Dual-Degree Program Targets Agency Leaders

By Anthony Weiss

Published January 16, 2008, issue of January 18, 2008.
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In an effort to better prepare Jewish communal organizations’ future leaders, a new graduate-school program in New York will combine Jewish studies with management training.

The Jewish Professional Leadership Program — a dual-degree program that is run under the partnership of the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University — will offer students the opportunity to earn master’s degrees in both Jewish studies at JTS and public administration at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, or SIPA, in two or three years. The mission of the program — set to launch in 2009 — is to provide prospective leaders of Jewish communal organizations with both the management skills and the Jewish learning they need to do their jobs, allowing them to save a year or two of schooling in the process.

“This is a way of squeezing more into less time,” said Maud Kozodoy, an assistant dean at JTS who is overseeing the program.

Jewish organizational leaders have traditionally come from backgrounds in social work and then moved into more administrative positions. In fact, JTS and Columbia have already jointly offered a dual master’s degree in Jewish studies and social work for several years. But as Jewish organizations, and nongovernmental organizations in general, have changed over the past few decades, they have begun to look for staffers with different training and skills.

“For a long time, we were training people primarily in social work and related fields,” said Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research, a think tank that studies Jewish organizational issues. “A lot of NGO work now is about management and fundraising and organization building, and requires different sets of skills.”

As a result, students at JTS began to request the opportunity to combine their Jewish-studies degrees with a master’s in public administration. Some even went out and got both degrees separately. Administrators allowed some students to study at both schools, through ad-hoc arrangements. The steady stream of students making such requests convinced the schools that there was interest in such a program, and three or four years ago the two schools decided to set about linking the two programs officially — no small undertaking.

“It’s a bureaucratic nightmare to put a program like this together,” said Lisa Anderson, dean of SIPA.

Still, in the long run, the schools hope that the move will save time for administrators and students by permitting the latter to avoid taking redundant classes at the two schools. They must apply to JTS and Columbia separately, but once they are in, the two programs mesh. Ordinarily, SIPA requires participants to take both a core curriculum — which focuses on courses in policymaking, statistics, economics and budgets — and a concentration in a desired field. Through the joint program, enrolled students can now fulfill that concentration across the street at JTS, where they will study Jewish history, Israel, Jewish texts and contemporary issues in Jewish life.

They will also get hands-on experience: As part of SIPA’s program, students take workshops in which they serve as management consultants to actual client organizations. These workshops offer a chance for students to develop skills beyond book learning, and sometimes they can even lead to job offers from satisfied clients.

Administrators from both schools expect the dual-degree program to remain relatively small — possibly starting with 10 or fewer students when it launches.

Even so, a program that supplies skilled Jewish professionals would be welcome, given that Jewish organizations are facing a dearth of qualified professionals.

“We don’t have enough people, whether to be day school administrators or campaign directors,” Tobin said. He praised the new dual-degree program, but he warned that it raises the larger, more troubling question of how to keep trained professionals in a field where hours are grueling and where untrained lay leaders can be difficult to work with. According to some studies, half of new Jewish professionals leave the Jewish community within three years.

“What happens six months after these people, who are well-trained, take a good job someplace?” Tobin asked. “That’s a lot of good money down the drain for a joint program for somebody to get into the field, after a year or two be disillusioned and leave and go someplace else.”

That said, program organizers see the new program as an important way to raise the bar for the field of Jewish organizations.

“I’d like to think that the people running [Jewish social service agencies] are well-trained and professionally oriented,” said Anderson. “I think this is an ideal way of fostering that.”

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