The Business of Meaning

small stars mosaicIn so many places, we’ve taken the Jewish out of the experience of working at Jewish communal organizations.

by Liz Fisher

As a Jewish communal professional myself, and as someone who has interviewed, supervised, and mentored dozens of young Jewish professionals, I’ve read the recent eJewish Philanthropy stories by Mark Young and Ken Gordon with great interest. Rather than compete, they actually complement one another; compensation and passion, the two theses presented, are indeed crucial.

I can’t help but wonder, though, where the Jewish piece comes in. We are not MIT Media Labs. We are not Google. We are Jewish organizations with budgets of varying size, finding ourselves under constant pressure to operate more leanly and to spend less on overhead (i.e. ourselves) while spending more on programs and our clients. Yes – we are getting more professional, strategic, and efficient, all very important things. And as we do so, it is crucial that we continue to remember who we are.

While money and perks are important, they are not what ultimately drive us. What does? Meaning. A recent article in The New York Times highlights organizational psychology research that indicates that people feel – and are – more successful when they believe that their work is meaningful and that there is a beneficiary.

This is why I’m saddened when, in my conversations with young professionals across the country (particularly those in larger organizations), I find that the system has moved away from meaning.

In our quest to professionalize, hire more MBAs, focus on results, and better use technology, it’s possible we’ve begun to forget who we are. In so many places, we’ve taken the Jewish out of the experience of working at Jewish communal organizations. We lament the lack of quality candidates knocking at our doors while competition to join the Teach for America corps grows to rival that of Ivy League schools, and millennials take unpaid internships at social justice organizations just to get their foot in the door. Millenials want to change the world, and were raised to believe they can. We’ve forgotten to make the case for how they can do it within our community.

Every morning, I wake up knowing that there are over 233,000 people who have been on Birthright Israel trips living in the United States (not including the thousands more that will depart on trips this summer). 233,000 people who were sparked, if even for a moment, to believe in something bigger than themselves – to feel a part of something wonderful, important, and holy.

In my work to harness that spark, I’m driven by the opportunity to empower an entire generation to explore their identities, build their communities, and enrich our American Jewish experience.

This is my meaning.

I feel lucky, because I work for an organization that has the resources to compensate me. I have a passionate team, and we have a lot of fun. But the reason I come to work each day? The stories of those 233,000 Birthrighters. The ones who return home from the trip and start their own Jewish projects in their communities. The ones who host a Shabbat dinner for their friends for the first time. The ones who become activists and advocates and artists and Jewish parents.

How many young professionals truly have this? How many fundraisers deeply believe, as John Ruskay often says, that when they ask for a gift, they are giving someone an opportunity to do the mitzvah of giving tzedakah? As my colleague and friend Shuki Taylor points out in the comments on Ken Gordon’s piece, this seamless integration of our day-to-day work and our Jewish ideals may be on the minds of many Jewish educators on a daily basis, but many of us working in the community don’t get the routine and immediate sense of enforcement that educators and social workers do. Most of us sit behind our computers. We write grant reports. We plan fundraising events. We respond to our bosses’ emails and those of our colleagues.

Of course we need to continue to professionalize our organizations, and to think about standards, accountability and efficiency. Of course we should aspire to provide increased compensation where it’s deserved, access to mentors, a creative workplace environment and professional development opportunities. But we also need to put the Jewish back into Jewish communal work.

Let’s take the opportunity to collectively remember why we got into this business in the first place. We are here because we are deeply committed to the future of Jewish identity and Jewish communities. We are here because we believe, deep down, that we have the opportunity to change our world.

Liz Fisher is the Managing Director at NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation.