Seeking Legacy Organizations for Qualified Jewish Professionals

By Adina Frydman and Lyn Light Geller

We recently attended the Women in Power conference, convened by 92nd Street Y and Jewish Community Centers Association of North America, where we heard from several inspirational women* who are leading Jewish organizations and initiatives. The conference explored how to encourage and support women to pursue positions of power. What struck us was how each one, in her own way, talked about the benefits of being involved in start-up ventures where they could have a direct hand in creating the kind of environment they wanted for themselves and their professional teams. While it was inspiring to hear about this future world they were creating, there was also something disturbing about what this means for our field.

Let’s take a step back. At a time when the American Jewish community is rapidly changing, it is critical that Jewish organizations function at their highest level.[1] For many, this means transforming the way they operate to adapt to today’s workplace realities, including

  • Reflection of the full diversity: Organizations are beginning to consider how their professional and lay leadership teams can more fully reflect the diversity of our Jewish community, embracing Jews of all hues.
  • Gender equity: Organizations are considering changes in policies, systems, and culture to bring gender equity to workplaces.
  • Inclusion of all abilities: Organizations are starting to adapt their physical structures, policies, and culture so that people of all abilities can more fully participate.
  • Safety and security: Organizations are taking steps to ensure the physical, psychological, and emotional safety of those in Jewish communal spaces from threats including anti-Semitism and harassment.
  • Transparency and authenticity: Organizations are recognizing the need for transparency and authenticity across all channels of communication, delivering real-time information and open and honest conversations in a timely fashion.
  • Development of great places to work: Through the work of Leading Edge, hundreds of Jewish nonprofits are getting input from their staff and creating solutions to challenges in the existing culture and systems identified by this data. This includes a relaxation of policies for working remotely, new paternity-leave policies, and the creation of career ladders and professional development opportunities.
  • Growth of startups supported by legacy foundations and federations: Legacy organizations play a unique and critical role for start-ups, including serving as key funders and opening the possibility of transformation on both sides of these relationships.
  • Blossoming of talent development programs: Shepherded by visionary leadership, more Jewish professionals have access to learning and growth activities, which may lead to more current practices and approaches being brought back to our organizations.

So much has happened, and yet so many issues need to be addressed.

These changes are not happening fast enough, and as a result, our pipeline for talented professionals and leaders may be suffering. Why should they work in a Jewish legacy organization if they can work in a more adaptable corporate setting, go out on their own, or work in a startup hip to all these new sensibilities? According to the most recent Leading Edge survey, 69% of respondents had a favorable response to the statement, “I would recommend my organization as a great place to work.” This was 16% below the U.S. benchmark. It should be noted that this 69% included both legacy and start-up organizations – so we have a lot of work to do.

Now, it is true that many exceptional colleagues still do work in legacy organizations, often because of their commitment to the organizations’ missions and despite their frustrations with the stasis within their organizations. A deep connection to mission does not compensate for other workplace challenges. How employees view and discuss their experience at work has implications related to recruitment, the organization’s reputation in the community, and even fundraising potential.[2] Some legacy organizations have started the necessary adaptations, but there is still much work to be done.

So, what can we do about it?

1. Make space and empower younger professionals in the organization to radically reimagine culture

By including younger professionals on HR internal culture committees, some of these sensibilities will begin to seep into conversations. This is particularly true if the committees are empowered to make recommendations actually adopted by the organization. In addition, organizations would benefit from a culture of honest feedback where dissatisfaction has a healthy and constructive outlet, professionals feel heard, there is authentic and deep reflection happening at all levels, and a complaint is seen as an opportunity to turn things around. Finally, along with regular employee satisfaction surveys and focus groups, organizations should adopt the standard operating procedure of holding exit interviews for employees leaving the organization. Often, these employees are the most open to sharing honest feedback.

2. Support the adaptation of legacy organizations to become great 21st century places to work

As a community, we should continue to invest in consultants and training for organizational development interventions (e.g. diversity training) in addition to programmatic funding to implement changes to policy, systems, and culture. If there’s resistance to investing in “overhead,” organizations should consider educating lay leadership and donors on the indirect impact that outdated culture could have on their bottom line (in addition to checking out

3. Continue to invest in excellent and relevant talent development at all levels of the organization

Organizations like UJA-Federation of New York, JPRO Network, Leading Edge, and foundations such as Wexner, Charles and Lynn Schusterman, Jim Joseph, Mandel, etc. have deeply invested in excellent and relevant talent development opportunities. At the same time, organizations must support, encourage, and prioritize talent development for their professionals. Both time and dollars need to be earmarked toward this commitment.

4. Provide opportunities for start-up and legacy professionals to come together to share experiences, hopes, and dreams

Over the years, UJA-Federation has convened professionals at legacy and start-up organizations to foster connections that might lead to lasting relationships and cross-pollination. Foundations and federations should consider opportunities to create structured and informal encounters to knit the organizational ecosystem, de-emphasize the polarization between legacy and start-up, and encourage bi-directional learning opportunities and collaborations. We have much to learn from each other.

It is critical that we invest in ongoing, deep-tissue transformation that is adaptive rather than just technical. We are fortunate to work at a legacy organization that has begun some of the adaptations to the changing landscape, and still, the work continues.

Our tradition teaches us that “… as go the leaders, so go the people.”[3] An adaptation to this might be “… as go our organizations, so goes the community.” Any way we look at it, our fates are all intertwined. We are at a moment ripe for strengthening. Let’s make sure not to miss it.

Adina Frydman is Executive Director and Lyn Light Geller is Associate Executive Director of Community Resources at UJA-Federation. Through Community Resources, UJA provides a suite of services and programs to strengthen the NY Jewish community and its communal organizations.

*Panelists: Sara Shapiro-Plevan, Partner, The Gender Equity in Hiring Project; Rabbi Sara Luria, Co-Founder, Beloved; Nicole Nevarez, National Director, Ta’amod

Conference organizers: Joy Brand-Richardson, Vice President and Director of Training and Professional Development, JCC Association of North America; Julie Mashack, Director of Global Networks and Programs, Belfer Center for Innovation and Social Impact at 92nd Street Y

[1] Are Jewish Organizations Great Places to Work? Results from the Third Annual Employee Experience Survey 2018 Survey Report

[2] Ibid.

3] Adapted from “so goes the leader so goes the culture. so goes the culture so goes the company;” Sinek, Simon. Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t.