The Scholarly Practitioner: A Way to Develop the Field of Jewish Communal Service

We should understand that by writing up our ideas, experiences, and thoughts we are inviting dialogue and discussion.

by Stephen G. Donshik

Throughout our careers as Jewish communal professionals we are often privileged to participate in implementing exciting new projects. We even have the opportunity to develop creative programs that respond to issues in the Jewish community. Occasionally the initiatives we either create or participate in are the focus of local media attention and receive positive responses from community leaders in the Jewish community and the broader community.

Many times we have had an impact on a group of people in the community or have enabled others to achieve their goals through the programs we have designed and implemented. It is not unusual for our efforts to be recognized as innovative and as having a wider impact than we anticipated when we developed the program or service. The agency’s professional and volunteer leaders are often responsive to our efforts and generous with their acknowledgment of what we have been able to accomplish.

However, after we developed such innovative approaches, have we enabled other agencies in our community and in other communities to learn about them? Have we shared our concepts, our program development experience, and our results with others who might be interested in replicating what has been successful in our agency? More often than not, the unique conceptualizations and approaches to service delivery developed in our voluntary agencies go unnoticed by other agencies because program planners do not share the experience and knowledge gained with others.

I would like to make the case now for the field of Jewish communal service to develop the concept of the “scholarly practitioner.” We, as Jewish communal professionals, have both a responsibility and an obligation to develop our field by creating a body of knowledge to be used in an interdisciplinary way to advance all of our efforts to nurture Jewish identity, strengthen our communities, and ensure the continuity of our people. For too long a time we professionals have looked to social scientists and academics to be the leaders in the field of knowledge development, and we have sought to understand the practical implications of what they have studied, analyzed, conceptualized, and published in journals and other publications.

Yet, each of us has the potential to make valuable contributions to the body of knowledge of colleagues in our own communities and other communities. There are a number of vehicles to disseminate this knowledge that we currently under-utilize, but instead should be exploiting as a means to share experiences and knowledge that can be the foundation of our field. If we would only make the effort to write up our innovative programs in the areas of, to name a few, professional and volunteer leadership development, service delivery, community relations, Jewish education, and interdisciplinary activities, we could have an exponential impact on community services and community life.

These publication venues extend beyond the Anglo-Jewish press that exists in most communities. Professionals should write up their experiences as individuals or in small groups and so disseminate their ideas through the Journal of Jewish Communal Service,, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, and a large number of websites focused on the Jewish community and on the nonprofit sector. An easier, though more ephemeral, way to spread knowledge is to make an oral presentation at a conference. But without being written down, the impact is lessened.

Many years ago when I was a young professional in the field, senior colleagues and mentors taught me that when you write something up, “it has feet.” When you commit your thoughts and ideas to the computer screen, what you write can be shared with many people by the click of a button. Writing something down also requires you to think through your thoughts and clarify your message; this extra step often gives your more insight into your experiences and also helps prevent misinterpretation of your ideas.

We should understand that by writing up our ideas, experiences, and thoughts we are inviting dialogue and discussion. We should not be afraid of being vulnerable to critics when we share our thinking and ideas. There is no question that some of our ideas we will be right on target and that others will incur criticism and disagreement. However, these differences of opinion will lead to dialogue and discussion that will enhance the further development of our various professional activities in the field of Jewish communal service.

Becoming a scholarly practitioner is well worth the investment, and it might even lead to the creation of local professional development forums that would provide a venue for the advancement of all the professionals in our local communities.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program. Stephen was Director of the Israel office of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), 1986-94, and Director of the Israel office of UJA Federation of New York, 1994-2008.