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Leaders of the Tribe [part 2] in Jewish Life, Lack of Candidates to Take on Crucial Leadership Roles

September 27, 2004
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Two high-profile executive searches in the Jewish community this spring illuminated one dark fact: the shallow pool of candidates for top jobs in Jewish organizations. The six-month search to find a new CEO for the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group of the federation system, centered on a handful of male directors of large federations. It was the same group visited for the job many times before.

And when Hillel sought a replacement for Richard Joel, its longtime CEO who took over the helm of Yeshiva University — whose own presidency search took nearly three years — the group ultimately decided to hire an interim director while it kept looking.

Both searches spoke volumes about the state of recruitment and retention in Jewish communal life, observers say.

If prestigious, well-paying jobs at the helm of Jewish organizations struggle to attract personnel, what does that say about the prospects for drawing talent to middle management and entry-level positions?

Recent studies and interviews with JTA suggest that not enough is being done to draw young Jews to careers in Jewish organizations, nor is there adequate training, mentorship or compensation to keep them on a Jewish professional job track, which itself is not clearly delineated.

At stake is the current American Jewish organizational infrastructure, which depends on a fresh supply of volunteer and professional leadership as well as the potential for promising careers in Jewish communal service.

"If leadership development is a continuum of moving people through different stages," from the initial recruitment to motivating people to reach new levels of leadership, then "the whole system is a bit broken," says Laurie Blitzer, 40, a Jewish activist in New York, where she is a partner at the elite consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

The issue applies to lay leaders too, she argues.

There is "a lot of lip service about making room for young Jewish leaders, much more than it’s actually happening," says Blitzer, founder of Kol Dor, Hebrew for Voice of a Generation, a new international network to connect and empower young Jewish leaders.

Several respected leadership programs do exist, including those run by the Wexner Foundation for North American Jewish professionals and volunteers, as well as Israeli officials.

The Mandel Foundation sponsors programs to train Israeli civil servants and Jewish educators throughout the Diaspora. This year, it partnered with the UJC to create The Mandel Center for Leadership, which will recruit and train professional and volunteer leaders for North American Jewish federations.

There also is the Dorot Fellowship, which seeks to promote American Jewish lay leaders by sponsoring young American Jews for a year of Jewish study and community service in Israel.

There is a lot of talk these days about Jewish leadership, and the beginnings of serious action — particularly in the realm of boosting the reservoir of and rewards for Jewish professionals.

Among the new initiatives is the Professional Leaders Project, launched with $1 million apiece from Jewish philanthropists Lynn Schusterman, Michael Steinhardt and Bill Davidson.

The project — consisting of two surveys on Jewish professional leadership and two workshops to draw young Jews into Jewish jobs — found in its first survey a "persistent undersupply of well-trained and experienced Jewish educators and communal professionals." Reasons cited include low pay and status, tension between professionals and lay leaders and a lack of professional development.

Jewish communal leadership also is afflicted by a lack of professional standards and accountability, which would promote high performance and allow for smooth transitions, the survey found.

Those same reasons are believed to contribute to the steep attrition rate at Jewish organizations: Up to half of Jewish professionals at some organizations leave their jobs within five years, says the report, authored by sociologist Gary Tobin.

Another effort at redress comes from the UJC, which acknowledged a serious gender gap in its leadership ranks: Federations largely are staffed by women, but few — including none of the 20 largest federations — are led by them.

The UJC and a group called Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community commissioned a research and action plan earlier this year to crack the glass ceiling.

For Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs — the only female head of a major Jewish organization that isn’t specifically oriented toward women — the issue has personal relevance.

"I have two daughters, and whether I would encourage them to go into Jewish communal life is still an unanswered question," she says. "I want them to know financial independence. I want them to figure out a successful and efficient way to make the world better."

"They have me as a role model," she continued, but as far as leadership, "they don’t see a lot of women when they look around the organized Jewish world."

According to Rabbi David Silber, dean of New York’s Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, the Jewish community is "paying the price of telling our kids, one way or the other, we want them to be doctors and lawyers."

But there are other factors.

"Leaders burn out," says Art Paikowsky, a consultant for nonprofits who headed the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix for more than five years and worked for federations in Washington and Philadelphia.

Fund raising amid a growing number of competing charities — including campaigns run by the federation’s own agencies — can be a pressured and thankless job, he says.

Others bemoan the task of rallying a group of fiercely independent-minded constituents.

"Being an exec in the federation system is a job that requires skills that are common among cat herders," joked Jon Friedenberg, former head of the Jewish Federation of Greater San Jose in California.

Leading a federation is "not perhaps as simple and straightforward as other kinds of positions that are equivalent in terms of salary and stature," he says, and advancement often requires federation hopping, which means uprooting family.

Some who leave "can excel in other environments that are perhaps simultaneously less demanding on family and emotional energy, and yet more rewarding — or at least as rewarding — from a career standpoint," says Friedenberg, who now is president of the El Camino Hospital Foundation.

According to Tobin’s report, "’burnout’ is understandably epidemic when there is no system in place to address the problems which arise from working in complex and demanding community settings."

One key to retaining professionals is providing mentorship and a career path that gives them skills to take on top jobs, observers say.

For Matt Grossman, 33, the new executive director of the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, that’s what has kept him on his career path.

"I’ve had the good fortune of having unbelievable mentors throughout my entire career in the Jewish community, and I don’t know if I would be here without those mentors," says Grossman, who worked nine years for Hillel.

Referring to his contemporaries, he says, "we need the time for people to help us map out our careers, to give us additional training, to challenge us intellectually and to put us at those tables of decision making."

Zev Hymovitz, a longtime Jewish professional and co-author with Tobin of the professional development survey, says some Jewish groups invest in professional development, while others do not.

"I think it’s going to take time before they really make it into a priority issue," he says. "Many of them are involved in trying to keep their organizations afloat."

But Hymovitz is optimistic.

"It’s the national organizations that need to take the leadership in this and to try to do it nationwide," he says, "and I think they are."

Others are more skeptical.

"Even though there is a lot of recent hope by virtue of new interest in leadership, I still think the Jewish community is not thinking deeply enough and investing strongly enough in developing leaders," says Larry Moses, president of the Wexner Foundation, a premiere training program for Jewish leadership.

"Strong, effective leaders will make all things possible, and I think that communities that lack strong, effective leaders will achieve very little of lasting impact."


Part 1: What makes a leader?

Part 2: Wanted: A Jewish leadership pool

Part 3: Lay-professional relationship is key

Part 4: Portraits of leadership

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