The Kids are All Right

by Yehuda Kurtzer, PhD

In his recent article on eJp, Scott Brown laments the absence of great talent and a steady supply of young professionals into Jewish life, and blames the organizations and institutions for failing to create the systems to invite in, grow and ultimately keep this talent. While I admire the self-reflective tone of Brown’s piece, most of the prescriptions that Brown offers (tools for retention and growth, e.g.) together with the correctives that commentators have added (better salaries!) – while valuable and needed – seem to be less specific to the Jewish professional sector, and merely good practices across the board for healthy professional environments.

What’s more, having spent two years recently on the faculty of the Hornstein program and meeting three classes of eager and talented prospective Jewish professionals, I sense that there actually is an extraordinary wealth of talent flowing into the Jewish world, whether via mainstream institutions or the innovation/start-up sector. I can share from anecdotal experience that the Jewish world also benefits from mid-career shifts and the influx of qualified professionals seeking to bridge their skills with their passions. Put differently: on a human resource level, I think there is a much greater abundance of talent in Jewish life than one might discern from Brown’s tone.

The conversation that is sorely lacking in the Jewish professional world is what we are offering to our colleagues and employees that keeps them oriented towards the specific demands of this work – to the missions and goals that come with working on behalf of the Jewish people and its institutions. I made this point adamantly to my Brandeis students: it is one thing to succeed in the work involved with Jewish professional leadership. There are skills to be learned, best practices to be adopted, and a landscape that needs to be mapped and understood. Most of the training we provide orients our students towards these professional skill sets. But then there is the stuff of motivation and aspiration, the sense of calling that keeps us in and pushes us through bureaucracies, conference calls and solicitations.

What are we teaching and learning in and around our institutions that impels us – and especially younger professionals – to see this work as aspirational, to continue to care deeply about the end goals even as they are stuck in the weeds and those goals are harder to envision? By far the most underserved population in the Jewish landscape with respect to ongoing learning are the professionals. Our community has invested heavily in lay-leaders and rabbis; it is the professionals and the educators who we see in the awkward position of being most connected to the implementation and transmission of Jewish ideas, and least supplied on an ongoing basis to renew their own resources towards those responsibilities.

This investment cannot merely be in the realm of leadership skills and the resources broadly applicable across professional sectors. One traditional term used to describe Jewish leaders – usually rabbis and cantors – is klei kodesh, alternatively translatable as ‘holy vessels’ or more accurately ‘the vessels of the sanctuary.’ The latter translation is more useful here and gets us away from the problematic theology. Our community’s institutions – big or small – represent the encapsulation and implementation of our ideas, which in turn have been our greatest legacy as a people. These institutions are our sanctuary, and they are served and ministered beautifully. But I sense we don’t take well care enough of these vessels in orienting them towards the holiness of their task. In the past year, with the launch of our North American branch of the Shalom Hartman Institute, we have been seeking to fill this need in Jewish life – to be a source of learning, thinking, ideas and inspiration for the Jewish professionals with the potential to lead Jewish life. I hope we will not be alone in this journey.

Yehuda Kurtzer is President, The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.