Rx for Jewish institutions:Mid-level staffers deserve more respect and money

I recently ran into a bright, young Jewish man whom I had previously met as an up-and-coming leader in our community. Now, however, several years later, he told me that he had essentially “burned out” and was working as a tradesman. His abandonment of a career in Jewish communal leadership is our loss.

Gary Tobin’s report on burnout of mid-level Jewish professionals (“Hired Today, Gone Tomorrow,” Sept. 10 j.) and Jessica Ravitz’s column on the same topic (“Why We Left Jobs We Couldn’t Wait to Have,” Oct. 1 j.) describe the problem clearly. Jewish communal organizations are failing to support the development of mid-level professionals. Executive staff and board members are ignoring and/or abusing these professionals, which has led to their abandonment.

The vast majority of Jewish organizations tend to focus on the wealthy members of the community, encouraging them to join boards in order to secure their good will, support, and money — even if this means ignoring the professional advice and guidance of the mid-level professional staff.

However, it is equally important to acknowledge the value of such volunteers on these boards. The time, money and professional prestige they bring to these positions can be extremely valuable.

This, of course, begs the question: Why do board members of such institutions tend to ignore and/or abuse mid-level professional staff?

Perhaps some board members feel a certain sense of immunity or impunity because they are volunteering their time.

Perhaps many wealthy, successful board members feel drawn to be on boards in order to satisfy their egos. Therefore, they are not about to accept the advice or direction of people they deem to be underlings.

And finally, if some board members are drawn to serving the Jewish people and ensuring Jewish “survival,” they may feel that their insights and direction are more important and critical than those of the mid-level professional staff. Since it is a matter of “survival,” they may feel that extraordinary times require a moratorium on respectful behavior.

Ultimately, however, many board members are not treating the mid-level professionals any differently from the way they see the executive staff treating them. Such behavior, unfortunately, is consistent within many such communal organizations. But then why do the executives take advantage of the other staffers?

The executives who run Jewish organizations are charged with ensuring their organization’s financial success. Their primary concern is the happiness of the donors and board members, not the happiness of the mid-level staff. There is no organizational culture that supports the cultivation of mid-level leadership at this time.

These executives, unfortunately, do not benefit from regular or adequate professional development and staff management trainings or seminars. Jewish professional organizations are devoted to their particular cause, not the improvement of the staff or the executives. There is no organizational culture that supports the cultivation of staff management skills.

Mid-level Jewish professionals also get burned out more quickly than those in the private sector because their institutions are overly effective in inculcating a sense of mission to all of the staff members. Frequently, every single staffer feels he or she alone is charged with the success or failure of the organization, taking all successes and failures far too personally. There is too great an emphasis on individual contribution and responsibility as opposed to a more “corporate” or organizational identification with an institution’s goals.

There is also insufficient training for staff, starting at the ground level of Jewish communal organizations. Such well-meaning young people are often inadequately informed about the true nature of what their jobs will entail, or the level of frustration and abuse that is currently an inherent aspect of these jobs. They set unrealistic goals and expect to be appreciated for their massive sacrifices.

Finally, there is no impetus to change this system because Jewish organizations — more so than ever before — are being charged with lowering their overhead and administrative costs. Donors want to see more of their contributions going directly to support the causes they care about. Nurturing and promoting the advancement of mid-level Jewish professionals requires increasing salaries, which raises overhead. A constant stream of entry-level professionals ensures that salaries will continue to remain low.

This situation is not currently considered a crisis because, in the short run, there are no negative consequences of ongoing mid-level professional burnout. Executives are keeping overhead down, donors and board members remain happy, and enough willing, idealistic and naive applicants wait in line for jobs.

However, the negative results will manifest themselves in the future when greater numbers of burned-out mid-level professionals refrain from taking higher leadership positions as a result of their prior negative experiences. With a leadership vacuum, the quality of programs and efficacy of these organizations will decline, along with the level of monetary contributions.

What can be done to prevent this? It is actually quite simple — but not easy.

Require annual training for board members that focuses on supporting and developing mid-level professional leaders. Begin to sensitize board members to this problem.

Require executive leaders of Jewish communal organizations to attend leadership development seminars and trainings. Demand superb staff-management skills from top executives. Judge them by the staff they have retained in previous positions, not by the donations they have secured or new buildings they have planned.

Create more part-time, paid internships so that young leaders can experience directly the reality of organizational employment. Inoculate these young leaders so that they will not have any illusions about the nature of the work that awaits them.

And the easiest, but hardest thing to do is to actually pay mid-level Jewish professionals a whole lot more. Stop starving them while they work on behalf of the Jewish community, and start offering them competitive wages.

I may not be right in my analysis of the causes of this problem. But if I am — especially in terms of the long-range consequences — can we as a community afford to ignore this crisis?

Rabbi Daniel Kohn is the author of “Sex, Drugs and Violence in the Jewish Tradition” and lives in Marin.

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