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Around the Jewish World Russian Jews Learn to Manage Jewish Nonprofit Organizations

Russian Jews like to joke that Jewish organizations in their community soon will outnumber the Jews those groups aim to serve. There might be a grain of truth in the joke, but despite the plethora of organizations, Russian Jews still lack professional managers trained to run them. Earlier this year, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee began a program in Moscow to address the problem.

“The existing leadership are professional Jews,” said Sam Amiel, deputy director of the JDC’s Moscow office. “This community needs to have Jewish professionals at the helm of its organizations instead of professional Jews.”

When a Jewish revival — funded almost exclusively by overseas sources — began in Russia some 15 years ago, no one seemed to care much about the leadership issue. The many job openings in the new organizations were easily filled with former engineers, doctors or schoolteachers, whose enthusiasm made up for their inexperience in running nonprofit organizations.

As the Jewish community has matured, the need for professionals with managerial training and the experience to run organizations has become clear. But those professionals work for business ventures, and the Jewish communal world cannot afford the salaries that might draw them to the nonprofit world.

The JDC is hoping to bridge the gap with its School of Management and Leadership. The program, modeled on a business school, opened with 26 students in its first class, chosen from 70 applicants.

“The school is the first step in a long process of training professionals for the Jewish community of Moscow,” said the school’s director, Irina Lipsky.

It’s necessary, she added, because Moscow business schools don’t offer many courses aimed at nonprofit organizations.

“Some schools have short-term courses, but in general, Russian business education still lacks a holistic approach toward NGOs,” she said.

Nonprofit organizations are still fairly new to Russia; even the most well established have been around no more than 12 years.

Amiel said the project was a change of pace for his organization, which spends most of its resources in the former Soviet Union on helping needy Jews.

“This is our investment into the development of human resources in this community, in order to have better leadership, better professionals and ultimately a better community,” Amiel said.

The school’s 26 students range in age from 27 to 52. Almost half have degrees in engineering. There are also several lawyers and psychologists, a soil scientist and a Russian-language teacher.

“There are almost no professional managers in Jewish organizations,” student Lea Ratner said. She’s executive director of Chesed Avraham Foundation, a Jewish charity in Moscow that serves 11,000 mostly elderly clients, a job she got with an undergraduate degree in psychology.

“This has always been a problem,” Ratner said. “You take someone out of the street and expect that person to grow professionally in the job, but you can’t be sure of the result.”

Most of the students in the JDC program are Jewish, and many have job experience with nonprofits, both Jewish and non-Jewish.

Lipsky said that including non-Jews, and Jews who are working for non-Jewish groups, is part of the project’s philosophy.

“Moscow Jewish groups do not exist in a vacuum,” she said. “There are many other groups around, and network-building should be among the priorities for Jewish groups.”

The school’s 500-hour curriculum, set to run from January to December, includes managerial theory, leadership skills and decision making, human resources management and financial management. It also includes training in Judaism and Jewish history and culture.

One issue the program was founded to address was the need to make Jewish communal work attractive to professionals who could make more money in the for-profit sector, so its main partner was chosen carefully. The business curriculum is taught by faculty members from the Moscow Higher School of Economics, a leading Russian business school, and graduates will earn a diploma similar to those issued at the School of Economics.

Many students are finding that the quality of curriculum and teaching far exceeds their expectations. “I didn’t expect this to be so seriously and professionally done,” student Dmitry Polezhaev said.

Students pay $3,000 in tuition — a hefty sum by Russian standards — which covers only part of the cost; the JDC picks up the rest.

The agency also will help pay to bring the students to Israel for nine days in November, so students can see how the nonprofit sector works in the Jewish state.

Amiel said the students do not make a formal commitment to work for a Jewish organization after they graduate, though there’s an understanding that most of them will.

“They may not necessarily become Jewish professionals, but whenever they work, they will be an important link to the Jewish community,” he said.

Student Alexander Narodnitsky has worked for several years as a youth program coordinator at one of Moscow’s Jewish community centers. Much of what he is learning in the JDC program he already has figured out on the job, he said.

“But here I can get a systematic approach to my work,” he added.

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