Erica Brown

Taking care of our own

I took my food from the buffet and looked for a seat. This can always be socially awkward, but in a room of hundreds of Jewish communal professionals, I was bound to bump into dozens of people I knew. Nope. My food got cold. I recognized no one. This was wonderful news. A room filled with fresh young faces dedicating their professional lives to our people means “not knowing” is a blessing.

I was at the Hillel International Global Assembly in Orlando this past December. Hillel International supports programming at 550 campuses globally and employs more entry-level professionals than any other Jewish nonprofit. Many faces were unsurprisingly new. At professional conferences, people who haven’t seen each other in a long time skip plenaries to kvetch about work and its limitations. Not here. There was a vibe of positive energy, an openness to possibility. And there was an extra reason for all the good energy.

The Marcus Foundation announced a $38 million gift to the release of hundreds of blue and white balloons dropping from the ceiling. It felt like a political convention, but just much more hopeful. The gift is designed to help identify, train, recruit and retain top Jewish professionals for a powerful talent pipeline.

If that wasn’t enough, there were other gifts — totaling $11 million in new investments to launch Hillel U, ongoing professional development in person and online. Hillel professionals are reaching young Jews at an impressionable time in their decision-making lives. The better equipped they are, the more they can give.

All this good news was a wonder to watch. For too long now, foundations and federations have thrown themselves at the unaffiliated, the just Jewish, the undetermined and un-proud with the promise of engagement — whatever that mystery word means. Millions of dollars have been spent to lure people to enjoy something for nothing as they consider what will next be free. The results of this have been, for the most part, a terrific short-term high. Long-term, deep commitment still eludes us.

Jewish nonprofit professionals have stood on the sidelines and watched philanthropic dollars go to those who have shown the least interest in the Jewish project. Meanwhile they scrape and save for camp and school tuitions. A friend with three kids can’t afford to keep them in a Jewish school because she works in a Jewish nonprofit.

Who is watching out for those who are watching over us?

Hillel is showing the Jewish world that if you take care of your own — you educate, celebrate and invest in your people — they, in turn, will want to serve our people. It’s a winning formula for excellence. Unfortunately, it’s not intuitive in our community. Look around at many Jewish nonprofits, and you’ll find inconsistent supervision and evaluation. Very few organizations have created and sustained a culture of learning. If they have episodic programming, it’s often not meaningful enough to have real impact. Our talent pipeline has been drying up for years.

Then there’s the matter of Jewish literacy — music to my ears. The first major initiative in Hillel U: The Center for Jewish and Israel Education, funded by a $7.7 million grant from the Maimonides Fund. Serious Jewish learning shapes better people and better professionals. There are many important benefits to enhanced Jewish study. Here’s one of my favorites: eliminating imposter syndrome. No one working on behalf of the Jewish people should be intimidated by a Jewish text or not know the difference between a mishnah and Maimonides.

We’re not going to master a 4,000-year history of Bible and Talmud, of commentaries and history, of philosophy, prayer and mysticism. But every person who works for our community should be able to stand tall and self-confident as a Jew, informed and able to make knowledgeable Jewish choices. When professionals driven by passion and mission lack the anchor of Jewish study, it’s like standing naked on the frontlines of this work, feeling embarrassed as the “ambassador Jew” who can’t answer questions about our tradition.

These generous donations are reinforcing best practices and creating new ones. Eric Fingerhut, president and CEO of Hillel International, wisely said, “These grants will not just transform Hillel, but transform the Jewish world.” Yes. All this magic can happen if other Jewish organizations pay careful attention to what Hillel is getting right. Think again about investing much in those who care little. Invest more in those who care much. The returns will be immeasurable.

Erica Brown’s column appears the first week of the month. She is director of George Washington University’s Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership.

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).
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