As a professional working in the Jewish community for many years, I have seen during that time the status of the communal worker significantly elevated from its one time lowly position. If there had been a market research poll amongst the public (as indeed there probably was) in the 1970s asking people to rank the esteem in which they held various professions, one wonders what that ranking would look like. Those for whom the members of the public have the greatest respect would be doctors, consultants, dentists. Those working for communal organisations including synagogues may not have had a ranking at all and that was also reflected at that time in salary levels of communal workers.
Thankfully for the most part much has changed and the community is able to benefit from the work of a number of highly committed and capable young professional workers.
In the main communal workers are no longer referred to as “stipendiary officers” or the like and are actually treated almost like normal people! I think it is also fair to say, however, that the professionalism of lay leaders working in our communal organisations has also increased. It is likely that the man on the Golders Green Road omnibus would probably have little awareness of the fantastic work which is now done by so many of our lay leaders.
Taking on a Trusteeship of a Jewish charity, particularly the larger ones, is a serious and onerous responsibility. Not only does it carry with it a significant number of heavyweight legal responsibilities, it can also be extremely demanding in terms of man/woman hours that need to be committed to the role. Yet incredibly there are many such Trustees working in the community for the greater good of the community. Often the work is unrecognised, unrewarded and sometimes brings nothing but aggravation but still people step forward to do this work. In the main this is through ultraism, ie genuinely being in a position to help others and being prepared and willing to do so.
An excellent seminar was run by JVN earlier this year which provided a great platform for Trustees to meet, discuss common issues and network. In my view there is a great need for more such events as Trustees/lay leaders can always learn from each other in the same way that professionals can learn from each other. Anything which can be done to strengthen the support mechanism for this group of people should be applauded.
Similarly at the present time there is no communal support network for communal professionals other than that which might be offered by individual organisations. There are a number of networks which exist for groups dealing with different sectors of the community – education, mental health, older people etc - but not an overarching Jewish communal support organisation. Some of my colleagues who have been working in the community as long as I, will recall an organisation called AJCP (Association of Jewish Communal Professionals) which performed such a function for a number of years. Eventually it ceased to operate. The principal reason for this, not surprisingly, was those that were doing the real work for the benefit of the Association were having to do this on a voluntary basis on top of their day jobs.
It may be that there is a need for funding to support such a structure in the future which can only serve to benefit the community. Stimulated, happy and motivated communal workers can only be a good thing. Possibly there is a piece of work to be done here in ascertaining exactly what the demand would be for such a structure and what costs might be involved. I would be interested to hear from anybody who agrees with me that there may be a demand for such support.