe – we’ve focused over the last 3 years on investing in the success of Europe’s Jewish community professional cohort.
What we’ve learned from the hundreds of professionals we’ve engaged to date is that in addition to the critical moral support and respect they desire, four areas can help them flourish and make our communities stronger:
1. Pan-European Seminars: Such platforms not only offer a space to share skills and learning, but also build a network among Jewish communities that often feel like they are operating alone. They combine professional skills development with Jewish fluency and aim to meet senior, mid-level, and early stage professionals where they are and then build connections with colleagues across the spectrum. Topics have included working with Boards, navigating complex community realities, and how to make Jewish knowledge accessible to folks from various backgrounds. A recent example of a creative result of these kinds of gatherings brought several Kaplan Fellows – professionals of all backgrounds from Jewish communities outside of America and Israel participating in JDC’s Kaplan Leaders Initiative for overseas Jewish professionals – to arrange an event in Paris to showcase international initiatives such as Junction, Moishe House, and JAcademy for wider engagement and learning.
2. Professional Development Fund: Europe-wide with local implementation, this fund enables professionals to choose their own training course or work with a coach in their hometown, in their own language, and in a timeframe that suits them. Given tight budgets and the fact that professional development often falls low on the day-to-day priorities of many Jewish communities, it is critical to ensure for the long term – both recruiting and retaining staff – that funding is available for professionals who want these kinds of opportunities and will make the most out of them to the benefit of their careers and communities. One senior professional from the Jewish Community of Athens was able to improve their organisational and team management skills because of coaching support. Another professional, this time from the Danish Jewish Community, undertook training on producing video content for social media and was immediately able to create good quality content for each day of Chanukah, reaching nearly 2,000 people by the final day.
3. Jewish Learning Scholarships: providing access to year-long intensive Jewish study either in Talmud/Tanach, or academic and pedagogical learning to broaden and deepen Jewish educator knowledge and skills in order to insert another level of meaning into their work and practice and pass on this learning, critical to Jewish identity, to their peers and constituents. This type of study has noticeably raised the level of knowledge of a Bulgarian Jewish community educator, returning home from study in Israel over Pesach to deliver Jewish educational programming during the festival. In a Jewish community that has blossomed in its Jewish leadership and program offerings, especially since the fall of communism, this educational fare is both wanted and needed to continue this community’s success as it explores its Jewish identity in new ways.
4. Digital resources: Hosting digital resources, the most user friendly and easily accessible platform today, makes learning and training/information more widely and instantly available and in diverse formats, catering to the different ways people learn. By sharing monthly curated materials on a range of topics, combined with practical tools for teamwork and programming, and raising awareness of other development, grants and job opportunities available from other organisations, we have built a cohort of interested people who are taking advantage of these offerings, sharing them widely, and building a network of people who will or want to contribute professionally or make a career in the Jewish community. These include podcasts on how we tell our story in compelling and relatable terms, inclusivity best practices, and webinars on volunteer management.
Above all, these kinds of initiatives put individual choice up front and foster a professional development journey that will reap benefits for the community at large. We are currently expanding our capacity to ensure we deliver individual professional development and strengthen our ongoing work with alumni through a pilot seminar in Designing Meaningful Jewish Experiences, in Budapest in July, to be delivered in partnership with M²: the Institute of Experiential Jewish Education. As a step towards achieving our shared goal of a strong and inspired Jewish community professional leadership, we invite you to join us on this journey.
Engaging with, working for, and building the Jewish community should be a fulfilling lifelong relationship, not a fling where meaning and impact are elusive. Let’s pledge today to ensure that those who are dedicating their professional lives, and personal passion, to the Jewish community get what they need to help us build a European Jewish future of which we can all be proud.
Dani Serlin, the Director of Yesod, is a veteran Jewish professional who previously led Limmud International.