Who’s Going to Lead the Jewish Community in the Future?

Most will agree that a critical factor that will determine the future of the Jewish community is the quality of the professionals leading our organizations.

by Avi Rubel

Many Jewish professionals think that there is not enough young talent interested in leading the Jewish community in the coming years. From my vantage point, heading Masa Israel Journey North America, I couldn’t disagree more.

In a recent survey we conducted of Masa Israel participants on post college programs, 441 alumni responded to a question about Jewish professional interest. Of those respondents, 47% said they definitely want to work in the Jewish community, and an additional 40% said they would “potentially consider” a Jewish professional job. The Jewish community has been desperately seeking ways to engage alumni of Birthright Israel; I am happy to report that the percentage of Birthright alumni represented in this sample was 41%. These people are not disappearing – they are investing even more time in their connection to the Jewish community through Masa Israel, and when they return, they are chomping at the bit to get involved.

The data is compelling – many of our graduates are returning to the US eager to get involved in the Jewish community and to explore careers in Jewish communal service. Their experiences in Israel on Birthright and then on Masa are so powerful that they want to get involved in Jewish life full time.

According to a Rutgers University study, and reporting from the Associate Press, approximately 53% of recent American college graduates are either unemployed or underemployed. The trend is no different for those looking to become Jewish professionals. Our alumni desperately want to work for the Jewish community, yet we continue to talk about a leadership vacuum.

Where is the disconnect?

A large percentage of college graduates finish their degrees without a clearly defined career plan. Many Jewish college students major in the social sciences and humanities and often have no clue what kind of job, or even career path, they would like to pursue. Or, if they know what they want to do, they need concrete experience to help solidify their plans and get them started. For many young adults, the time between college and graduate school is critical to acquiring initial career experience and crystallizing a career plan. How can we reach young adults at this critical time?

Take Jenn Handel, who participated on Birthright in 2010 and returned on the ten month Masa Israel Teaching Fellows program the next year. An education major, Jenn taught English in Rishon L’Zion, and planned on returning to the US to teach history. However, she was so excited by her Israel experience that her plans took a turn.

“When Masa Israel Teaching Fellows was finishing, I felt that I wanted to get more involved in the Jewish community and to find a ‘Jewish job.’” But having had no experience at all in the organized Jewish community, she didn’t know with whom to speak, or where to even start to learn more about the professional possibilities. Jenn thinks that a job at a Hillel would be a perfect match, but she has still not found a full time position.

Or look at Hallie Cohn, from Rockville Centre, NY on Long Island. Hallie went to public high school, never went to Jewish camp, and had few Jewish friends growing up. After college she thought she would go to law school. But after participating in Birthright in 2007, she returned to Israel on the WUJS Intern Tel Aviv program. They found her a five-month internship at a law firm in North Tel Aviv doing legal research for two senior partners, the field she planned on pursuing. When Hallie finished her Masa Israel program, she came back to New York still planning on law school, but found that working in a law firm was boring and didn’t have any meaning.

A friend of Hallie’s from the Masa Israel Alumni committee in New York took Hallie to a JDC young leadership event about Jewish life in Kazakhstan. Hallie fell in love with JDC, applied for and was hired as an Executive Assistant to the CFO and COO for Global HR and Administration. She’s been on the job for a few months. Hallie is now considering graduate school in public administration and feels that she is gaining real-world skills to help her advance her career. Her family is thrilled with her career choice. It was unexpected, but they’re happy that she loves what she’s doing and that it will be a career that she loves and not just a job. Hallie now sees herself building a career in the Jewish community.

More organizations need to follow JDC’s example and develop creative programming for this population with an eye toward attracting top future lay leaders and professionals.

I make it a point to meet personally with any Masa Israel graduate who wants to begin professional networking in the Jewish community. I have countless examples of bright, talented, motivated young adults who are hoping to establish careers full of meaning and purpose. Like Jenn and Hallie, many are returning to the US needing a job, wanting to build a career – and many are asking the question: what if I could find a job in the Jewish community?

A significant number of these young adults, who participate in Birthright and then in Masa Israel programs, come from backgrounds without strong Jewish networks, and they have no idea how to explore the possibilities of a Jewish communal career.

As another Birthright and Masa Israel graduate, Cara Walden told me, “Until I did Birthright and then Masa, I always felt unable to connect with Jewish organizations because I didn’t feel that I was Jewish enough for them. Only through my Israel experience did I gain confidence in expressing my Jewish identity, and now I think I am qualified and could fit-in in a job in the Jewish community. ”

Most will agree that a critical factor that will determine the future of the Jewish community is the quality of the professionals leading our organizations. Therefore, we should have a goal to attract and retain “top” talent.

It’s critical to note that while many Birthright and Masa alumni are eager to find a job in the Jewish community, they are young, smart and energetic and many are looking for jobs in a variety of fields. The question for the Jewish community is whether it’s worth investing in attracting more of them to explore Jewish careers. If engaged with and empowered successfully, this population has the potential to add diversity and critical, vibrant new ideas and perspectives to the Jewish community in the future. They’re also a population that feels passionately about Israel and can talk about Israel as “insiders.”

We’ve already invested in them to participate in Birthright and Masa Israel. To leverage that investment, we need to meet them halfway.

If there really is a leadership vacuum in the Jewish community, Birthright and Masa Israel graduates provide a crucial long-term solution.

So, what should the organized Jewish community do about it?

As with most innovative projects in the US Jewish community over the past few decades, private foundations are in the best position to effectively design interventions. More research certainly needs to be done on the population to understand their interests and needs.

However, a few potential ideas that could be implemented include low cost options like job and professional networking fairs. Perhaps more complicated, but also possible, would be the creation of mentoring programs where aspiring Jewish communal professionals would be paired with seasoned veterans.

Even better would be the creation of a fellowship for the best and brightest of these young adults. This could be developed as a kind of junior Wexner Fellowship. Whereas Wexner Fellows have already demonstrated their Jewish leadership and have serious Jewish experience and are in graduate school, this cohort would receive pre-professional development, basic to intermediate Jewish literacy and a variety of other skills and tools. For the brightest and most talented 5-10% of Masa Israel alumni interested in Jewish careers, a fellowship that would set them on a life-long Jewish communal career path would certainly be a worthwhile investment.

A wide range of Jewish communal organizations should also begin systematically recruiting from this population. Masa brought a group of Fortune 500 Talent Acquisition/Human Resources professionals to Israel in 2010 to help us think about how to scale up our internship offerings. Representatives included executives from Citi, Ernst and Young, Delloite Consulting, Cisco and other companies. These professionals were so impressed with post college Masa interns that several representatives hired Masa participants on the spot! “Along with colleagues at many other major U.S. companies, I recognize the value of a Masa Israel internship experience,” said Deb Bertan from Citi. “Here at Citi, we’re always looking for strong candidates with diverse experiences – a Masa Israel internship program is a great way to get international experience on your resume.”

I regularly get requests from these Fortune 500 executives to refer the best and brightest Masa alumni to them. Yet the Jewish community has yet to engage this population in a serious way. We have the opportunity to attract more of these young, energetic talented young adults to Jewish careers or they will find other fields that are easier to penetrate. It’s time for the Jewish community to start investing in them so that they will choose to invest in us.

Avi Rubel is Masa Israel North America Director.