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Exit Ramp: Taking care of our own
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Exit Ramp: Taking care of our own

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

I was at the Hillel International Global Assembly in Orlando, Fla., this past December. Hillel International supports programming at 550 campuses globally and employs more entry-level professionals than any other Jewish nonprofit. 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. So many newcomers meant 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 accompanied by the release of hundreds of blue and white balloons dropping from the ceiling. The gift is designed to help identify, train, recruit, and retain top Jewish professionals to create a powerful talent pipeline. 

If that wasn’t enough, there were other gifts — totaling $11 million in new investments to launch Hillel U, ongoing in-person and on-line professional development programs in the arenas of Jewish literacy, health/well-being, and leadership. Hillel professionals are reaching young Jews at an impressionable time in their decision-making lives.

The delivery of all this good news was a wonder to watch. Thank you. I needed this injection. 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. 

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, staying out night after night at events and meetings. A friend with three kids can’t afford to keep them in a Jewish school because she works in a Jewish nonprofit. She has no professional development budget anymore. She hasn’t gone to a conference in years. And a raise? Fugetaboutit.

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 — if you educate, celebrate, and invest in your people — they in turn will want to serve our people. 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. For years, our talent pipeline has been drying up.

Then there’s the matter of Jewish literacy — music to my ears. The first major initiative of Hillel U: the Center for Jewish and Israel Education, funded by a $7.7 million grant from the Maimonides Fund. There are many 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 Mishna 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. 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. •

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