Should I Stay or Should I Go? Jewish Communal Professionals and Career Advancement

By Dahlia Bendavid

Having worked in the Jewish community for a while now, the term Jewish communal professional still seems odd to me. It does not exactly roll off the tongue. Mention it to any person just starting out working in the Jewish community and chances are they have never heard the term. When our local Jewish Professional Resource Organization (JPRO) advertises programs, we always end up with one or two people who are professionals in the community that happen to be Jewish, not realizing that the program is for those that work for Jewish organizations. It is not like there is a one size fits all educational track for those working in the Jewish community. Yes, there are a few master’s degree programs for this field, as my search online revealed (Hornstein at Brandeis, Zelikow at Hebrew Union College, Spertus, Gratz), yet how many college or graduate students know this is an area of study to pursue and an opportunity for a career? From my understanding, it used to be that a master’s degree in social work was a prerequisite for working in the Jewish community. For many, as was my case, they may have stumbled into this type of work after working in another field. Probably for those working in the Jewish community, most have bachelor’s degrees in fields such as marketing, economics, accounting, history or English, as well as those with a master’s degree in social work, business or another field. Hiring employees with education backgrounds in different disciplines, as well as different work experiences is an advantage.

It is interesting to hear from people why they chose to work in the Jewish community. Some may indeed have wanted to work in the Jewish community since they were a teenager. Maybe they worked as a counselor in a day camp or Jewish overnight camp. Maybe they were involved in their youth group and wanted to emulate their youth group advisor. Maybe as a college student or post-college they went on a Birthright trip, had a transformational experience and decided to dedicate their life to working for the Jewish community. Maybe after working for a few years they came across a job posting and decided to apply. Whatever the motivation for taking that first job in the Jewish community, surely it included doing something with a sense of meaning and for the greater good. A desire to wake up in the morning with excitement and anticipation for the new day, a sense of opportunity, learning, making the world a better place and transforming people’s lives may also have been factors. Most likely, this is how the majority of people feel during their first few months or years on the job. Hopefully, most still feel this way, even if it is years later.
There has been a lot of discussion over the last few years about attracting new talent to the field of Jewish communal service, as well as retaining current talent. What is the key to hiring and retaining top talent? Aside from meaningful work, fair compensation (this is definitely an issue in the Jewish nonprofit sector, especially for women), development opportunities, challenging work, organizational culture, and work-life balance, there is the issue of career advancement.

Leading Edge is an organization created in 2014 to “look at attracting, developing, and retaining top talent for Jewish organizations by creating a forum for the sector to address talent and culture issues.” The focus includes both lay and professional leadership. According to the results of their pilot Employee Engagement Survey of 2016, employee engagement drops off after the first year of employment. Yet, for those who remain with their organization for more than ten years, engagement increases. Whether engagement decreases because of too much work, too little pay, not enough training, or lack of advancement opportunities probably varies from person to person. Advancement opportunities are lacking and, according to the survey, many don’t plan on staying with their organization, or in the Jewish nonprofit field because of this issue. Job security is not as prevalent as it once was. Many younger employees entering the workforce may not feel the need to stay in one position for a long time. They are constantly thinking of the next step, their next title change, their next salary increase and have expectations of achieving the next level in their career at a quick pace. Many do not hesitate to move around and change jobs every year or two. If they were to see a career path or options available to them within the organization where they work, they may consider staying in their position a little longer. For many employees, career advancement leads to retention and can be a motivator.

In Leading Edge’s 2018 survey, Are Jewish Organizations Great Places to Work, 52% of respondents wanted to advance within their organization, yet only 38% see opportunities for advancement.

Even veteran employees, those whose engagement increases, may feel frustrated with career advancement opportunities. Whether they are in their early 30’s or mid-50’s, they may be experiencing the same challenges as newer employees. They may find meaning in their work, fit in with the workplace culture, yet feel stuck. They may not necessarily want to relocate to another city to advance in their career.

Victor Lipman of Forbes, based on his experience as a manager at numerous companies notes, “At times when career paths were clear, individuals tended to be more motivated, with tangible goals to work towards. At times when career paths were dim or nonexistent, individuals tended to be less motivated, less focused, more uncertain. That’s why it makes good business sense for organizations of all sizes to spend time developing and maintaining thoughtfully structured career path systems.”

Human capital is an organization’s most valuable resource. How can organizations help new recruits and current professionals with their career development? While identifying one of the issues many organizations in the Jewish community are grappling is important, so is providing some solutions. Here are a few that may be helpful. Even if some or all of these points are part of an organization’s strategy, a reminder is sometimes a good thing.

  • When hiring new professionals, make sure to review the workplace culture, the current organizational chart and staff positions. Be honest about the ability to advance – is there a formula for career advancement, a linear career path, additional information to be shared?
  • Provide ample professional development opportunities. If your organizational budget does not allow for a robust program, consider collaborating with other organizations to offer employees learning opportunities or look to your local JPRO.
  • When a professional expresses interest in advancing their career, whether it be a higher-level position in the same department or a different position, explain what competencies are needed to qualify for this position. Maybe it is a course, experience working with leadership, learning solicitation skills, or working on presentation skills. Advise and guide.
  • Give professionals opportunities and “stretch assignments” that will help them gain experience.
  • Consider implementing a mentoring program.
  • Many people have strengths and skills that go beyond their job responsibilities. Seek out ways to help them utilize these strengths beyond their current position. Give them a project unrelated to their current role. This could be a win-win for both the employee and the organization.

For the employee it is helpful to remember that the responsibility for career advancement does not solely rely on the organization. Everyone must be accountable for his or her own career path. Be proactive.

  • When contemplating taking a new position, ask questions about professional development and advancement opportunities.
  • Increase your knowledge by taking a class or learning a new skill. Suggest a particular training area to your supervisor. Explain how learning this skill will provide value to the organization.
  • Ask for a “stretch assignment” outside your area of expertise.
  • Suggest working on a project not in your area of responsibility. This is a good way to learn about other areas in your organization and work with different colleagues.
  • Find a mentor.
  • Join professional networking groups and professional associations. Building relationships and a network can be extremely beneficial.

It is up to each of us, as individuals and as organizations, to create a work environment where employees are happy and thrive. A work environment where job seekers say “I want to work in the Jewish community because I want to work for an organization that shares my values, is mission driven, and is known for creating positive work experiences; an environment that is nurturing and cares about its employees, which includes offering opportunities to learn, grow and advance.” The bottom line is everyone wants to work for an organization that truly is a great place to work.

Dahlia Bendavid is the Israel and Overseas Director at the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. She holds a Master of Science in Industrial Labor Relations and did not set out on a course to work in the Jewish community.