Melissa Donald, a staff member at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan since 2003, decided only a few years ago that her work in the Jewish world was not just a job, nor even a career, but “a calling.”
But that discovery wouldn’t have come at that point in her life if it weren’t for the Muehlstein Institute, she said, referring to the training program sponsored by UJA-Federation of New York for Jewish communal professionals at the start of their career.
“One thing Muehlstein asked us to consider is if we thought our work was a calling,” said Donald, 34, who added that the institute also taught her how to translate her Jewish values into the choices she makes at work.
While Donald, of course, views her education at Muehlstein in personal terms, federation leaders see stories like hers more in terms of their value for the Jewish community. But Donald completed the institute in 2008, and the program has remained on hiatus ever since, a victim of lost funding.
The current juncture troubles Lyn Light Geller, federation’s executive director of educational resources and organizational development, who launched the program in 2003 and regards its hiatus as a loss to the Jewish community. It also concerns leaders of federation’s Capital Gifts and Special Initiatives Campaign, who have given special priority to the program, which is known alternately as the Institute for Emerging Jewish Professional Leadership.
The question, though, is whether donors will agree, especially as they’re asked to fund a myriad of other programs in these tough economic times.
Geller, for one, is convinced they will — a view she shares with Josh Lookstein, the major gifts officer tasked with raising funds for the institute.
“Every donor wants to feel like his gift is making an impact,” says Lookstein, who notes that the institute has graduated 60 participants in its three “cycles” or “cohorts,” as each class is called.
With that in mind, he continues, a donor could be confident that a gift to Muehlstein would “impact the professional, the organization in which he or she works, and, ultimately, the clients of the organization. If each cycle has 20 participants, you’d impact 20 professionals, 20 organizations and thousands of clients.”
Federation leaders are hoping to raise $600,000 for one cycle of the institute or, even better, an endowment of $6 million, Lookstein said. He pointed out that an endowment is a gift that would repeat itself, bearing even more leverage than other donations.
The idea of professional development carries such importance for federation leaders that they’ve carved out an exception for the Muehlstein Institute, one of only a few programs for which they’re raising targeted money. The vast majority of donations to federation go to the annual campaign.
Geller and her colleagues created the institute after reviewing federation’s professional-development programs, including one for nonprofit directors and another for midlevel executives, and realizing that relative newcomers to the field could also benefit from the same type of long-term education.
They also realized that the institute would face plenty of challenges, including the high cost of running such programs, resistance from agencies and even resistance from professionals who might benefit, Geller said. The resistance stems from the poor economy and, thus, “an environment in which people are reluctant to give up any of their work time.”
But the program’s potential value outweighed the challenges, and federation received funding for the institute from the Herman Muehlstein Foundation, an organization that has since disbanded. Meanwhile, Geller sent invitations to a host of Jewish organizations throughout the area, both within federation’s network of agencies and outside of it. The agencies, large and small, included synagogues, Hillel chapters, Jewish Community Centers and other organizations, like the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the Foundation for Jewish Camp.
Those agencies, in turn, nominated employees for the institute and paid a small fee for each person accepted.
What emerged was an 18-month program that offered biweekly classes in leadership and management skills; two overnight retreats; an overseas trip to Israel and Ukraine; and a variety of resource material, including books and journals. Federation ran the institute with New York University during its first and second cycles and with Columbia University during the third cycle. In addition, Geller and her team made changes to the program in each cycle, based on feedback from participants, and are planning to make additional changes in the institute’s next cycle, which is likely to be shortened.
Discussing the institute’s mission, Geller said the program is designed to strengthen the skills, knowledge and confidence of participants, as well as their ability to advance at their agency. Another goal is to keep participants within Jewish communal service, said Geller, who’s familiar with the high burnout rate among nonprofit employees, in general.
By those yardsticks, the institute appears to be a success if the experience of three participants who recently spoke to The Jewish Week is any indication.
Amy Greenstein, director of young leadership development at HIAS, said one of the things she appreciated about the program is how it gave her a network of other Jewish professionals to whom she could turn for advice and ideas. Her comment was echoed by the other two participants — Melissa Donald and David Newman, the newly hired executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Long Island.
The program also sharpened Greenstein’s knowledge of various skills outside her own job, a position that combines fund-raising and programming.
“I’ve worked in so many places and learned a lot,” said Greenstein, who joined HIAS eight years ago after working at Makor, the Upper West Side community center that closed and became part of the 92nd Street Y. “But there’s something to be said for taking a class in budgeting skills or strategic planning.”
Newman learned a great deal about creating and managing relationships, an area that’s especially pertinent to the JCRC’s work of building coalitions with other ethnic and religious groups, he said.
Newman also recalled the role played by the institute’s overseas trip, which added to his understanding of Jewish identity and the “multiple ways” in which people connect to their Judaism. But equally important is that the program “sealed” his interest in staying within the Jewish nonprofit world, opening his eyes to the many opportunities and challenges he could find.
Donald, chief operating officer of the JCC’s Fitness, Athletics and Aquatics Center, also emphasized how the program affected her personally.
“I learned that my Jewish identity, my values and my agency’s values are inextricably linked,” she said — giving her an extra motivation “to go into work every day and do the best I can.”
Those values include a strong belief in a more inclusive Jewish community, as well as the strength of diversity, said Donald, who grew up in an interfaith family.
During the institute, Donald said, “we became strategists, we analyzed mission statements, we studied our managerial practices, we looked more closely at our constituents” — all tools “by which we learned to translate our values into nonprofit-management practices.”
Staff members like Donald, Newman and Greenstein are “the core asset of any organization,” especially during turbulent times, said Kathleen Enright, president and CEO of the Washington-based Grantmakers for Effective Organizations.
“Training professionals at a time when their roles might be shifting or they’re expected to operate in different ways is money well-spent,” Enright said. “From a donor’s perspective, whatever changes they’d like to see in the world, whatever causes they want to support, are entirely reliant on the people” charged with implementing them.
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