The Changing Nature of a Jewish Communal Professional

Being a Jewish communal professional today is more a statement about current employment than professional identity.

By Matt Freedman

Six months ago, I ended nearly 23 years of continuous professional service in Jewish communal organizations. From the day I graduated college, until that day six months ago, I spent not a single day of professional work outside Jewish communal organizations. Nor, until perhaps nine months ago, did the idea of working outside Jewish communal life even occur to me. From my first day, as a graduate Fellow at Hillel International, to my last day as a Vice President at Jewish Federations of North America, my Jewish journey and my career path were inextricable. My position today, overseeing development and helping to grow a non-sectarian nonprofit is both gut-wrenching and liberating and altogether unforeseen both by me and by the many exceptional mentors who helped build my career and to whom I remain deeply grateful.

What happened? When I began graduate school, in a program of professional Jewish communal training that no longer exists, a Jewish communal career path was neatly laid out. One began as a program associate, aspired to be a program director, and on up a chain of command, if you worked hard enough and were good enough, to become a CEO. You might have to move out (to a different community) to move up, but you never had to move away (to a different field). Senior professionals took younger professionals under wing, steering them through “the system” and building their career. A “Jewish communal professional” was a vocation; like being a lawyer or a doctor it was a lifelong identity.

To be sure, cracks in that system started many years ago and I am among those who held a hammer. When I was in graduate school getting my MPA as part of a dual degree program in Jewish Communal Service, I was told I could not apply for a FEREP scholarship (the Federation funded graduate program providing tuition assistance in exchange for a commitment to work in Jewish Federations, rather than other Jewish agencies) because I was not getting an MSW. By the early 2000’s, when I was a member of the FEREP selection committee, nearly all FEREP scholars were enrolled in a policy or management program; the debate was whether or not Jewish studies were a necessary component.

Soon what began as a broadening of pre-professional training became a trickle and then a flood of lay leaders moving into professional roles at senior levels. Today even professionals without Jewish volunteer experience are hired into senior management roles. These shifts first broadened the entry point and then breached the walls of Jewish communal service such that being a Jewish communal professional today is more a statement about current employment than professional identity. People who work in Jewish communal organizations are Jewish communal professionals. Yesterday, if they worked somewhere else, they weren’t. Tomorrow, if they work somewhere else, they won’t be.

My “cocktail party identity,” what I tell people I do for a living, has morphed from being a Jewish communal professional to being a fundraiser – and that mindset, at least for me, was forged by these recent trends well before my own career change. But for those trends, I would not have given the call from a headhunter a moment’s consideration. Instead, an opportunity that once would have seemed a diversion now struck me as a critical diversification of my resume, a potential career builder, and maybe most importantly, interesting. And I am not alone. Out of 22 graduates of the last JFNA Mandel Executive Development Program, at inception presented as the training path for the next generation of large city Federation CEO’s, fewer than a third remain in Federation (only two in a CEO position) and about half have left Jewish communal work altogether.

The breaking down of the silo of Jewish communal professional service is a fact. In some ways it is a betrayal of those, like me, who entered the field with a different understanding. In many ways it is a necessary response to the need to “run more like a business” and to innovate in an entrepreneurial era of Jewish life. Being a fact, lamenting or embracing is beside the point. What is needed is adaptation.

The challenge for adaptively building a talented corps of professionals in Jewish organizations is that my experience was in open waters. Unlike every other move through my career, this went largely beyond the experience and perspective of my mentors. The headhunter who approached me, and ultimately my new employer, gave me the language to describe my experiences in Federation as skill sets that could build a movement and grow philanthropy for a non-Jewish institution. I have participated in three hires since I started and each one has been for me a showcase of open minded, cast-the-net widely scouting. The organization was able to describe the range of talents it sought to recruit for various roles from diverse fields – political science, economics, and business administration – and how those talents would fit within the organization and support a well-articulated organizational vision. More fascinating still has been the conversation I have watched my CEO have with each new hire – guiding new staff to identify his or her personal mission statement and specific value proposition for the organization. When those missions have been accomplished, people have either moved on to new mission statements or moved out to new career ventures – all with encouragement from the CEO.

For me, adaptation has meant reconsidering my professional narrative and how I think about the jobs I have held as defining a personal mission. I have had to think about how my current role could add value for Jewish organizations if I one day return to communal work. And I have had to think anew about my Jewish identity and how to find meaning as a donor and volunteer in my Jewish community.

For Jewish communal organizations, I believe adaptation means a fuller acceptance of leadership responsibility to define, in advance of senior hires, organizational vision and the resources available to achieve it, coupled with a more deeply held understanding of professionals as a tool box of skills and traits. Adaptation means seeking candidates whose “tool box” most complements existing resources and best fits and augments vision and strategy, while working with employees to develop an explicit understanding of growth paths, including promotions and exits.

I am not where I thought I would be. I may be where I am supposed to be. Understanding that, how I got here, and where I should seek to go from here, has been a deep challenge to me and opened wide new horizons for me. Perhaps it is also a test case from which our community, its organizations, and its professionals can learn and grow.

Matt Freedman was Chief Strategy and Development Officer at The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore before serving as Associate Vice President for Philanthropic Resources at Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA). Currently, Matt is Vice President of Development at Securing America’s Future Energy.

This essay is the sixth in an on-going conversation focused on JFNA and the federation world. Previous articles can be found here. We welcome additional submissions – details are here.