You are here

Jewish Education Makes Better Professionals

Jewish Education Makes Better Professionals

Jewish Education Makes Better Professionals

By Elana G. Kahn for eJewish Philanthropy

In my decade running a Jewish community relations council, I was a continual student. I learned in preparation for interfaith dialogue. I studied before press conferences and as I wrote public statements. Then, at some point, I went back to school.

I chose a course of study that combined nonprofit management with Jewish Studies, a niche that fundamentally improved my work as a Jewish professional. During my studies, I developed a base of knowledge and skills to apply ancient Jewish wisdom to contemporary and emerging issues.

Not everyone appreciates the “Jewish” in “Jewish Professional Studies.” In my new role as Associate Dean for Outreach at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, I am challenged by the argument that community leaders prefer practical, professional skills that immediately prove their value; they want spreadsheets over Talmud.

Our students and alumni tell a different story. In talking with them, I see a picture of Jewish professional leadership that is full, rich, deeply Jewish, and extraordinarily effective. In answer to the question about which skill set is more important — executive skills or Jewish knowledge — I join them in saying, “yes, and.” Yes, professionals in the Jewish sector must have excellent executive skills. We want them to be visionary leaders, exceptional managers, and excellent communicators, who are comfortable delegating authority and able to lean boldly into uncertainty. They need to know how to raise funds, build a budget, and lead a strategic planning process.

Yes. And they must be able to tell a Jewish story. They must be literate in Jewish history and thought, able to interpret collective Jewish experiences of covenant, culture, trauma, and celebration. They must be able to tap into Jewish life to understand and navigate today’s challenges.

Truly powerful Jewish leaders must know, engage, and wrestle with Judaism and Jewish life, and tap into it as part of their work. Why?

Jewish professionals are Jewish educators. We don’t always think of fundraisers or engagement professionals as educators, but they are sometimes the only Jewish contact in someone’s life. What they say about Judaism and Jewish life can spark engagement, draw people in, or push people away.

Jewish community is not a default for Jews anymore; it’s a choice. We live in a world and time of almost unfettered options. With few exceptions, we can choose our neighborhood, school, profession, or spouse. Even with the rise of extremism and antisemitism, American Jews are not running toward Jewish community as a refuge.

American Jews choose to be involved with an organization or congregation as an additive choice, because it makes their lives better. And it is our job, those who work in those organizations and congregations, to share a Judaism that is enriching, inspiring, and relevant. We must be able to offer sophistication and nuance and to inspire Jews to choose Judaism and Jewish life; we can only do that if we are educated.

Professionals in Jewish organizations can make Judaism and Jewish life accessible to the community. Most Jewish professionals are not empowered or intended to enforce halacha, religious law. We have the privilege and responsibility to accept people as they are and invite them into Jewish life.

Well educated professionals understand that Judaism is for all Jews, embodying the very notion of peoplehood, klal yisrael. To confidently share Judaism and Jewish life, we need to know our stuff.

Jewishly-educated leaders keep our organizations intrinsically Jewish and not merely agencies that serve Jews. Why does that matter? Because donors, volunteer leaders, constituents, congregants, and community members want a Jewish community that offers meaning and connection. Gone are the days of overly polished, formal, and cold communications; our community wants to feel something from us.

Second and similarly, because Jewishness is the point. Community members don’t need us because of the services we provide — our schools or cultural offerings or even our social justice work; they can get those things elsewhere. Judaism is the glue that holds us together.

It is our job to embody Judaism in our own unique way, offering meaning and bolstering Jewish identity, and we must be educated in order to do so.

Well-educated professionals are uniquely equipped to unify our Jewish communities. Today’s Jewish communities have different languages, motivations, narratives, funding sources, and politics. We need to know enough about the micro-communities in our larger community so that we can code switch, speak in ways that allow us to be heard and to have impact.

When desirable, good leaders can hold the center and draw in people from the many micro-communities that make up our complicated Jewish people. To do this well, our leaders need to know the arc of Jewish history, the evolution of our denominations, the nuances of our political positions, and more.

In my roles as editor of a statewide Jewish newspaper and CRC director, I was most effective when I oriented issues around our shared Jewish values, grounded in text and Jewish stories. Tapping into our common foundation allowed me to reach across large divides and reduce dangerous polarization.

Jewishly educated professionals in the Jewish sector can ensure that our institutions uphold the ethical teachings that should be their grounding. It’s not foolproof, to be sure, but knowing our ethical teachings allows us to draw upon our shared sources to keep our organizations on the right track. Our organizations are stronger when their staff are steeped in Jewish knowledge.

Jewish education can make us better at carrying out our professional duties. I hear from Spertus Institute alumni who are development professionals that they navigate difficult conversations about Israel and controversial issues more successfully because of their Jewish education. One synagogue administrator told me recently that her education equipped her to engage in more substantive conversations with synagogue clergy, improving the quality of her work.

Finally, our communities are more vibrant when they are dedicated to learning. We all have a role in co-creating a community that is committed to curiosity, pursuit of knowledge, agile, and resilient.

At Spertus, we seek to invigorate Jewish life through rigorous and relevant Jewish education, and we want to hear from you: Why does your Jewish education make you a better leader? Why does Jewish literacy matter? What more would you like to learn?

Elana G. Kahn is Associate Dean for Outreach at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership. A graduate of Spertus Institute’s MA in Jewish Professional Studies program, she has served the Jewish community for more than 18 years.

To reach out, email Elana Kahn at

Image above: Author Elana Kahn (back row) with fellow Spertus Institute MA in Jewish Professional Studies graduates at their 2017 commencement.

Monday, January 11, 2021