By Aaron B. Cohen
[This article is the forth in Advancing Jewish Leadership: A Series on Jewish Context and Professional Practices. Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership is currently marking its 90th anniversary with the launch of the Center for Jewish Leadership. In this series, faculty, mentors, graduates, and staff of Spertus Institute’s graduate degree, certificate, and professional programs share valuable insights relevant to all those working for and with Jewish organizations.]
Those of us who till the furrows of the Jewish communal field sometimes feel like laborers, too tired to enjoy the fruits of our efforts to build Jewish community, advocate for Israel, raise and allocate funds, and implement programs that benefit others. At dawn, we survey the sacred soil in which we cultivate the future of our people; at dusk, we feel the dirt under our fingernails.
Three years ago I completed a program that changed that perception. I received a Master of Arts in Jewish Professional Studies degree from Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago. I discovered the linkage between that soil, these aching fingers (and eyes!), and the ink of our people’s narrative. Combined with the sweat of our Jewish communal brows, that is what makes deserts bloom.
At Spertus, I discovered that our task as communal workers is not simply to dig in the dirt, but to dig for our roots, to know what we plant and how to cultivate it. Only then can we reach for the sky, inspired by the fruits of Jewish aspiration.
How else to describe the impact of studying Jewish text, history, and experience and applying it to real-world work? Where to dig? When to harvest? Where to reach? What to dream?
In the classroom, those were hardly questions for shapeless rumination. Our professors – scholars, practitioners, thinkers, and taskmasters – made sure we did something about whatever nagged us or tickled our fancy most. They challenged us to apply the lessons of an ancient wisdom tradition and a storied history to our own turf.
For most of my classmates, the challenges came immediately after class. After receiving my Spertus diploma, I received a big promotion. My new task was to create effective messaging for our annual campaign. My studies made me determined to articulate core Jewish values as a solid framework for a myriad of print and multimedia communications.
When it came to reinvigorating a lay committee, I drew on the seminal work of Professor Hal M. Lewis (who also serves as Spertus Institute’s CEO and President) in the field of Jewish leadership. He provided a Jewish civilizational model for establishing expectations, roles, and relationships.
Lewis also imparted one of the best teachings of all time: he trained us to ask ourselves “What’s your part of the mess?” whenever we run into a personal or professional wall.
In some classes, we drew inspiration from Jewish particularism, and realized the purpose and value of applying authentically Jewish models of communal organization. In other classes, for example, studying the fortunes and fates of Jewish communities in Medieval Spain, we discovered the value of the permeability and adaptability of Jewish culture, with all that implies for addressing assimilation, and the tensions between particularism and universalism in our own time.
Basking in the life and light of the great Sephardi poet, Yehuda Halevi, I delved deeper into how to embrace the emotional and spiritual complexity of the religious-secular spectrum, feeling for modes and tropes to communicate to a diverse contemporary Jewish audience.
Often since graduation, I have spoken to colleagues about the value of my master’s degree, and always have recommended pursuing it. “Well, it sounds interesting, but I already have a master’s” is one common refrain. “I’m just way too busy” is another.
Is our lot as Jewish professionals simply to till fields? Or like pioneering kibbutzniks, why not see ourselves as farm hands AND nation builders, growing the Jewish people of tomorrow, harvesting our great Jewish values to nourish our people and realize our dreams? Our communal work can be difficult, but we are not without instruction, without examples, without heroes, without inspiration, without vision. We are not consigned to illiteracy about our Jewish past and Jewish wisdom.
How would we honestly answer the question about “our part of the mess” if we think it’s adequate or acceptable to presume to guide our organizations, our communities, and our people never having engaged in rigorous study of our past and of the driving engines of our destiny?
I know first-hand that working as a marketing and communications professional for a Jewish organization is not the same as working for a corporation, a university, or a secular agency. Being effective in a Jewish milieu requires informed approaches, which demand both individual and communal investment but provide tangible returns when it comes to advancing personal and community interests.
At the end of the day, I still have dirt under my fingernails. It is the same sacred soil I prayed over at dawn. I am gratified to till it and to dig for its roots. I am grateful to know where to look when I reach for the sky.
Aaron B. Cohen is Vice President, Marketing Communications, of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago.
Previous articles in this series include:
Series Introduction: Insights from the Field and the Classroom by Dr. Dean P. Bell
The Building Blocks of Jewish Education by Dr. Barry Chazan
Timeless Lessons of Mentoring by Ellen Spira Hattenbach