“V’chol mi she’oskim b’tzarchei tzibbur be’emunah, HaKadosh Baruch Hu y’shaleim s’charam, v’yasir meihem kol machalah—Those who are involved faithfully in the needs of the community, Hashem will pay their reward and remove from them every affliction.”
Devoting oneself to working on behalf of Klal Yisrael, whether as a rabbi, outreach worker or Jewish communal professional, is appropriately referred to as avodat hakodesh, sacred work. Doing “Hashem’s work” is “not for everyone,” admits Rabbi Menachem Penner, dean of RIETS and one of the roundtable discussion participants. “But how lucky one is to find such a career.”
Pursuing a career in klal work was the focus of a recent roundtable discussion convened by Jewish Action and held at the OU headquarters in downtown Manhattan. Cognizant that the dynamics are not the same for different segments of our community, we focused the discussion—which featured experts in Jewish communal work—on the specific challenges and opportunities within the Modern Orthodox community. Other segments of our community face different realities, challenges, and solutions. We are hopeful that this discussion will be a meaningful contribution to the communal consideration of this issue.
Jeff Cohen (Moderator) is a leadership development consultant and an executive coach as well as a public speaker and published author. He formerly held senior marketing and human resources positions at American Express, is on the OU’s Community Projects and Partnerships Commission, and hosts an OU podcast called Saturday to Shabbos that inspires Jewish journeys.
Tal Attia is OU-JLIC’s national director of recruitment and leadership development, and senior educator for Yavneh on Campus, a project of OU-JLIC. Tal is passionate about Jewish and experiential education, student mentorship and community building.
Rabbi Avraham Edelstein is educational director of Neve Yerushalayim College for Women and executive mentor of Olami.
Josh Gottesman is assistant director of human resources and director of talent development at the OU. He plays an integral role in all global recruitment and professional development activities for the organization. With experience in formal education, informal education and business, he has been doing klal work for seventeen years.
Rabbi Dr. Josh Joseph is executive vice president and chief operating officer of the OU, where he is responsible for all aspects of OU programs and operations, other than OU Kosher. Josh joined the OU from Yeshiva University where he served in a variety of roles over sixteen years, ultimately rising to senior vice president. He previously worked at a hedge fund, as a community rabbi, and as the executive director of The Orthodox Caucus.
Rabbi Menachem Penner is the Max and Marion Grill dean of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University, where he inspires and trains the rabbis of tomorrow. He teaches Tanach, tefillah and machshavah in communities worldwide, and is a valued resource to many in the Jewish community who are navigating personal and family challenges.
Shira Werblowsky is a seasoned executive recruiter with a practice focused exclusively on Jewish non-profits. She has filled senior positions at the OU, Yachad, RCCS, Chai Lifeline, Friends of the IDF, Olami and more.
Rabbi Mark Wildes is the founder and director of the Manhattan Jewish Experience (MJE), a highly successful outreach organization that engages unaffiliated/less affiliated Jews in their twenties and thirties in Jewish life.
Jeff Cohen: Let’s start this conversation with a basic, fundamental question: Do you believe the Jewish communal world is suffering from a dwindling pool of potential employees—and, if so, does that actually pose a significant problem?
Rabbi Dr. Josh Joseph: It feels like this has been an issue for a long time—Rabbi Menachem Penner and I worked on a program called “Star Search” almost twenty years ago—and it certainly continues to be one. For example, we have about eighty-five open positions at the OU right now—at all levels—on college campuses, in local program chapters and at the headquarters in New York.
While I don’t have actual data on the lack of young people entering the field, I do get phone calls, emails, text messages and WhatsApps every week regarding open positions in the Jewish communal field—a school is looking for a teacher or head of school; a shul needs a new rabbi or assistant rabbi; an organization needs a fundraiser, et cetera.
Tal Attia: I’ve only been in the recruitment business for about a year now, but I definitely see that it’s a struggle. The problem is especially prevalent in the States, but even in Israel, many people are choosing to go into high-tech and other lucrative fields.
Rabbi Mark Wildes: I’ve always had a challenging time finding the right people, but I would say the last ten years have been exceptionally hard. And it got much worse during Covid. I’m in the kiruv space, so perhaps my experience is unique to outreach, but I’ve been looking for two years to fill two or three rabbinic slots, and it’s been very challenging to find the right people.
Cohen: So is “crisis” the right word?
Rabbi Menachem Penner: I don’t think Covid created the problem, but Covid has brought it to crisis level. I’m not sure any of us in this room fully understand why Covid affected the job market to the extent that it did. The pandemic changed so much in our world and our community, and we are just seeing the beginning.
Besides, if any group of Jews needs and wants a leader—a mechanech, a shul rav, a rebbetzin, et cetera—and can’t find one, I would call that a spiritual crisis. The stakes are much higher in Jewish communal work than in most other fields. Even though many companies can’t find employees, when shuls, schools and Jewish organizations can’t find employees, it’s a crisis.
Shira Werblowsky: I don’t believe it’s a crisis for organizations the size of the OU or YU. True, you have positions you can’t fill, but the organization is not going to fall apart because there are open positions.
The lack of qualified applicants is a crisis, however, for the smaller institutions. When a head of school leaves a small community, if the community school cannot find a replacement to move to town, the school will fall apart, and seventy kids will not have a school to attend. If that day school can’t find a director of development, the school will have great difficulty raising funds, won’t be fiscally sound, and may ultimately have to shut down.
Cohen: I’d like to explore some of the underlying reasons this might be happening. What would you say are the obstacles to filling talent in the Jewish communal sector?
Josh Gottesman: Compensation will always be a factor when someone is deciding where to work, but there are other factors that play a role as well. But the unique benefits that a Jewish communal role can offer should be a selling point for recruitment. What are some of the benefits? One is a flexible work life. You don’t feel stressed leaving early on Friday or taking off on yom tov because the schedules are built around that.
Another important factor that needs to be mentioned is the sense of mission and purpose that drives people to enter the field. Those involved in klal work have a deep sense of satisfaction. Have you ever asked yourself: do I feel good about the type of work I do? Entering the field of Jewish communal work will let you answer that question with a resounding yes!
Werblowsky: Kavod is a big piece. In the Modern Orthodox community, generally speaking, the people who get the most respect are not those who decide to go into communal work.
That’s also part of the reason people leave the field. Maybe you’re the fundraiser for your kid’s day school and despite all of your hard work and talent, the board members come down hard on you and you’re not given respect for the job you do. Perhaps every time you go to shul, you sit next to people who are very successful financially, and you think to yourself: “I spend all day raising money and working in less-than-ideal conditions. I’m talented. Why don’t I do this in a business environment where I can earn much more money and be respected for it too?”
Cohen: Indeed, in a recent issue of this magazine, Rabbi Wildes wrote: “It’s simply not considered prestigious in the Modern Orthodox community to go into kiruv.” This raises the question: does that only apply to kiruv, or to klal work more broadly, as Shira said?
Rabbi Wildes: It definitely applies to kiruv. In the Modern Orthodox world, there is no rabbi [I know of] who puts kiruv on a pedestal. When I post a new job, I generally have five Chabad guys calling me. A few Olami types might call as well, but very few candidates from the YU world apply.
My son is a senior at YU and he’s interning for Amazon this summer in computer science. His roommate is interning for me at MJE. The difference between what I’m paying his roommate for the summer and what my son is getting paid at Amazon is ridiculous. We need to make up for that gap with kavod.
I don’t know if the same phenomenon occurs in chinuch. My sense is that in the Modern Orthodox world, being a rebbi for young children lacks the prestige that one finds in the more Yeshivish community.
My kids attended Yeshiva Ketana of Manhattan on the Upper West Side, and the rebbeim were absolute superstars, one after the next. This is because even though it’s not a big-budget school, it takes the rebbeim positions seriously. A fourth-grade rebbi is like a king. I don’t know if a fourth-grade rebbi has that kind of prestige in the Modern Orthodox day school system.
While pulpit rabbis in the Modern Orthodox world do get more kavod [than rebbeim], it is clear that we must have some sort of campaign to restore the kavod of Jewish communal work.
Rabbi Avraham Edelstein: Another factor that needs to be mentioned is the wealth in the Orthodox community. When young Anglo couples in the Chareidi world started their married lives in Yerushalayim in the “olden days,” the husband would learn in a kollel for a few years and when they ran out of money, they would start looking for jobs. Very often, the easiest model was to go into outreach—move into an out-of-town community with a low cost of living and join the newly established kollel. There was a good synergy between the supply line and the job availability.
Today, fewer kollelim are being established. More importantly, there’s little, if any, pressure felt among many of today’s young Anglo couples in Yerushalayim to start supporting themselves; their parents often support them for years. Once they are ready to start becoming financially independent, klal work may not be the direction they turn to anymore. If you want to attract people to klal work, you have to get them when they’re young and idealistic. Once they have four or five children, they are reluctant to live in places where they fear they won’t be able to provide the desired chinuch for their children.
This brings me to my second point, which is that this generation is more coddled. While we do see many young couples in the Chareidi community interested in doing outreach work, they are not interested in sacrificing to live in a community where the Orthodox Jewish infrastructure is not developed. In the past, we saw a whole generation of pioneers who brought up children in truly small Jewish communities with little infrastructure, and their children became talmidei chachamim, rabbis and rebbetzins; in fact, their kids were better off having had the small-town experience. Nowadays, when couples go “out of town,” very often it’s really a full-service city with regard to frum life. Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, and even Portland are all more or less full-service communities. There are school options, several shuls, a kollel, a mikvah and kosher food. As dedicated as you are to kiruv or chinuch or the rabbanus mission, you have what you need to live a comprehensive frum life. But in places like Champagne, Illinois; Madison, Wisconsin; Duke University in North Carolina; or UC Santa Barbara in California, where you’ve got large Jewish populations, we have almost no takers.
So yes, there’s a lack of messaging regarding the importance of klal work. Rabbi Wildes mentioned the lack of sufficient messaging in YU circles, and I could testify that the problem exists in Chareidi circles as well.
Rabbi Penner: Rabbi Wildes and Rabbi Edelstein are correct in saying that kiruv work is not prioritized. But it’s more than that. If you look at the entire group of people entering the YU pipeline of teaching and Jewish leadership, there are simply not enough people in the system.
From each graduating class at RIETS, there are about thirty students who enter avodas hakodesh. The reason they are not working at MJE is less about their feelings regarding outreach than because they got starting jobs as assistant rabbis in shuls in Teaneck and the Five Towns. The reason they’re not teaching fifth or seventh-graders is because they got jobs teaching tenth-graders. Our community continues to expand, baruch Hashem, and so do its needs. If we had more young people entering the field, we’d have enough rabbis to spill over to many of the other openings, such as schools outside of New York that are really in crisis.
We need to double the amount of young people who say, “I want to spend my life in klal work.” But the number of students who, by the middle of college, have already decided “this is not for me,” or “this is not something I can afford to do,” is very high. As hard as it is for someone to go into avodas hakodesh, it’s harder to explain it on a shidduch resume, and it most certainly affects the pool of people who are willing to go out with you.
While pulpit rabbis in the Modern Orthodox world do get more kavod [than rebbeim], it is clear that we must have some sort of campaign to restore the kavod of Jewish communal work.
On a separate note, I find that today’s teens and collegiates are not being challenged with real leadership positions. Too much is being done for them instead of by them. I observe the amazing efforts of the YU staff who coordinate student events and Shabbos programming for college students, but I remind myself that when I was a student, I was coordinating huge Shabbatons for kids in NCSY! In high schools, the programming is done by professionals; the students aren’t as needed to run Shabbatons anymore.
It’s not just that young people are being coddled, as Rabbi Edelstein mentioned. They are also not being given opportunities where they can experience the thrill of accomplishment and the sense of being needed.
Rabbi Dr. Joseph: Every year there are about 200 students who are directly involved with Yavneh, the leadership arm of OU-JLIC. In addition, we have approximately 800 NCSY advisors (including staff on our summer programs) and about 500 Yachad advisors. Combined, you’re talking about 1,500 young people whom we have access to in any given year. Shouldn’t we be sharing the longing of our rebbi, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l, who said that when the world is on fire you need firefighters? If we have 1,500 people in that pipeline, just here at the OU, we have an opportunity to encourage them to become leaders in klal work. We have a momentous opportunity right here. Do we utilize the opportunity to share the message?
Cohen: Even once we do make a hire, we sometimes forget that it’s only the first step. What is your perspective on retaining employees? How can we get them to stay?
Rabbi Dr. Joseph: Retention is the key to recruitment. If you treat people well, onboard them and grow them, then they continue to rise and take on more responsibility, thereby filling greater and greater needs. When I was in the YU administration, we started the Presidential Fellowship, which was very successful in growing students to become leaders. The program placed top graduating seniors in departments around the university. Weekly sessions were conducted with the fellows, not only to discuss klal work with them but also to work on team building and management skills. This gave the participants honor and prestige, along with a special certificate from the School of Social Work, and so much more. When you can give people skills, training, coaching and mentoring, you give them experience and the chance to build their resume. They feel “I can do that for a year or two.” Ultimately, the program began molding future leaders as well as developing a farm team for organizational leadership. We would get calls from different departments at YU and from NCSY, MJE and others asking—can we reach out to your candidates?
Attia: Just last year, we at OU-JLIC started to weave professional development into our recruitment strategy. We launched the Fellowship for Campus Professionals, which is both a pipeline to our campus positions and a training system to prepare couples for their roles. This has been a really effective tool for filling some of our positions, as well as creating advocates for OU-JLIC out there in the field. Last year, six out of six of our new positions were filled by the fellowship.
Overall, we find it to be a very successful model. When we recruit staff into OU-JLIC, we think about how to incorporate professional development so that the candidates understand that OU-JLIC—and klal work in general—is not supposed to be a stagnant role. It shouldn’t be that whatever skills you come with are the only skills you’re going to be running off of for the next five years; rather, we’re going to continue to train you and you’re going to continue to grow with us.
One of the most common questions I get from potential candidates concerns work-life boundaries. Is there going to be a balance? Am I going to be burnt out by the end of this? Maybe it’s more prevalent because I recruit couples, so it’s a whole family that’s now part of this system of doing klal work. They’re worried that no matter their professional growth and no matter how much we invest in them, we’re going to ask them to give their full selves to the job to the point that they will run on empty.
Rabbi Edelstein: Regarding professional development, the problem is that in general there is no clear career path in klal work. If you become a community rabbi, your next ambition is to find another community that is going to be a little bit better. But if you’re a mekarev for a kiruv organization, that’s probably where you’re going to be for the next twenty or thirty years.
Though we can’t incentivize the field with a clear career path, what we can do is tell a prospective employee that through this job, we will help you develop yourself, not only within your specific role but also in preparation for other horizons, whatever those horizons might be. We will encourage you to use this job as a springboard. We will sponsor professional development courses. You will be given the opportunity to acquire an MBA or another degree of your choice. We will be involved with your search for another job when you feel you’ve outgrown this job. We will walk with you through your next phase of life, and perhaps further on.
This idea of mentoring is really a lifelong necessity. At every phase of a person’s professional career, mentoring is going to make a big difference, especially if people know at the outset that that’s what’s going to happen. This could be systematized and advertised so that people would know that going into klal work means, “I’m going to be developing myself; I’m not going to be stuck in one role for the rest of my days.”
Cohen: If professional development is the key to retention, are Jewish non-profits doing enough?
Gottesman: I don’t think so. Rabbi Edelstein mentioned the need to recruit people to communal work while they are young and passionate, but the problem is they eventually burn out.
In Jewish non-profits, it’s common to find an administrative assistant running a fundraising event, which is not really part of the job. Since many Jewish organizations are small, everyone is asked to pitch in. So what’s the problem with that? At the fundraising event, who gets all the honor? The fundraiser. Not the administrative assistant who put in so many extra hours. So it’s not surprising that she will want to leave. She feels: Where am I going? You’re not training me to be a fundraiser. You’re just asking me to help out to get the job done.
Cohen: Are there any other factors that can enhance employee retention in the field of klal work?
Werblowsky: By far there are two main reasons people call me in search of a new job. The first is their boss. If you don’t get along with your boss, your boss micromanages you, your boss makes it hard for you to grow in your role, your boss takes credit for whatever you do or your boss calls you at eleven o’clock at night and expects you to answer no matter what, you will call me and ask for another job.
The second reason is money, that is, the baseline salary. Can you pay your bills at the end of the month? I do not find people who are very passionate about klal work leaving because they won’t be rich or because they can’t afford a luxury kosher vacation. It’s when people cannot afford their basic necessities and they’re scraping by at the end of the month that they either look for a different job that will pay better within the non-profit world, or they make the decision to leave.
Gottesman: What Shira said is true: people leave companies because of bosses and managers. The big question is: why did they not want to work for that manager? Was it how the work was given over? Was it delegated or dumped? That is just one example of why it’s critical to train staff to be good managers. Talented individuals who are good at their jobs are often promoted but don’t have proper managerial skills. Managing people is a learned skill. The non-profit world should focus on training managers and training in general. We should imbue in our staff the notion that we will grow their skills and advance their careers.
Cohen: What do you think are prevailing misconceptions about klal work?
Rabbi Penner: We’ve done some studies recently regarding salaries in the world of Modern Orthodox education—what the salaries are and what the salaries need to be. But if you ask a typical college student what those salaries are, he tends to assume it’s about half of what it actually is. Many people also assume that those who are in klal work are unable to make it financially. This is not the case. One of the things we’d like to do is work together with other organizations to just get out the facts.
Gottesman: The biggest myth I encounter is: Oh, you work for a non-profit because you couldn’t get a job anywhere else? This notion is prevalent among many college students. It wouldn’t cross their minds to think, while I’m waiting to get my credits for the CPA exam, I can work in the accounting department of a Jewish non-profit to get some experience until I go to work in the corporate world. Instead, non-profit work is viewed as a last resort.
Looking around the room, I see people who hold MBAs and MAs, certificates and semichah and a PhD. We all obtained high-level education and have the same degrees as those in the corporate sector. The difference is that we all chose to work in a job that impacts Klal Yisrael, and we love it and are honored to have the opportunity.
Cohen: A few solutions were mentioned, such as the need for professional growth and the need to clear up the myths about the field. One myth, in particular, we need to clarify is what the compensation actually is so people realize you can make a living. Let’s see if we can get into some other solutions.
Werblowsky: If we could figure out how to pull people in mid-career, it would help alleviate the shortage we’re seeing in the non-profit field. But here’s why that’s difficult. The earning power of mid-career employees is higher than with starting-level job applicants, and the responsibility and leadership they’ve attained is higher as well. But to place someone who doesn’t have non-profit experience in a leadership role requires too steep of a learning curve for what actually needs to happen within the first six months in an organization. Despite being super-talented and having all the soft skills and real training, a person making a transition from Wall Street or from another field is not ready to run a team of ten NCSY city directors. He simply doesn’t have enough industry knowledge about kiruv. On the other hand, he wouldn’t be willing to earn $50,000 or begin on the lowest rung within the organization because it just won’t suit where he’s at personally and professionally. So in theory it’s a great idea, but it’s difficult to implement.
Rabbi Dr. Joseph: How do we onboard people mid-career? You’re not going to become an NCSY regional director after serving ten years in the corporate world. But if you come in as a lay leader first—a chair of a committee or on a commission—and during that process you get exposure, experience and maybe even some training, there’s a possible pathway.
Additionally, I believe working for the klal can be challenging. You can have a lot of mesirut nefesh, and then burn out. It’s important to get chizuk and be reinspired. We don’t do enough of that for the people who are in. It’s not just about professional development and training, it’s also about bolstering the people who are in it.
Rabbi Wildes: I bet if we asked every person who’s devoted his life to Jewish communal service, he could point to at least one or two mentors who brought him into the game and kept him going. Young people need a rebbi who will say, “I think you have tremendous potential for klal work,” and the two of them will sit down and explore that.
We need to target young frum men and women . . . I don’t think people know there’s a fire: communal work is truly in crisis. I know. I’ve been experiencing difficulty in hiring for many years. We need to let the rest of the Jewish world know.
Werblowsky: I work with a certain foundation in Chicago that supports Jewish education, among other causes. The foundation created a fellowship to retrain mathematicians and scientists as teachers. The fellows are provided with a salary, benefits and the best adjunct professors in teaching methodologies in the Chicago area.
When a head of school leaves a small community, if the community school cannot find a replacement to move to town, the school will fall apart, and seventy kids will not have a school to attend.
What happens when a person wants to make a mid-career shift? Suppose someone wants to go into rabbanus, for example. Take an accountant who has semichah, who, after five years working in his field, is unfulfilled. He can’t take an intern-level position in the Jewish communal field and live for six months without a salary. But if we could pay him or bring him into some sort of fellowship that allows him to learn the skills he needs to ramp up into a leadership role that is appropriate for his stage of life, it would help him make the transition in a way that’s a win-win for him and for the organization.
Attia: One idea not mentioned in this discussion so far is that there is a huge “brain drain” of talented, passionate people moving to Israel. I personally feel conflicted about nearly every minute of my life doing klal work in chutz la’Aretz; I feel that I should be in Israel. It’s a real tension, and one that I don’t know if we have the wherewithal to address, but it’s something that can’t go unsaid in a conversation like this: people who are idealistic and care about their Judaism and Torah values are more likely to be found in Israel or drawn to move there.
Werblowsky: That is true. Many are leaving and moving to Israel. The best and brightest people call me asking, “Can you find me a job [in klal work] in Israel?” I’ll say, “No, you’ll never find it; the field is oversaturated there. Stay in America.” But the best and brightest are leaving nonetheless. I can name three heads of school who left in recent years to make aliyah. They’re not going to have professional opportunities in Israel—you can’t be an English-speaking head of school who doesn’t understand Misrad Hachinuch—but they’re still leaving because they’re ultra-Zionistic.
Rabbi Wildes: We’re not going to change the aliyah phenomenon. Aliyah is, obviously, a good thing. So what solutions could we generate to combat this talent drain?
I’ll give you an example. I have a couple on staff at MJE. Both the husband and wife are very talented, natural mekarvim, and they host two Shabbatot a month for us. I’d love more of their time, but they have full-time jobs. They told us very clearly that they’re making aliyah next summer. But I got three years out of them.
We’re not going to change the brain drain from chutz la’Aretz to Israel, but if we can capture those couples for, say, three years, that would do something for the field. For example, Tal, what’s the “shelf life” of OU-JLIC couples? Three years, four?
Attia: It’s longer, but we put a lot of effort into retention. In fact, when our most talented couples make aliyah, we try to move them to our new campuses in Israel for exactly the reasons we discussed—to provide them with long-term opportunities.
Another aspect we need to address is that, in my experience, some women considering going into klal work sense that there is a glass ceiling. They’ve implicitly or explicitly been passed over for professional opportunities, or seen this happen to other women, so they don’t even want to get on the boat, so to speak.
As a community we need to really think about what’s next for potential recruits who are idealistic and wish to make aliyah—will they continue their klal work in Israel? And for women who choose to go into klal work—will they be able to level up, or will they be stuck in lower-level positions?
Werblowsky: In my experience speaking to CEOs and hiring managers, I have actually found that across the board there is an openness to giving significant leadership roles to women. In the Chareidi sector, three organizations come to mind that are founded and led by women: BINA, by Chavie Glustein; Links, by Sarah Rivkah Kohn; and Penimi, by Faigie Zelcer. They are all well respected, and they do their own fundraising.
Even within national organizations, there is a growing willingness to bring women into leadership roles, and I think Josh J. has been instrumental in that and in giving these women the feeling that they can grow at the OU. I know that three or four department heads at the OU are women who were recently promoted into those positions. So Tal, tell everyone that the tides are turning, that they can stay in the States and find these roles.
With regard to the idealism angle, I’m not sure it’s true that our youth isn’t idealistic. It seems to me that we’re trading idealisms. Some may be trading klal work for long-term learning. Others are trading, say, kiruv opportunities for jobs in high-tech that will allow them to make aliyah and live out their Zionistic dreams. It’s not that we’re not raising idealistic kids; it’s just that our ideals have changed over the years.
So how does this awareness translate into solutions? We need to think about which ideals we are transmitting to the next generation. Love of Eretz Yisrael is critical. Long-term learning is critical. But communal work, including kiruv, is critical as well and must be on the agenda from the top down—from mentors, from rabbanim and from parents.
Rabbi Wildes: I don’t think we have successfully communicated the fusion of the Torah ideals of harbatzas Torah (spreading of Torah learning) and being involved in tzorchei tzibbur (the needs of the community). Nor have we communicated that if you have the personality for klal work, it’s not just that you’d gain a level of meaning from it but that there’s a responsibility to take up the mantle.
For some reason I don’t hear that message from our leaders. We’re a little timid in expressing this concept of responsibility to people who could be going into klal work and become future leaders.
Werblowsky: We’ve also perfected a certain model: 5:30 am wake-up, learn Daf Yomi, then be a real professional and make lots of money—and be on the board of your kid’s school.
Rabbi Wildes: Or perhaps you don’t have time for klal work because of your profession, but you still want to help the klal, so you write a check as your form of support.
Werblowsky: Exactly. There’s this idea that “I can have it all”—the professional career and the fulfillment of helping the klal.
Rabbi Penner: I also find that people feel their primary mesirus nefesh, their sacrifice, lies in raising and supporting a family in today’s world. Bringing up a family today is so challenging and expensive. When that’s the focus of one’s sacrifice, there isn’t a lot of mesirus nefesh left over to invest elsewhere.
Cohen: As a product of a completely secular public school system, and having not discovered religious observance until later on, it wasn’t even on my radar when I was graduating college that I would ever pursue Jewish communal work. The viewpoint was that you go to school to get a good job to make money. As I got older, my perspective shifted. I asked myself: Is that all there is to my life? To just keep trying to get promoted, make more money and accumulate material things? There had to be a spiritual element to life. Everyone participating in this roundtable is a real-life example of someone who made the commitment to klal work. What inspired you to make that commitment?
Rabbi Dr. Joseph: I used to work on Wall Street, and I got caught up in it. I had big ambitions. But for a number of reasons, including the turbulence of working in the stock market and, more importantly, an illness in the family—I shifted into non-profit work. I remember walking home from the train one day, thinking—where’s the meaning? Where is the stability coming from in my life?
While the many things we need to do to make the Jewish communal world better are daunting, it’s exciting for me to make the decision every day, every year that this is really what I want to do.
Rabbi Penner: My sense of idealism and leadership came from Rabbi Benjamin and Rebbetzin Shevi Yudin of Fair Lawn, New Jersey, where I grew up, as well as from my high school and yeshivah years in New Jersey NCSY. As an aside, at the time, the NCSY region was comprised of mainstream yeshivah kids; an enormous number of today’s leaders, rabbis and school principals across the country are products of that movement. When I was in high school, I was trying to decide between going into the rabbinate and going into medicine, and I was very focused on my SAT scores so I could get into the right Ivy League school. Someone wrote a lengthy note on a sefer he gave me as a gift, which said: “It’s not how you score on the SAT, but on the OHEE—the Olam Haba Entrance Exam.” I looked at the Yudins, and what they did for the community and I said to myself—they’re going to Olam Haba. It was as simple as that.
I always tell my students in the beis midrash that what you do for a living takes up most of your day, your week and your year. Most of your life is spent on your profession, not on your davening in the morning or your chavrusa at night. Yet many people spend more time picking out an esrog than they spend figuring out what to do with the rest of their life. Careers in avodas hakodesh aren’t for everyone, but how lucky one is if he can find such a career.
Rabbi Wildes: I was also a product of NCSY. I was trained as an attorney. I always tell people who ask me why I went into the field of kiruv that I thought the world could do without one more Jewish lawyer. But the real reason I went into outreach work was because I realized we were losing so many of our Jewish brothers and sisters to intermarriage and assimilation. I wanted to make a difference. My work at MJE gives me tremendous satisfaction on the klal level and on the individual level as well. The people you get to meet and the lives you have the opportunity to impact—nothing compares to it; I don’t care how much money you make on Wall Street. I share this all the time with people, and it’s the emes. It’s what keeps me in the game.
Rabbi Edelstein: There is nothing I would rather do with my life than serve the Jewish people. It’s not that I haven’t been offered significant business opportunities. I turned them down on the spot. I never wanted to sleep overnight on such an offer, because I never felt there would be any trade-off.
When my family would sit around the dinner table, I’d tell my kids, “We are rich; we don’t lack anything.” If the only problem is money, that’s always the easiest problem to solve. All the other issues—finding meaning and living your life to the fullest—those are much more challenging. If you get those right, you’ll find a way of solving the financial angle. That message, when said to a young person, is very impactful. It shakes people up and gets them to think.
I have been in klal work ever since I was a student activist. My organizational history includes many stops—and all have been very important parts of my journey. But my ongoing engagement with the Jewish people didn’t happen after one conversation, or one year of messaging, or anything else. It was a lifelong osmotic process. It takes multiple years of absorbing that message and believing in that message and feeling that this is who you are. You are a servant, an eved of Klal Yisrael.