Lay-professional relationship is key

Jews fighting is hardly news – after all, the joke about two Jews and three synagogues is familiar to Jewish communities around the world.

But when the quarreling Jews also work together, it makes their jobs difficult. That’s often the case with the lay-professional relationships at the top echelons of American Jewish organizations.

Volunteers and professionals often misunderstand their roles, resulting in simmering tension or outright feuds. Both parties have been known to complain of a lack of respect for their time and expertise, compromising their potential to work effectively.

Often it’s a key reason for professional turnover in Jewish communal life.

The lay-professional relationship long has been a struggle, but several factors have exacerbated the problems in recent years.

As organizations have become increasingly complex and driven by professionals, many lay leaders have told JTA they feel sidelined from decision making and are kept out of the loop.

Both parties can become mired in a bureaucratic process that leaves professionals feeling undermined and lay leaders spent. The relationship is complicated by the fact that a lay leader’s influence often is a product of his or her wealth, prompting professionals to mince words to avoid losing donations or even their jobs, observers say.

In trying to strike the right balance, communication and mutual respect are key, according to a recent survey on Jewish communal professional leadership authored by sociologist Gary Tobin. But the “power differential” can get in the way, he says.

“When boards don’t understand their roles as trustees of the organization,” they “have a tendency to get more involved in the day-to-day, the here-and-now, and they don’t have the long vision,” says Jonathan Schick, a Dallas-based leadership consultant who works primarily with private schools.

One Jewish professional who recently became the executive of a Jewish organization said he was told to work out a contract with his senior lay leader. When he suggested that lay-professional trust made such a document unnecessary, the lay leader responded: “You trust me, and I trust you – but the next person who sits here might be an S.O.B., and you may need to be protected.”

Howard Rieger, the new president of United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group for the North American Jewish federation system, said in a recent interview that “there’s too much of a sense of trying to fit every volunteer into some kind of cookie-cutter mold,” like “putting every word in their mouth so they can deliver the message.” Making lay leaders into “window dressing” – without the power to make real decisions – only infuriates them.

Professionals also must empower themselves, he says.

“You can’t survive in this kind of arena if you truly are not in a position to say everything you want to say. You should say it with civility; you should say it and treat people with dignity, but you need to say what you need to say,” he says.

Meanwhile, preparation for both professional and lay leadership roles is sorely lacking. Lay leaders often accept positions without fully understanding the demands and then burn out or become bewildered.

“One of the hardest jobs in Jewish leadership is synagogue presidencies,” says Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University. “There’s precious little done to prepare people for that job, and it’s a microcosm of the entire lay structure.”

Observers say one of the best safeguards of the lay-professional relationship and of an organization’s success is the longevity of the professional and the extent to which he or she is anchored in the community.

However, “we’ve created this system where the only way to move up” is through promotion at another organization, says Daniel Allen, president of the Association of Jewish Communal Organizational Professionals.

That not only disrupts professionals and their families, but it’s “debilitating to the lay people, and it’s debilitating to a positive relationship” between lay and professional leaders.

Alternatively, many say longevity in a position gives the professional the stature and depth for a role that grounds the organization with a sense of continuity.