The Ethical Imperatives: Codes of Conduct and Jewish Practice

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

During a time frame where the ethical behavior of leaders in all different fields of endeavor has come under increasing attention, what role do codes of conduct play within our community? Such documents articulate the ethical standards that an organization or professional group wishes to foster with its leadership. In some measure, such declarations serve as a public statement of what the association strives to represent.

These standards provide measures by which one can evaluate individual performance and organizational practice. These guidelines offer professionals, employed in high profile settings, such as rabbis, educators, communal professionals, and cantors, essential information in managing ethical dilemmas and complex leadership issues. Moving beyond legal standards of practice, ethical codes place special emphasis on professional integrity by placing particular emphasis on the beneficiaries or clients who are the recipients of communal and institutional service.

We can identify Jewish texts focusing on ethical behavior[1], best business practices, and human relationships. The rabbis intended that their counsel and guidance in these areas would be understood as binding; their statements were not to be seen as merely words!

In a time frame where some professionals and organizational leaders have been charged with sexual exploitation, by using their positions, knowledge or power to victimize others, there have been proposals in some settings that call for the appointment of victim advocates to represent the interests of a complainant[2]. More recently, various organizations have taken steps to revamp the methods and means of reporting unethical behavior and inappropriate personal conduct. Other recommendations have called for communal and religious professionals to participate in regularized review classes focusing on these standards of practice. Some professional associations and community organizations have introduced text study programs centered on Jewish legal imperatives around business ethics and interpersonal relationships. Increasing attention has also been given to the issues of civility, managing personnel, and working with lay leaders.

A growing number of institutions are exploring proactive steps including “wellness” initiatives as a way to help employees, students and others cope with stress and other workplace or classroom setting issues as a way to step out in front of some of the personnel challenges that impact organizational practice.

In reviewing a number of these ethical codes that were designed for the Jewish communal and religious sectors, several common elements are present:

  • Ethical imperatives on performance and best practices
  • Contractual obligations and expectations of conduct
  • Personal wellbeing and family-related concerns
  • Jewish/Hebrew (ethical) references

Indeed, the process of creating a code of professional practice can be itself challenging. This was demonstrated, for example, by the work of the 2008 Task Force of Jewish Communal Professionals of Southern California who were charged with creating The Covenant of Jewish Professional Leadership –  Brit HaMiktzo. In a Journal of Jewish Communal Service article, Marsha Katz Rothpan identified the complex issues that were raised:

  • We have a kaleidoscope of jobs in our field, but what makes us a profession?
  • What are the markers of a profession?
  • We do not offer Jewish communal professional licensing, nor do we have an agreement on what continuing education or professional development should be required or contain.
  • Is it the job of this task force to determine the agreed upon set of knowledge?
  • Who should decide what ongoing curriculum to require for the general field?
  • What are the implications if someone “breaks the covenant”?
  • Can people who do not work in a Jewish organization still consider themselves to be Jewish communal professionals? In other words, should the setting define the individual’s identity with our profession, or does the individual define who he or she is in relation to the Jewish communal profession?

For purposes of this article, we have elected to reproduce the Jewish Communal Professionals of Southern California (JCPSC) Covenant of Jewish Professional Leadership (Brit HaMiktzoa).

This Covenant articulates an understanding of the commitments and responsibilities of the Jewish communal professional. It identifies the values underlying the field and acknowledges the role of the professional in contributing to the enrichment of Jewish life and the broader community. Jewish communal professionals are trustees of both institutional mantles and communal interests. The insights and values of the Jewish tradition undergird the Jewish communal system and serve as a guide for the conduct of the Jewish communal professional. The openness of North American society, that honors and encourages religious, ethnic and cultural pluralism, provides a unique context for the Jewish communal enterprise and informs the work of the Jewish communal professional.

Jewish communal professionals are engaged in the sacred task of helping the Jewish people realize its potential to be “a nation of priests and a holy people.” Regardless of one’s personal religious beliefs, being a Jewish communal professional is a sacred calling to serve the needs of both Jews and non-Jews, repair the brokenness of our world   –  Tikkun Olam, – and lead the creative evolution of the Jewish experience.

As a Jewish communal professional, I agree to conduct myself in accordance with the spirit and intent of the following standards of professional excellence:

The Jewish People (Clal Yisrael)

I am committed to the continuity and well being of the Jewish people. Thus, I have the responsibility to:

  • Cultivate positive Jewish identity, commitment and literacy,
  • Promote a sense of Jewish peoplehood,
  • Enhance the quality and vitality of Jewish life,
  • Ensure the care of our most vulnerable community members.
  • I recognize that the diversity of the Jewish community contributes to its strength and I strive to promote mutual understanding and acceptance within and between the various religious, ethnic and national elements of the Jewish people.

Community (Kehillah)

I understand that as a member of my local Jewish community, I have a responsibility to participate actively in the affairs of the community, both as an expression of good citizenship and as a model for others.

Israel (Yisrael)

  • I recognize the unique relationship between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora and the vital role of Israel in Jewish life.
  • I will increase my understanding of this relationship and remain educated about current events in Israel and those impacting Israel around the world.
  • I will be engaged with Israel and will work to promote greater Israel-Diaspora communication and interaction.

Continuing Education (Limmud)

  • I will continue to expand my Jewish understanding and knowledge.
  • I will continue to improve my professional skills.
  • I will contribute my knowledge, skills and support to improve the quality of Jewish professional practice through avenues appropriate for me including mentoring, writing, speaking, or other methods.
  • I will stay current with contemporary issues facing the Jewish community, both locally and globally.

Ethical Conduct (Derech Musar)

  • I accept responsibility for helping to protect the community against unethical practice by any individual working in the Jewish community or by any organization with which I am involved.
  • I will hold myself responsible for the quality and integrity of my work.
  • I will endeavor to balance my professional responsibilities with my personal responsibilities so that neither will be neglected for the sake of the other.
  • I will distinguish clearly and publicly between my statements and actions as an individual and as a representative of my organization and profession.
  • I will conduct myself in a manner consistent with and respectful to that of the organization I serve, even if my personal views and observance may differ.

Respect for the Individual (BTzelem Elohim)

  • As professionals, we are committed to the wellbeing of all individuals, Jewish or non-Jewish, regardless of age, race, cultural background, religious practice, belief, gender, sexual orientation or sexual identity.
  • I will respect the confidentiality, viewpoints and privacy of persons served by my organization, of volunteer associates, and of colleagues.
  • I will act upon all information gathered in professional relationships in a responsible and disciplined manner.
  • I will treat the findings, views and actions of my colleagues with respect and will use appropriate channels whenever I express judgments on these matters.
  • I will work to prevent and eliminate all forms of discrimination in the work place in hiring polices and practices.
  • I will respect the richness of the diversity within both Jewish and non-Jewish life and practices.

Recognition (Kavod)

I understand the need to recognize the good work of both colleagues and lay leaders and will endeavor to give my colleagues and volunteers the honor and recognition they deserve for their work.

Philanthropy (Tzedakah)

I will demonstrate my understanding of and belief in the principles of tzedakah through appropriate participation in the philanthropic support of the Jewish community and its institutions, locally, nationally and globally.

Other Models of Practice:

Posted below are a number of ethical codes, representing some 15 Jewish professional and community-based organizations and membership bodies. Indeed, there are many more that might be referenced and studied. While one can identify a number of similar standards and ethical practices, there are also distinctive differences among these documents, depending on the respective field of service and the religious or secular character of the organization or discipline. Of importance as well are the methods of enforcement and the expectations of performance that vary according to professions[3].


In an age where one’s antennae is particularly attuned to such issues as sexual and personal misconduct, financial improprieties, and institutional mismanagement, creating standards that allow one’s peers and organizational leaders to measure and enforce best practices represents an essential requirement and characteristic of good governance and responsible leadership.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. Many of his writings can be found on his website,