The Case for Executive Director as Lay Leader in the Jewish Community

By Stefan Teodosic

I was recently nominated to apply to a prestigious Jewish lay leadership development program. I was honored to be nominated and then a bit surprised, when told I was not able to apply due to the fact that I am a Jewish Communal Professional. I was informed that they had outstanding programs for Jewish professionals (which is absolutely true) and that this program was specifically for lay leaders in the community. Truthfully, it never occurred to me not to apply based on my role as an Executive Director of a Jewish not-for-profit. I was applying to the program based on my current board service in the Jewish community (Moishe House, Community Foundation for Jewish Education – JUF Chicago and AIJC – The Association of Independent Jewish Camps) and my desire to commit even more fully in the future.

There are honestly no sour grapes at all in the story. I understand that programs must have strict acceptance criteria and I respect this organization for being consistent in the application of its processes. However, this experience has made me think deeply about the fixed-mindedness that exists in our field, especially around the development of Jewish Communal Professionals.

A Jewish Not-for-Profit organization is a wonderful, complex and beautiful thing. In order to be successful it has to have the oversized heart of a mission based organization and the intentional, sustainable focus of a for-profit. It also has to inspire its constituents, steward donors and work with boards who have varying levels of skill and engagement. The Executive Director has to understand how to activate the board for maximum impact and guide the lay leaders to best understand their roles and responsibilities.

The last few years have been the best of my life both personally and professionally. We have welcomed 2 children into our family, my two Jewish overnight camps are flourishing and I have had the privilege of sitting on 3 Jewish not-for-profit boards – the Community Foundation for Jewish Education of the JUF (CFJE), The Association of Independent Jewish Camps (AIJC) and Moishe House. You might think that the most personal growth I have experienced during this time has come from being a parent – you would be right. You might think that I have grown the most professionally through the successful creation of a new NFP and acquisition of another summer camp – here, you would be wrong. Without a doubt, I have grown the most as an Executive Director, as a result of my service on the board of Moishe House.

My journey as a Moishe House board member has been transformational. It has been thrilling to support an outstanding organization and the experience has positively impacted me in so many ways. It has allowed me to serve an organization in whose outcomes I passionately believe. It has also allowed me to experience a quantum leap in my professional growth and has taken my leadership within my own organization to a higher level. I have been able to more skillfully shape the strategy of my own organization, I have taken my ability to fundraise to the next level and I have new appreciation for the finer points of high level not-for-profit governance.

There are a few key factors that have contributed to the success of this experience: a true cultural fit between myself and the organization, a solid commitment at Moishe House to lay leadership best practices and the full support of my own board. The cultural fit is critical, as it has given me the chance to invest my disposable time in something I believe in at my core. This has set the stage for all of the development that has come as a result of my service. Moishe House is also extremely intentional in its governance function. I am neither the wealthiest, nor the smartest person on the board, but I do have a particular skillset of running nonprofit organizations. I think that it was revolutionary for the Moishe House board to specifically target board members who had current, extensive experience as NFP operators. The experience we bring to the table and the additional lens that we use as lay leaders has proven to be extremely valuable. Finally, my Board of Directors has fully supported my lay commitment to Moishe House. They have challenged me to bring best practices into our organization and they are committed to learning from my experience.

We are overlooking the massive potential of a hybrid “professional as lay leader” development connection within the Jewish community. Therein lies the opportunity to merge the areas of professional staff development and lay leadership involvement with the goal of significantly moving the needle on both sides. We need to encourage nonprofit Executive Directors to experience lay leadership first hand as a core part of their development. Boards should commit to helping find an appropriate match for their Executive Directors and support them fully throughout the experience. They should also examine assistance to address the financial component of potential board service.

This is an untapped area of research, learning and investment in our field. This idea needs to be championed at the highest levels of the Jewish community to stimulate partnerships and examine models of engagement. We need to create cohort-building opportunities to scaffold Executive Directors as they embark on the journey of growth and the ultimate outcome value creation. We need to educate funders and engage them in supporting innovative models of staff-lay development.

In contrast to the experience I shared at the beginning of this article, I recently had the privilege of participating in a transformational experience through the Jewish United Fund of Chicago. The Nachshon Mission is an annual mission to Israel composed of high level lay leaders, donors and supporters of the local Jewish community. Every year they actively look for Jewish Communal Professionals to participate in the trip, learn alongside lay leaders and take their own development to the next level. I returned from this trip with a renewed passion for my professional role in the Jewish community. I returned with strong new relationships and several amazing new ideas for my organization. I returned with a drive to become much more deeply involved in the Chicago Jewish community at the lay level. Kudos to the leaders of this mission for thinking outside of the classic lay-professional framework and allowing me to experience the power of the intentional blending of both groups. I am thrilled at the prospect of what a thoughtful, strategic large-scale approach could yield for our professionals, our organizations and the future of our Jewish communities.

Stefan Teodosic is the Executive Director of Beber Camp, Perlman Camp and The Perlman Retreat Center. He has worked in the Jewish communal world for more than 20 years, including 16 years at the Executive Director level. Stefan has an MBA, has done strategy in the financial services industry and is currently on the board of Moishe House, the Community Federation for Jewish Education (CFJE) JUF/Jewish Federation of Chicago and the Association of Independent Jewish Camps (AIJC).