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Leaders of the Tribe [part 3] Lay-professional Tensions Heighten the Leadership Challenge for Groups

September 27, 2004
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Jews fighting is hardly news — after all, the joke about two Jews and three synagogues is familiar to Jewish communities around the world. But when the quarreling Jews also work together, it makes their jobs difficult.

That’s often the case with the lay-professional relationships at the top echelons of American Jewish organizations.

“Given the fact that this relationship is so central to our operating system, it’s extraordinary that we do so little to prepare volunteers and professionals to work together effectively and to address some of the challenges, inequities and tensions that are inherent in this relationship,” says Shifra Bronznick, a New York-based consultant for many Jewish groups.

Volunteers and professionals often misunderstand their roles, resulting in simmering tension or outright feuds.

Both parties have been known to complain of a lack of respect for their time and expertise, compromising their potential to work effectively.

An uneasy relationship in lay-professional leadership can destabilize the groups that set the course for the American Jewish community, many involved in these organizations say.

Often it’s a key reason for professional turnover in Jewish communal life.

The lay-professional relationship long has been a struggle, but several factors have exacerbated the problems in recent years.

As organizations have become increasingly complex and driven by professionals, many lay leaders have told JTA they feel sidelined from decision making and kept out of the loop.

Both parties can become mired in a bureaucratic process that leaves professionals feeling undermined and lay leaders spent.

The relationship is complicated by the fact that a lay leader’s influence often is a product of his or her wealth, prompting professionals to mince words to avoid losing donations or even their jobs, observers say.

Choosing leaders on the basis of money not only excludes less wealthy candidates, but also may result in the choice of a lay leader who is otherwise ill-suited to the task or who feels that his wallet should allow him to dictate the group’s course, community activists say.

In trying to strike the right balance, communication and mutual respect are key, according to a recent survey on Jewish communal professional leadership authored by sociologist Gary Tobin.

But the “power differential” can get in the way, he says.

Lay-professional relations are the “real elephant that’s in the living room,” says Jonathan Schick, a Dallas-based leadership consultant who works primarily with private schools.

“When boards don’t understand their roles as trustees of the organization,” they “have a tendency to get more involved in the day-to-day, the here-and-now, and they don’t have the long vision,” Schick says.

The issue is universal in the nonprofit world, he says, but stakes are raised in faith-based institutions where passions run high.

Indeed, ethnic ties can allow a sense of family ties, and their consequent sensitivity and volatility, to override professionalism, observers say.

But without professional standards, a board member can fire a professional on little more than a whim.

One Jewish professional who recently became the executive of a Jewish organization said he was told to work out a contract with his senior lay leader.

When he suggested that lay-professional trust made such a document unnecessary, the lay leader responded: “You trust me, and I trust you — but the next person who sits here might be an S.O.B., and you may need to be protected.”

That indicated “a major problem with lay leaders’ views of professionals,” he says.

On the other hand, the professional says, he once was told by a senior executive at another Jewish group to do something against the wishes of his own board.

“That person’s response was, ‘The hell with what the board wants. This is what we need to get done.’ “

According to Daniel Allen, executive vice president of American Red Magen David in Israel and president of the Association of Jewish Communal Organizational Professionals, “I think there is a mutually visceral distrust, which unfortunately is all too often real, in terms of how people treat each other.”

Close observers say volunteers and professionals can harness their governing power and avoid professional clashes by clearly defining their roles. It’s up to the professional to define those roles at the outset, says Shula Bahat, associate executive director of the American Jewish Committee, who is responsible for the group’s lay leadership structure.

“When it’s not done, things are tested through crisis and there’s no model to follow,” she says.

At the same time, professionals must give lay leaders room to lead — and not waste their time.

The professional must “involve the lay leader in a constructive way,” Bahat says.

Howard Rieger, the new president of the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group for the North American Jewish federation system, said in a recent interview that “there’s too much of a sense of trying to fit every volunteer into some kind of cookie-cutter mold,” like “putting every word in their mouth so they can deliver the message.”

Making lay leaders into “window dressing” — without the power to make real decisions — only infuriates them, says Rieger, who served for years as president of the United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh

Professionals also must empower themselves, he says.

“You can’t survive in this kind of arena if you truly are not in a position to say everything you want to say. You should say it with civility, you should say it and treat people with dignity, but you need to say what you need to say,” he says. “I find that the only way to do that in this business is to empower yourself.”

Meanwhile, preparation for both professional and lay leadership roles is sorely lacking.

Lay leaders often accept positions without fully understanding their demands, and then burn out or become bewildered.

“One of the hardest jobs in Jewish leadership is synagogue presidencies,” says Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University. “There’s precious little done to prepare people for that job, and it’s a microcosm of the entire lay structure.”

Richard Wexler, the UJC’s vice chairman, says lay leaders don’t mentor as much as they used to.

“We used to grow up learning as part of our mother’s milk of federation life, and today, often lay leaders are just thrown into their positions without that training,” he says.

But some still manage to strive for excellence in their relationship. Take Gary Weinstein and his lay leadership, for example.

After dozens of years in the federation system, the last several as executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas, Weinstein got a job coach.

He and his lay leaders decided a temporary coach would help ensure his and the federation’s continued success, he tells JTA.

Most federation professionals hail from backgrounds in social work and need business training to adapt to new demands of running nonprofits, he says. Through his coaching, Weinstein has made drastic changes like delegating major responsibilities to free himself up for fund raising and policy work.

The example highlights the complex pressures on a Jewish organizational director and the critical need to work with lay leadership to address them.

Alternatively, Wexler recalls an exchange he had many years ago with a headhunter seeking a federation executive.

The headhunter was flabbergasted when Wexler described his close friendship with Steven Nasatir, the longtime CEO of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

The community for whom the headhunter worked saw the professional “more or less just as a paid servant, and the lay leaders would no more socialize with that person than show him any respect,” Wexler says.

“I think that is the attitude in far too many communities,” he says. “They don’t understand that the professional represents the continuity of any organization.”

Indeed, observers say one of the best safeguards of the lay-professional relationship, and of an organization’s success, is the longevity of the professional and the extent to which he or she is anchored in the community.

However, “we’ve created this system where the only way to move up” is through promotion at another organization, Allen says.

That not only disrupts professionals and their families, but it’s “debilitating to the lay people and it’s debilitating to a positive relationship” between lay and professional leaders.

Alternatively, many say longevity in a position gives the professional the stature and depth for a role that grounds the organization with a sense of continuity.


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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