To Keep Jewish Professionals, Let Them Go

By Adam Simon

[Note: This essay was originally published on September 22, 2014. We are republishing as a follow-up piece by Adam, “A Practical Guide to Embracing Sector Permeability,” will be available tomorrow.]

I recently attended a farewell party for someone switching jobs from one Jewish organization to another. Among many accolades, one person giving a toast said, “While we are sorry to lose him, at least he is still committed to working in the Jewish world.”

While I appreciate this sentiment – and believe the Jewish community stands to benefit from this person’s many talents – it points to a common assumption that Jewish professionals should hold lifelong employment in the Jewish sector. Yet for the next generation of professionals, signs suggest it won’t be the case.

Data consistently show that employees spend less time in any given position, changing jobs every three to five years, with over 40 percent of those changes to completely different sectors. The rates are even higher for younger talent.

After years of work and research in talent development in and out of the Jewish community, I have come to realize that we can leverage how people actually build their careers in order to strengthen the Jewish professional sector and continue to grow the quantity and quality of our talent.

It starts with embracing the concept of permeability. We talk today about working in the “Jewish world” as if it is an independent celestial body full of J-infused acronyms, hard-to-penetrate borders and scorn if you consider leaving. As a result, great people who don’t see a permanent place for themselves in the sector are inclined to leave and never return, while others don’t even consider becoming Jewish professionals in the first place.

In reality, the Jewish sector could be just as fluid and dynamic as some of the most competitive sectors in the world.

Take the high-tech sector, for example. Companies like LinkedIn offer great models for how to navigate and ultimately benefit from the transient nature of employment. LinkedIn’s approach is explained in “The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age,” a book written by its chairman, Reid Hoffman, along with Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh.

The professional networking platform hires people for “tours of duty” – two- to 10-year engagements with specific missions that meet company objectives and the employee’s personal development goals. Employees talk openly with their managers about leaving to do tours at other companies, but many also talk about coming back to LinkedIn when their needs align in the future.

This example shows that in order to fully leverage our porous structure, we need to communicate our understanding of our own permeability.

Indeed, instead of battening down the hatches, clinging to our employees and turning our backs to “outsiders,” we should send the message that while you are working in a Jewish organization, however long that may be, you will have an unparalleled opportunity to learn, grow and lay the groundwork for the career you envision.

Moving forward requires structural changes that embrace flexibility and promote the opportunities inherent in our sector. It requires ongoing and open conversations with rising talent about where they will go, and it requires us talking about the valuable skills and networks one can build working in Jewish organizational life.

Moreover, instead of denigrating people who choose to switch from the Jewish sector to a secular job, it means that we celebrate the fact that a non-Jewish organization recognizes the value of the skills gained in this sector.

It means that even as we bid farewell to staff members, we continue meaningful relationships with them, helping them find new opportunities, engaging their help in recruiting for our organizations, inspiring them and helping them to become key lay leaders for Jewish organizations. And finally, it means that we welcome those whose previous work experience is from outside the Jewish community.

By empowering individuals to spend a few years in the Jewish community building skills and networks, enhancing their professional and personal trajectories, and investing in a long-term relationship with them, we will attract and retain better talent to do this holy work.

Indeed, the more open and supportive the Jewish community becomes of individuals who embody the practice of moving between jobs and sectors, we will actually – perhaps counter-intuitively – create a more durable and attractive sector.

Adam Simon is the Director of Leadership Initiatives for the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.