Those Who Serve

When there’s an elephant in the room, it takes courage to be the one to call attention to it. This past Tuesday, in a webinar presented by the Jewish Communal Service Association, St. Louis Federation head Barry Rosenberg said it out loud: “I sense a real crisis in Jewish communal service.” He gave several reasons, including the difficulty in recruiting and retaining qualified people, and the “dissonance” between Jewish communal workers and amcha, the rank and file of the Jewish people, in relation to peoplehood and Israel.

Most surprisingly, he articulated a problem that is usually discussed behind closed doors. “We need to be very clear,” he commented, “that in great measure the conditions, policies, and attitudes under which we work are in the control of our lay leadership, and there are serious issues of lay/professional relations on both a policy level and on an operational, interpersonal level.” He sees a need for cultural change within Jewish communal institutions that needs to be better addressed by boards.

His comments came in the context of a study conducted by Prof. Steven M. Cohen. The research yielded a number of generalizations but gives little sense of how its conclusions might be applied to alleviating the challenges to communal professionals. It finds that those who serve Jewish communities have a disproportionately stronger Jewish background; they are more likely to have had Israel experiences; and they share common interests. None of this is surprising. Reflecting trends already well established elsewhere, the study also concludes that commitment to the Jewish collective is declining among younger professionals; the economic downturn affects younger workers more than older ones; and women are significantly underpaid.

Prof. Cohen acknowledges that the composition of the study’s respondents and the reliability of its numbers are questionable. The report notes that “some professionals identify themselves and some of their friends as Jewish communal professionals,” but “we have no clear definition of who should be considered.” About the “opt-in” methodology, where the respondents were self-selected, Cohen remarked in the webinar, “Social scientists look at these methods and they say, ‘It’s not entirely reliable,’ and that’s true.” He believes however, that “the similarities to other studies bear out the value of the study.” Leaving aside methodological concerns about the survey and its conclusions, this new focus on Jewish communal professionals as a group does recognize in a tangible way that our institutions are only as strong as the people in them.

The widening gulf between Jewish professionals and the Jewish general public parallels the findings about Jewish leaders in a study commissioned by the Avi Chai Foundation, which was discussed in this space several weeks ago. But the consequences are different. The gap in education, knowledge, and experience between the “haves” and the “have-nots” may have created an elite corps of young “leaders,” but the Jewish community does not depend on those young people for its basic communal services. It does depend on the people who work at federations, synagogues, youth organizations, and social services who account for two-thirds of the participants in this study. As it becomes more difficult to find and keep professionals who are knowledgeable and experienced, the system of communal organizations on which we rely will become less effective. Donations will decline, and the quality and quantity of communal services will spiral downward as budgets shrink.

As Barry Rosenberg said, it’s ultimately up to the lay leaders to turn things around. Given the chronic and sometimes flagrant problems in lay/professional relations, however, that’s not a hopeful diagnosis. Perhaps a far-seeing foundation will support a demonstration project to design a new governance model before it’s too late. That would be a better use of money than funding yet another dubious survey.

Bob Goldfarb, a regular contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy, is president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity. He lives in Jerusalem, and can be reached at bob [at] jewishcreativity [dot] org.