Wandering in the Desert of the Jewish Communal Workplace: Gleanings from Mentoring for Equity Applications

By Rachel Eisen and Sara Miller-Paul

When we created Mentoring for Equity last year, we based the initiative on certain assumptions informed by personal experience and anecdotal evidence about a need in the field and how we as volunteers could help fill it in our “spare time.” In less than a year of making matches, we’ve learned about the field more deeply – especially as some of our assumptions were confirmed, disproved, and/or deepened. Because our intent is to help advance and improve the Jewish nonprofit sector, we want to share what we’ve learned about career development, working parenthood, and perceptions about expertise as a result of our inaugural rounds of matching mentors.

Upon beginning to read the applications, we noticed that a number of women are searching for what we might term “career counseling.” They know they want to advance in this field, but they don’t know where they want to end up, or the next steps they need to take.

This desire for career advancement mentorship suggests the field lacks guidance about career paths and individuals lack support to initiate those conversations. It also suggests managers don’t yet have the necessary skills to have those conversations with their employees in a supervisory context. Other than aiming toward “CEO,” perhaps, entry-level and mid-career Jewish communal professionals don’t have a clear sense of how to grow and develop while staying in the sector. And while not everyone follows a traditional path (which is, of course, perfectly fine!), just knowing what the path is – or rather, what the variety of paths can be – is critical for figuring out next steps.

We believe that mentoring is markedly different from career coaching or counseling. Rather than helping find the various options that exist, or suggesting a path to fit a particular skill set, a mentor shares their experience and uses it to help strategize. Although we were, in some cases, able to match mentors based on the search for career advice, it isn’t what we intended, nor how we are structured.

We also received many requests for mentors who could help figure out “work/life balance” – especially around working parenthood. We know family leave in the Jewish communal field is not standard, and just like the lack of model career paths, there are, too, a lack of model working parents (and a lack of women who offered that as an area of expertise).

When it came to making mentoring matches, we quickly learned many of our participants had preconceived notions about hierarchy and who could offer mentorship for whom. These beliefs didn’t match up with our own conceptions of who gets to claim expertise, and so we encouraged participants to think more broadly about what it means to be a mentor.

We know that our sector has vast discrepancies in the positioning and naming of roles. A Development Manager in one organization could have the same job responsibilities as a Chief Development Officer somewhere else. Knowing this, we focused less on titles, and more on matching someone with self-described expertise as the mentor of someone seeking that expertise. When we introduced two women with titles close to one another, we would sometimes receive questions about the fit of the match when a mentor appeared to:

  • Have a title “below” what the mentee held: e.g., a Marketing Manager at a large Federation mentoring a Marketing Director at a small day school
  • Have less experience in the field, as opposed to in the specific area of expertise they were looking to share: e.g., a development professional whose entire 3 years of experience is in development who’s been matched to mentor a newcomer to fundraising who happens to have 5 years of program management experience
  • Be younger than the mentee: there’s a lot to say here, which probably deserves its own thinkpiece. For now, see above: “Have less experience in the field”

We were heartened to see a number of women who applied to be both a mentor and a mentee. That’s why our form explicitly asks about both! Interestingly, we noticed that when someone signed up for both, they were more likely to indicate their ability to mentor only extended to advising an “early career professional.” We took this to imply our leadership has not instilled sufficient confidence in our employees, especially women: the need for a mentor in one area does not imply that one cannot offer expertise in another.

Passover is (almost) upon us, leading us to reflect on the story of Exodus. Let’s hope we can turn these conversations around in less than the 40 years it took the Israelites. We simply cannot wait another generation.

Where are you seeing organizations, initiatives, and leaders who are helping to counteract these trends? Please share them widely, either below in the comments or at mentoringforequity [at] gmail.com.

Rachel Eisen is the Director of Development at Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh and Education Center in Newton, MA. She is a lay leader with several organizations in the greater Boston area.

Sara Miller-Paul is a facilitator, coach, and consultant at CFAR, and is affiliated with Richard Levin & Associates. In addition to her professional work in the Jewish community, she is a board member of the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.