workplace values

With kind regards – The Bivracha study

Now is the time to shine light into areas of the Jewish communal workplace that have long been dark

As a group of Jewish professionals, board members, coaches, and consultants, more than once we have heard the phrase: “Well, you know how Jewish organizations are…”  While some may dismiss it as a flippant comment from a disgruntled employee, we have uncovered a more pervasive experience of the professionals in our field when it comes to power dynamics with their colleagues and employers.

More than two years ago, eJewishPhilanthropy published “With Kind Regards: Embracing Our Workplace Values,” which called attention to experiences we had heard from professionals in Jewish nonprofit organizational life. As readers reached out to share their opinions and personal stories, we heard repeatedly that employees of Jewish organizations did not feel their treatment aligned with the values listed alongside the mission and vision statements of their respective organizations.

In August 2019, we convened an independent group of consultants and organizational leaders to discuss and ensure that our colleagues are treated with kindness and that organizations live up to the values they espouse in their foundational documents and public communications. During our meeting, questions centered around the scale and scope of the problem: How many people have been impacted? Tens? Hundreds? Thousands? All agreed that even one is too many. Still, an understanding of the breadth of the problem was vital to developing sustainable solutions. To answer these questions, in Summer 2020 the group distributed a survey entitled “Bivracha: Valuing Kindness in the Jewish Workplace,” to our networks in the Jewish nonprofit space.

Our research explored power dynamics to help us better understand how some organizations treat donors and volunteers differently than the professional staff, and to learn if this impacts the health and well-being of professionals. Our aim was to provide an expanded understanding of the Jewish nonprofit space to help ensure that all Jewish organizations become and remain kind, values-based, great places to work, and that employees are protected from abuses of power.

We received over 400 responses and conducted over 60 qualitative follow-up interviews. It is clear that there exists a need to better align our organizations with the values they aim to uphold and we, as a community, strive to protect. 

We encourage you to review our description of our findings in the full report, which details themes of health and wellbeing, stakeholder respect, workplace support, exit interviews, legal counsel, fair treatment, experiences departing the organization, and whether respondents would recommend working in the field.

The good news: great work is already happening! We identified many initiatives currently underway which are already making an impact in the space of workplace fairness, equity, and employment conditions. The full report outlines these efforts and the role of the organizations working to help ensure Jewish communal professionals are treated fairly by supervisors, colleagues, and volunteers alike.

In addition, we have identified a series of gaps that we believe will propel the field forward and provide additional solutions to the issues identified by our findings that can span the gamut from the institutional (creating a neutral, extra-judicial committee for mediation) to the individual (providing support for individuals who want to find a way back into Jewish community). Our intent is to be descriptive and encourage discussion, debate, and action, rather than be proscriptive or imply we have found a solution to each opportunity. The potential solutions described, we hope, will be nuanced and/or incorporated into current efforts. For more recommendations, please see our full report

We are struck by the enormity of the challenges ahead and yet buoyed by the resilience and willingness of individuals to step forward and engage. At the root of our findings were three consistent challenges: magnitude, power, and the status quo.

Magnitude: With a conversation of scope came the reminder that many people love their jobs and are satisfied with their supervision, respect, and workload. Having heard the stories directly, our perspective is clear: even one person is too many. 

Power: A constant theme throughout our investigation is that of the abuse of power and how the differential therein can be used both to support or debilitate professionals. When we heard of power being used as a control mechanism or threat, it was often wielded without regard to the values and beliefs upon which the organization is built. Power, we recognize, is often an intrinsic part of many employment structures, but we must safeguard leaders’ ability to be judicious, sparing and not belittle or hurt their team members. If we can level this dynamic, we can create better workplaces, increase productivity, and ensure that the sentiment of “Well, you know how Jewish organizations are…” becomes a distant memory. 

Status Quo: There are many passionate and talented professionals who are taking up challenges related to organizational culture daily. We have also experienced a groundswell of individuals, entities, and funders willing to step forward and challenge the status quo. To continue taking up this mission will take brave, forward-thinking leaders who can help change structures, cultures, and perspectives. 

We are heartened by the bright spots. We know that many Jewish communal employees feel content with their workplaces, and that remarkable work is being done by professionals in the diversity of Jewish spaces in North America and beyond. Our emphasis is to highlight those practices that are impacting retention, promotion, and attraction to the Jewish communal field, which we want to see grow and flourish without risk to the individuals who make it special. Though careers can be difficult at times, they should also provide training and be educational, supportive, and intentionally kind places. 

We know with this reflective work comes the potential for fallout with employees or clients, as many of our advocates and advisors have chosen to remain anonymous in the acknowledgement section of our Full Report. We are hopeful that one day the notion of engaging in this type of work does not come with risk to one’s career trajectory

As the volunteers responsible for the research and recommendations, we are grateful to those who have stepped forward to help. Now is the time to shine light into areas of the Jewish communal workplace that have long been dark. What comes next? How can you contribute to this process?

Please click here to read the Executive Summary and Full Report.

The Bivracha team: Richard J. Levin, Ed.D, is the Coaching Practice Leader at CFAR (the Center for Applied Research). He is one of the founders of the profession of Executive Coaching. He can be reached at rlevin@cfar.com. 

Harrell Wittenstein is the Executive Director of the Association of Independent Jewish Camps and can be reached at harrell@aijcamps.org. 

David Phillips is Principal of Immersive1st Consulting. He is based in Jupiter, FL and can be reached at david@immersive1st.com

Sara Miller-Paul is the Coaching Practice Manager at CFAR and is the Co-Founder of Mentoring for Equity. She can be reached at smiller-paul@cfar.com.