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Generational Change: The Anonymous Insider On Our Sick Institutions

August 14, 2013 – 9:54 am10 Comments

From the anonymous insider:

anonymous2In my time as a communal leader, I have been in more than my share of rooms in which I am the youngest person by at least a decade. Often, the gap between me and the next youngest will be longer than my entire life to date.

What this proves on the one hand is that, given the right circumstances, young people can make it into those circles. I know that, because I have. On the other hand, it shows that young people are, by and large, excluded.

Some of our communal leadership bodies have taken affirmative measures to engage with the young – with varying degrees of success. The most notable is the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, which proudly touts the fact that the combined age of its President and CEO is less than a century. Rather less successful is the Jewish Community Council of Victoria, which, after coming to the realisation that they were perhaps neglecting a large swathe of their constituents (ie anyone under 40), was determined to appoint a youth representative. Said representative was duly appointed and then entirely ignored.

That being said, the age of our lay leadership may not be in total crisis. It does make sense for those with more experience to be leading the community. There is a problem with totally excluding younger voices, but appointing a few under-30s to lead all of our communal institutions would probably create as many problems as it solved.

The more pressing issue concerns not lay leadership, but the community’s young professionals. Jewish communities of a similar wealth and size to the communities in Sydney and Melbourne can be found in several places throughout the US and Canada. I have had the pleasure of visiting some of them, and what is painfully obvious is how much more vibrant and robust their communal institutions are when compared with our own.

Put simply, there are three categories of people who generally work for Jewish institutions in Australia: early career professionals, senior management, and married people whose spouses are their primary providers. There is a huge black hole where the 25-45 year olds should be.

The retention rate of communal professionals with 2-3 years of experience is appalling. Dozens of young people are employed each year in various communal bodies and they will seldom last much longer than their first year or two. That is very much to the detriment of all our institutions. Programs are begun and never completed. Institutional memory is constantly lost. By the time someone has learnt how to do their job, they are generally looking to leave. It’s a waste of resources and it damages Jewish life.

The causes of this are not too complex. Put simply, our community does not value its staff. Without fail, Jewish communal workers are woefully underpaid. After four years of professional experience, a communal worker will be paid less than any graduate going into a government or private sector role or even a large NGO. Also, it is not uncommon for one person to be expected to do the job of two or three. That is unsustainable and requires a huge amount of passion to even take the role, but passion disappears very quickly when someone is overworked, underpaid, and generally not respected.

Moreover, there is no career progression available. Our organisations seldom have middle management roles. There are the people at the top, and the ones at the bottom. We know that we need to pay a competitive salary for those that run organisations, but apparently we do not think that that applies for any others.

I cannot help but feel that there is a link between the lack of professional staff in the 25-45 age bracket and the lack of lay leadership in that same bracket, as well as the general struggle that organisations have to attract anyone of that age.

The Jewish community in Australia has a lot of wealth, and a lot of very generous donors. However, there are only really two organisations with the means and know-how to raise large sums of money: the UIA and the JNF. Between them, they raise roughly 75c of every Australian Jewish philanthropic dollar. That money is then carted-off to Israel.

Both organisations do some important work, but they are both huge semi-official entities tied to the Israeli government, and the Australian contribution—impressive as it may be—constitutes a small proportion of their overall operating budgets. I am by no means saying that we should stop funding either, but I am questioning our priorities.

Giving money to causes in Israel is highly valuable, but Israel is not what it was 50 years ago. It is an advanced country with an advanced economy and a GDP growth rate that is the envy of the developed world, Australia included. Israelis benefit from our help, but should that really come at the cost of our children? After all, if we fail to invest in our own community, the donations will eventually stop.

My generation is flailing and the one after will most likely be even worse. A similar pattern played-out in parts of the US, and they are now having to play catch-up as they desperately try to re-engage a lost generation. This is not something that should happen in Australia, but it very well could if we continue to take the people working to keep our communal engine running for granted.

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Next week, we’ll be publishing a piece by Zionist Council of Victoria President, Sam Tatarka, giving his take on generational change.

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