The Professional and the Jewish Non-Profit Organization

The most recent postings have dealt with the “Jewishness” of the Jewish non-profit organization and what contributes to characterizing it as a “Jewish non-profit organization”. In this week’s article I would like to focus on the role of the professional’s Jewish identity and practice. In every organization the policies are determined by the board and the services are delivered by the professional staff members. However, the staff members have an opportunity to both help shape the organization’s policies as well as to become the “face” of the agency in their contact with clients and members.

Historically, articles in professional journals have addressed questions like:

  • What role does the Jewish identity of the professionals play in their work in Jewish communal agencies?
  • Are there criteria for the knowledge base the professional should have about Judaism in order to work in a Jewish non-profit?
  • Are the professionals in the Jewish organization role models and should they exemplify a Jewish life style in their own lives?

Although the questions have been posed over many years there is no consensus when it comes to answering them.

In looking forward the issues have to be clarified and perhaps decisions have to be made to implement standards that begin to address the difference between a Jewish communal professional and a communal professional who is Jewish. In my opinion a Jewish communal professional is a professional in the Jewish community who not only practices a particular professional activity – social work, teaching, rabbinics, early childhood education, caring for the elderly, etc – but also represents Jewish values and practices in both the way they work in the Jewish community and the way they live their lives.

In establishing minimal criteria for Jewish practice the Jewish community is articulating preferences for the meaning of a Jewish lifestyle in the same way they have acknowledged preferences for professional practice and behaviors in the communal agencies. Of course one can ask what right do the communal organizations have to address the personal life style of people who work for the community. Similarly there are minimal standards for ethical behavior. The community would not tolerate someone who exemplifies anti-social behaviors that are in contradiction to the values of the general community. There are also specific behaviors that can be identified as not strengthening Jewish continuity and peoplehood.

Additionally the raising of a question about establishing minimal criteria for Jewish identification can be a red flag for many people. Immediately we think about whether we have the right to require people who work for the Jewish community to live their lives in any specific way. At the same time, if we accept that Jewish professionals are role models in the community and in the organization for the volunteer leaders, other staff members, clients and members, then we need to understand the seminal role Jewish communal professionals play in the community. It is much broader than just delivering a professional service in a voluntary organization that is providing social, educational and/or health services to people in need.

The aim is not to mandate observance of one form or another form of Judaism. Rather it is setting an expectation that someone who works for the Jewish community, and is a member of the Jewish community, has a made a decision to live a Jewish lifestyle that reflects Jewish values and their own values. It is a decision that is proactive and intentional rather than being apathetic or passive. It requires Jewish professionals to make a decision as to how they want to live as a Jewish person.

In the course of their professional and personal lives Jewish communal professionals have to communicate their connection to the Jewish people and their understanding of a concept of Jewish peoplehood. Jewish peoplehood refers to what unites us as a Jewish people without respect to the form or stream of Judaism that we find meets our needs. This is reflected not only in their personal lives but also in the day to day work with the voluntary leadership and staff of the the agency.

In order to make a decision about the nature of their Jewish lifestyle Jewish professionals need to have a basic knowledge of Judaism and Jewish practice. This is another red flag. What is needed for a Jewish person to make a decision about how they want to live as a Jew has not been defined. There are enough books on a range of topics that a basic Jewish library could be assembled and Jewish professionals could be required to read these books. They could then enter a process of either making a decision about their own lives or decide to engage more seriously in Jewish learning.

Based on this journey the Jewish professional would be in a position to decide (in an intentional way) how their lifestyle reflects a commitment to the Jewish people and to working for Jewish continuity. With this basic connection to the Jewish community in terms of a professional and personal commitment the communal professional will be a Jewish communal professional.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.