November 9, 2011

Which grad school for a Jewish community career?

What if the U.S. military, despite supporting West Point, Annapolis and the other premier service academies, awarded most of the fast-track posts to outsiders with little combat experience or military background?

Such a situation could represent the American Jewish community. The annual General Assembly of Jewish Federations, which just concluded in Denver, traditionally doubles as a platform for recruiting students to graduate programs and for hiring new graduates. For any young, idealistic Jews about to make their final decisions about professional training to serve the Jewish people, here are a few thoughts based upon my own experience, close observation, and discussions with colleagues over two decades.

Since the 1970s, the American Jewish community has trumpeted one new communal service or studies program after another, including the ever popular "joint degree" that integrates a scholarly program with more practical training. Of the hundreds of students to graduate from such programs, many have been disappointed to learn -- too late -- that the same community leaders who had encouraged them to prepare narrowly for a career in Jewish communal service prefer to hire hotshot MBAs and frustrated corporate attorneys to run their institutions and try out the Next Big Idea. The newly minted communal service M.A. or non-profit MBA may be lucky to start as a "campaign associate" somewhere far away from any head office. Ouch. 

While my own career has had its twists and turns, I have always managed to land on my feet, with a lot of help from others and no shortage of lucky breaks. I certainly could have done worse.

Of my peers (that's the 40-somethings) who now run national community organizations, and all very competently, I don't think one has a degree from any Jewish or community service institution. Most have degrees from first-rate law schools. As it happens, I followed one of my passions (no, NOT long-range planning methodology OR planned giving/endowment management) and earned (better, received) a Masters in Middle East studies, and from one of the "prestigious" schools. Given enough fortitude, I probably would have pursued a law degree instead, since that qualifies one for almost any job in community or political life, and there's a good number of jobs which require it. 

There are very few jobs -- if any -- in Jewish organizations where a rabbinic or communal service credential is a must (other than actual rabbinic duties or Judaic scholarship). And, if and when the time comes to leave the Jewish field, holding a mainstream professional credential can be very beneficial (so I hear).

Leaders of organizations openly brag to their Boards about their latest "catch" from the private sector or from government -- but far less often do they gloat about a hire from within the community. Are "Jewish" careers considered to be less useful preparation for community leadership than are investment banking or advertising? Are the joint programs insufficiently rigorous or selective to turn out the calibre of leader required for this new century? Or might the same chief executives have been able to lead even more ably with the benefit of a degree program focused on Jewish history and community service?

If outside training really is better, then we have to ask a bigger question: Why does the community invest millions each year to establish and maintain the dozen or so Jewish communal service programs across the country, including scholarships for those committing to work in local Jewish federations upon graduation? Clearly, as far as our philanthropists and impresarios are concerned, the Jewish community is not preparing the next "best and brightest" -- it's letting Harvard and Wharton and Berkeley -- and McKinsey, and Paul Weiss, and Goldman Sachs -- do it for them. 

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