Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

20,000 Jewish communal professionals lost jobs


That’s how Melissa Engelberg felt after being laid off in April due to COVID-19 cutbacks.  

“I was shocked, I was sad and I was worried,” said Engelberg, who lost her job as director of grants and programs at the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County. “I understood the reason — the times are just so unprecedented — but this was my dream job and I had never lost a job before.”

Engelberg let colleagues and friends know she was seeking a new position. Soon afterward, two people alerted her to Rise, a new initiative to help the roughly 20,000 Jewish community professionals who have been furloughed or laid off due to pandemic-related cutbacks. 

“I thought: You know what? I might as well try it. It can’t hurt,” Engelberg said of the program, which formally launched in early August after several months of piloting by the Jewish Federations of North America and JPRO Network, a professional network for those working in the Jewish community.

Rise offers career advice from professional coaches, career enhancement programs and workshops related to resume building, networking and more. It has compiled a comprehensive list of free loan programs and financial assistance agencies. Its “resilience-building” track offers facilitated peer discussions, meditation and other coping strategies. 

So far, Rise has provided hundreds of professionals around North America with career support and resilience building. The online program’s career component is open to any professional, Jewish and non-Jewish, who worked in the Jewish communal sector until COVID-19 struck. 

Lisa Dubler is a career coach at Rise. She’s urging her clients to look back at their career history and ask themselves some fundamental questions: “What aspects of my career do I want to continue? What will be meaningful in a new role? What have I not had the opportunity to try? How can I try to create this in my new role?”

Katie Wexler, who was laid off from her job as the director of human resources for Hillel’s Schusterman International Center in May, joined the program’s furlough and layoff peer discussion group soon after. The group, which met once a week for six weeks in May and June, was led by experts in social work and job placement.

“It was an opportunity to share our experiences and connect with others, which helped me to feel a little less alone during a difficult time, as well as get concrete strategies about approaching my job search,” Wexler said.

Group participants have stayed connected and tapped into each other’s networks in their job search. Some have found new jobs.

The idea for Rise was born in March. JPRO, which has a 120-year history of supporting Jewish community professionals in North America, realized that COVID-19 was hitting Jewish communal institutions hard. By April, most synagogues, JCCs, Jewish schools and federations were no longer offering in-person services.  

“We became worried,” said Ilana Aisen, JPRO’s CEO. “We saw layoffs and furloughs happening, and it was clear we needed to provide a different kind of support to the professional community we serve.”

As JPRO considered ways to help, it sought a partnership with the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), whose deep expertise, vast network and Jewish Together platform have made it the Jewish leader in response to the pandemic. JFNA is the umbrella organization for some 146 independent Jewish Federations and 300 smaller communities across North America.

“Across the continent, our Jewish communal work is made possible by tens of thousands of people — who are as diverse as you would find anywhere — and, together, represent one of our greatest community assets. They include teachers and social workers, accountants and academics,” said JFNA’s chief of staff, Shira Hutt. “We are thrilled to partner with JPRO, UJA-Federation of New York and others to create Rise. We want this group to know they are valued and we will do everything in our power to ensure that they remain cherished and appreciated members of our community.”

The Jewish Together platform has become a vital online resource for Jewish organizations and institutions seeking COVID-19-related guidance and best practices.

“It’s vital to help Jewish community professionals not just for their own good, but for the good of the Jewish community as a whole,” Aisen said.

“We know that the way we respond to this moment will define the narrative about how the Jewish nonprofit sector treats its talent in difficult times,” Aisen said. “Our response will have a long-term impact on how we’re able to recruit and retain top talent in the future.”

Doron Krakow, president and CEO of the JCC Association of North America, called the affected employees “a critical reservoir of future talent” that the Jewish community cannot afford to lose.

“We owe them for the service they have already given, and we will need them for the service they have yet to give,” Krakow said.

About half of Jewish community employees affected by the shutdowns worked for JCC-based facilities. Shuttered preschools and day schools rely on tuition, while camps, fitness centers and other JCC-based programs rely on memberships and fees. Most have since reopened, but on a limited basis.  

Kim Slaton, an executive career coach and managing director of JVS Career Services in Cincinnati, praised the program’s wide reach.

“Ordinarily, we all work in our own silos and cities, but now, instead of just working in Cincinnati, I’m working with applicants from coast to coast, from California and Illinois and Rhode Island and Pennsylvania.”

The affected employees Slaton is assisting had jobs in social media, digital marketing, technical writing, Jewish education programming and development. Some are rabbis. They share in common a sense of loss.

“Anyone who loses a job goes through the grief cycle — the loss of a career and the uncertainty that comes with this,” she said.

The fact that job-hunting is now being conducted online is exacerbating the problem, she added. “We’re missing that human face-to-face connection, and job hunting is all about relationships. For some folks, even logging on to a Zoom conference can be challenging,” Slaton said.

Engelberg said she felt strengthened by the support she received in the layoff peer discussion group from others going through the same experience. Her new job — with a mainstream nonprofit that supports adults with disabilities — is an exciting new chapter for her. But there’s still a sense of loss.

“I love my new job but for the first time in my career, I’m not working within the Jewish community,” Engelberg said. “My new role will allow me to broaden my relationships and skill set, but it’s definitely an adjustment.”

This article was sponsored by and produced in partnership with the Jewish Federations of North America, which represents 146 local Jewish Federations and 300 network communities. This story was produced by JTA’s native content team.


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