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Volunteers and communal professionals should both meet higher standards
November 8th, 2002
Rockville, Md. This is an opening comment in the interest of dialogue on Gary Wexlers thoughtful and candid column.
Wexler may be right that there is a problem in lay-professional, or professional-lay, relations by whatever name we call them. However, as accurate as he is about the symptoms frustration, disempowerment, cynicism, confusion of roles, and so forth he is wrong in his approach to both the root of the problem and the solution.
The entire issue is a matter of professionalism, and professionalism is a two-way street. The partnership we all seek is at risk not because paid employees are marginalized and disempowered. It is at risk because both less-than-professional volunteers and less-than-professional employees too often abuse their roles and disempower their counterparts in the partnership.
We do not always hold ourselves appropriately accountable for behavior less than should be expected of any professional paid or volunteer. As a communal employee, I can point to many a lay transgression. However, my professional standards tell me to look in the mirror as well.
The strength of our communal system is precisely in the passion for excellence of all engaged, the full empowerment of laity in setting communal policy and the specialized empowerment of the paid professional in policy formulation and implementation.
At its best (which I have seen consistently over the past 21 years in this work), the system comes closest to the Jeffersonian notion of citizen leadership. This concept also bears close resemblance to the biblical vision of leadership before the anointment (against Samuels and Gods best advice) of King Saul. (Read I Samuel 8 for the nightmare of overpowering the professional better yet look at the United Way!)
While a clarification of roles is clearly needed, what is also needed is greater discernment in avoiding mediocrity and promoting excellence and accountability. No one, lay or professional, deserves a free ride in our system. All of us need to be better trained, more greatly aligned, more professional and more appreciative of respective skills and roles. I know Wexler would not disagree with this last comment.
Paid professionals who work hard at protecting the dignity and logic of the partnership will never quake with fear and uncertainty in working with their volunteer counterparts, are never followers and can lead and serve most effectively and professionally without having to go back to school to learn to create a culture dominated by the financially remunerated.
A last word on civility. Jewish meetings and decision-making processes are fueled by the passion and urgency inherent in our work. We are also a people of great intimacy and familiarity. While sometimes we cross a boundary or two, and sometimes we fall short of our own standards of respect and derech eretz, this is not in my mind an issue that requires conferences and protocols. In fact, I kinda like it. Maybe thats the difference between Brooklyn (where I am from) and L.A.
Robert Hyfler is chief operating officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. He served as an intern at the Milwaukee Jewish Federation in 1981-82.
Editors note: This column was originally written as a personal letter to Gary Wexler. In granting permission to print it, Hyfler remarked, Ive often said that Ive been trained by the very best MJF executive vice president emeritus Mel Zaret and Esther Leah Ritz and other leaders in Milwaukee. Any of us veterans from Milwaukee couldnt take Garys article without commenting on it.