In Praise of Professionals

Gadol hama'aseh yoter min ha'oseh.

Rabbi Elazar taught us that one who causes others to do is greater than one who does. For it is said, the work of righteousness shall be peace and the effect of righteousness shall be calm and confidence forever (Bava Batra, 9a).

His idea is fairly straightforward: There are people who do good, and there are people who cause others to do good. The former are praiseworthy, but the latter are exemplary.

Each professional in our Jewish communal world brings to life this beautiful teaching from the Babylonian Talmud by encouraging others to support programs that provide so much sustenance, whether literal or spiritual.

When I look at professionals across various sectors of the Jewish community, as I did at the recent JFNA Professional Institute, I marvel at their passion and caring. These are the people who roll up their sleeves day in and day out, who work nights and weekends, and who never waiver in their commitment.

The Institute reminded me how important it is to recognize these professionals, their contributions and their values. When we create opportunities for them to network, to share and to grow, participants connect to something bigger than themselves and their institutions, and to the most challenging issues in Jewish life.

Session after session, in the hallways and during meals, I saw people from different parts of the country, from smaller Federations and larger ones, consulting with one another as they shared problems and ideas, and strategized on improving their communities. We need to encourage that culture of sharing and thinking together.

Management guru Peter Drucker teaches that organizational success begins with culture, not strategy. As he says, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” When we create together, work together, think together and execute together, we drive greater success. Leading Edge, a new organization developed by foundation and Federation leaders, has just completed a survey of more than 50 Jewish organizations’ cultures. These data will enable us to understand and enhance cultures across the Jewish organizational space.

We recognize that the market is changing, our donor base is changing and the Jewish community is changing. Listening has enabled us to understand that we, too, need to change, and we are moving forward with much more clarity than ever before.

While the mission of Federations is consistent across North America — to advance chesed (kindness), chinuch (education) and k’lal Yisrael (the people of Israel), taking responsibility for the Jewish people wherever they are in the world — not all of us agree on the strategies to fulfill that mission.

Let us consider the focus of one of the Professional Institute’s standout speakers: Dan Roam, author of The Back of the Napkin. Roam emphasizes visual thinking — using simple images or pictures to define problems and develop solutions in a common language.

Keeping our mission in mind, let us do our own visual thinking, bringing together people with different points of view and different backgrounds to find the best pathways to accomplish our mission.

The gathering demonstrated that many of our professionals appreciate, even long for, opportunities such as the Professional Institute, opportunities that give them the space and the means to grow. In their laudable efforts to be fiscally responsible, our nonprofits often cut back on professional training. That’s short-sighted, leaving our professionals stuck in silos, subject to burnout and without a chance to learn and recharge. Instead, our organizations should grow their funds for professional development, and our professionals should ask about development opportunities. Investing in our people in ways that connect them with each other is vital to our success.

Beyond that, professionals can seek ways to pursue their own development, such as creating peer-based learning groups. The new FedCentral platform offers an easy mechanism for groups in our system to self-organize.

Professionals also should seek out mentors — other professionals or lay leaders. As Pirkei Avot, Ethics of Our Ancestors, tells us, aseh lecha rav — find yourself a teacher. Be open to learning from another who challenges you to see things in a new way.

What is also clear from the conference is that we already have amazing professionals who care about Jewish values, who are living them every day through their work, and who are now increasingly sharing their successes with their colleagues so that they may be replicated throughout the system.

Gadol hama'aseh yoter min ha’oseh — one who causes others to do is greater than one who does.

Jerry Silverman is president & CEO of The Jewish Federations of North America