The Important Role of Newcomers to Jewish Communal Service

[This article is the fifth in Advancing Jewish Leadership: A Series on Jewish Context and Professional Practices. Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership is currently marking its 90th anniversary with the launch of the Center for Jewish Leadership. In this series, faculty, mentors, graduates, and staff of Spertus Institute’s graduate degree, certificate, and professional programs share valuable insights relevant to all those working for and with Jewish organizations.]

By Brian Zimmerman

Earlier this year, on a blustery morning in June, I attended the Greater Chicago Jewish Festival in Morton Grove, Illinois. Though I was new to the Chicago area, I wasn’t a stranger to Jewish festivals. I’d attended many in South Florida, where I grew up, and even more in New York, where I moved for graduate school. But this time was different. I wasn’t attending the festival as a guest. I was there as a staff member, a newly minted member of the Jewish communal professional world.

My career as a Jewish professional had started a little over a year before, when I accepted a job as a Marketing Associate at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership. I’d taken the job because it was in line with my skill set. A former journalist, I thought the Spertus marketing position would engage my writing and editing skills, and I appreciated that it came with the flexibility I needed to pursue my outside interests, like teaching and digital media.

Before arriving at Spertus, I wandered a discursive career path. I bounced from job to job, first as a web administrator for a literary organization, and then as a technical writer at a corporate e-commerce company. Both experiences provided financial stability and training in a host of professional skills. But I didn’t find the work fulfilling. The long hours I put in at my desk weren’t amounting to anything greater than the numbers on my paycheck. And at the end of the day, I left the office feeling more like a cog in a machine than a valued member of a community.

Coming into the Jewish communal world, I had more or less the same mindset. I didn’t know anything about the work of a Jewish professional, and I expected my job at Spertus to be more business as usual. What I didn’t expect was for the job to fundamentally change the way I thought about the Jewish community.

At Spertus, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some of the best and brightest minds in Jewish education. Members of the Spertus faculty are thought-leaders in the fields of Jewish learning and leadership, and their reputation attracts students and business innovators alike. Through this job, I’ve gotten to see firsthand how Jewish professionals make a difference in the community, and I’ve even been able to do some difference-making myself. I’d like to think the contributions I’ve made – including efforts that have introduced new programs and attracted new audiences – have inspired future leaders to take up their own initiatives and lead people for the greater good. And I’m proud to have played a part in spreading that message to the people of Chicago.

What I cherish most, however, are the connections I’ve made, not just to my coworkers and colleagues, but to my fellow members of the Jewish community. They, too, are my colleagues, and in the most meaningful way.

Prior to my arrival at Spertus, I used to think of the Jewish community the same way I regarded my previous jobs. My participation involved little more than showing up and taking care of the tasks assigned. If I didn’t want to fully participate, the Jewish community would carry on just fine without me. I erroneously believed that the Jewish community operated on some kind of self-perpetuating energy. Jews will always need synagogues, schools, and nonprofit organizations, I used to think. So of course those communal organizations will always exist! Who needs me?

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

As I’ve learned from my two years at Spertus Institute, it’s inaccurate to think that the Jewish professional community is a separate, bodiless entity that exists to serve the Jewish people. It’s much more personal than that. In reality, it’s the people – the lay leaders, Jewish professionals, nonprofit workers, synagogue clergy, Jewish educators, philanthropists, business professionals, and social workers – who serve the Jewish community.

Today, I am honored to be counted among the men and women, professionals and volunteers, who make up the Jewish communal world. As a Jewish professional, I can go home after a long day’s work knowing that the hours I spent writing and editing at my desk have helped open new doors for my fellow Jews. I’m an integral part of it. And now, more than ever, it is an integral part of me.

At the Greater Chicago Jewish Festival that morning, as I wandered the grounds and took in the sights, I realized something about how I perceived my role in the Jewish community. All around me, fellow Jewish communal workers were stationed at their assigned tables, handing out materials, sharing information about their organizations, trying to inspire change. They were doing their jobs. But there was another job to be done, and that was by the Jewish community members who were on the receiving end, learning about organizations and initiatives. Their job was to soak in the surroundings, internalize the feeling of being part of a community, and perhaps find the inspiration to get involved themselves.

I should know. I used to be one of them. Look where I am now.

Brian Zimmerman is the Content Editor at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, where he is currently teaching a Master Class on Social Media. He recently participated in the week long Tent: Journalism workshop in New York City, sponsored by the Yiddish Book Center, and is completing his MFA in Creative Writing at Northwestern University.

Previous articles in this series include:

Series Introduction: Insights from the Field and the Classroom by Dr. Dean P. Bell
The Building Blocks of Jewish Education by Dr. Barry Chazan
Timeless Lessons of Mentoring by Ellen Spira Hattenbach
Why is this Degree Different? by Aaron B. Cohen