NiSh’ma – The Jewish Workplace

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November 1, 2012
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“Sing, you barren woman who has not borne; burst out into song and jubilate, you who have not experienced birth pangs, for the children of the desolate one are more than the children of the

married woman, says the Lord.”

Isaiah 54:1

Exhilarating, intense, passionate, euphoric, transformative. These are the words of the innovation sector. Stressful, underfunded, desperate, demoralized. These are the words of the Jewish nonprofit sector. The contrast is startling. Innovators in both nonprofit and for-profit ventures are extremely optimistic people, as are their funders and their early customers. But working as a professional in the Jewish community, I’ve experienced the opposite: The lay and professional leadership are deeply concerned, even terrified, about the future of Judaism and Zionism. They feel disconnected and, committed as they are, jaded, exhausted, and resigned.

Yet today may be the very best time in Jewish history to be alive. We, the children of desolation, the innumerable descendants of the Holocaust generation, have wildly surpassed all hopes and dreams for Jewish continuity. In Israel and in America, two incredible experiments in Jewish expression and civilization are underway. The barren woman must rejoice! Not all experiments succeed, not all flowers bloom forever, but we are again a strong and vibrant culture, and it is time we dispelled the image of working in the shadow of destruction. Jewish professionals need permission to embrace the energy and optimism of innovation and discovery.   —Isaac Shalev

In just a few paragraphs, Isaac Shalev has captured the ambivalence that many of us involved in Jewish communal service often feel. Yes, we are “concerned, even terrified” about the future of Judaism, Zionism, and the Jewish people. While some believe a degree of paranoia is understandable and even a healthy Jewish state of mind, I’m not so certain.

Shalev is correct that we should no longer use memories of the Holocaust to whip Jews into line. I marvel at communal leaders who believe that the best way to ensure that future generations of Jews will affiliate is by telling the history of Jewish tsuris. It’s like saying, “Come on in, the water is awful.”

I wish I could share his qualified optimism about this being “the very best time in Jewish history to be alive.” Surely, we Jews live in complex times, but when haven’t we?  No doubt there is much energy and optimism today, but we also find many of our mainstream institutions increasingly irrelevant and scrambling to justify their existence. I think these are neither the best nor the worst of times for us, but what comes next is very much up for grabs.

—Burt Siegel

Each January 1st, the Des Moines Register prints on its front page the opening words of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Somehow, it always seems appropriate. Just two months ago, we began a new year, and we also must take in the contrasting strands of desolation and jubilant song.

In the Birkat Hamazon (Grace after Meals), we ask the Merciful One to grant us dignified sustenance (hu yifarnseinu b’khavod). As American Jewish professionals — rabbis, cantors, chaplains, teachers, and others — we want to serve our community. And yet many of us are unemployed or underemployed, and some of us reluctantly find our careers elsewhere despite years of training and experience.

When we think about the Jewish workplace, let us try to reimagine connecting professional talent with honorable employment. Jewish professionals — as well as our support staff from preschool to maintenance — need the basics of dignified living: health insurance, a retirement plan, vacations. How the Jewish community treats its full-time and part-time workers is a reflection, among other things, of its values.

—Robert Tabak


As Isaac Shalev writes, there can be joy associated with the imaginative process, and innovators may appear — from the outside — to have the optimism market cornered. And yet, as many parents know, there is pain both in being barren and in giving birth. The struggles associated with creation and development can be just as frustrating and distressing as those associated with infertility and loss. The lines are blurred; there is fear and celebration in spades on all sides.

My experience working in the domain of Jewish philanthropy has taught me that innovation will not, in and of itself, address the challenges of today’s Jewish community; innovation does not address the day-to-day demands of building a credible, sustainable, mission-driven organization. Sometimes, brilliant ideas don’t receive funding, and some organizations plod on well beyond their expiration date.

Hard work does not end with the first acknowledgment of success or the recognition of a visionary leader. The barren one must continue to labor even after the miraculous birth.

—Scott Minkow

Isaac Shalev has spent more than a decade serving the Jewish community in positions at Storahtelling, at Taglit-Birthright Israel: NEXT, and at the Hunter College Hillel. He also served as editor-in-chief of Yeshiva University’s online learning portal, YUTorah.org. Currently, he heads Sage70, Inc., a strategic consultancy serving growing organizations. He can be reached at Isaac@sage70.com.

Burt Siegel retired from his position as executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia in 2008. He spent more than 40 years as a Jewish community professional, beginning with his work at the American Jewish Committee in 1971.

Rabbi Robert Tabak is a staff chaplain at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He holds a doctorate in American Jewish history and is an adjunct instructor at St. Joseph’s University. He edits the newsletter of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, RRA Connection.

Scott Minkow, Vice President of Partnerships and Innovation for the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, is currently in his fifth year as Director of the Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund. He is on the board of IKAR.

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