Fieldwork Brings Classwork to Life

A portion of the curriculum at the Cincinnati campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion focuses on the practical skills of the rabbinate: how to officiate at life-cycle events, how to deliver a cogent sermon, and even how to manage a budget and raise money. I loathe these courses. Beneath my dread of all of the practical instruction on how to be a rabbi is a belief that, until very recently, I held with great conviction: the nuts and bolts of being a successful rabbi can only be learned over the course of the rabbinate, not within the walls of HUC.

Recently my feelings on the subject have changed as a direct result of the new program in sacred service learning at HUC. I am taking a course this semester entitled “Fundraising and Philanthropy.” The course, taught by Rabbi Sam Joseph, teaches about the financial structures of different Jewish nonprofit organizations and the strategies by which they raise the funds needed to accomplish their missions. The course just happened to coincide with the introduction of two new people in my fieldwork placement, both in positions focused on fundraising. My fieldwork takes place at the Cincinnati Hillel, the center for Jewish student life located directly across the street from the University of Cincinnati. Just as Hillel hired a new Executive Director to resuscitate its finances and raise new money, the University of Cincinnati saw its president resign and a provost, Santa Ono, become the new president of the university.

“Fundraising,” Rabbi Joseph teaches, “is about three things: relationships, relationships, relationships.” I was able to see this motto come to life during an event that Hillel hosted, when President Ono offered to speak at a Shabbat service and many community leaders came to meet him. During his visit, President Ono had the opportunity to meet many of the major philanthropists in the Jewish community, and at least one of them promised a donation upon meeting him that very night. Suddenly, the significance of these relationships became very clear to me. Hillel became an avenue for the University to raise money. In gratitude, and perhaps to continue this fundraising avenue, the University offered Hillel access to certain fundraising resources of their own. Through this event, I was able to see just what Rabbi Joseph meant when he said that fundraising is about relationships.

The most powerful learning opportunity in this experience for me, however, was not about fundraising or the relationships between philanthropists, but rather about myself and my own values, attitudes and biases toward the issue. Another topic in Rabbi Joseph’s course relates to understanding our own values regarding money. I grew up in a suburban Midwestern home where money was rarely discussed. Giving tzedakah was an important value, but I never knew just how much my family gave or what percentage of our income those contributions constituted. Because speaking about money was taboo, fundraising seemed like a dirty business. I knew it was necessary, that money was needed to run a non-profit organization, but I felt that requests for money should be included in the category of laws and sausages: things that nobody should see how they are made. My experience watching the networking between Hillel and the university could not have been further from this feeling. As I saw fundraising in action, I saw that the process was not dirty, but rather amicable. It looked more like a dinner party than an auction or the floor of a stock exchange. People gave money because of relationships, but somehow the relationships did not seem to be based entirely upon money.

I enjoyed that evening at Hillel, to my surprise, and I even found the opportunity to build on some of my own relationships. I had a chance to speak to some community leaders who had spoken in the fundraising class, including representatives from the Jewish Federation and The Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati. One major community philanthropist told our class that to be a good fundraiser, you must love people. That evening, as I enjoyed friendly conversation with people I would otherwise not have met, I felt like I fully understood that sentiment. Furthermore, I realized that I was utilizing the same skills that night as I did each time I converse with congregants at an Oneg Shabbat following a service that I have led. The truth is, I believe that in order to be a good rabbi, you must love people too. It is in this love for people, for helping people and giving others the opportunity to help, that a rabbi can act as a fundraiser.

This experience in sacred service-learning helped me to deepen my understanding of course material, but it also allowed me to deepen my understanding of myself and my identity as a future rabbi. Because of this experience, I feel more aware of my own biases that could influence my ability to lead the Jewish community. Additionally, my thoughts regarding a major aspect of Jewish communal life in the United States have grown more positive. Perhaps most significantly, I now feel more confident in my ability to navigate the Jewish professional world. Maybe there truly are things that can only be learned outside of the classroom, and my experience in sacred service-learning as allowed me to do just that. Suddenly the real world is my classroom, and the classroom is a part of the real world.

Joshua Herman is a Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow whose fieldwork placement is at the Cincinnati Hillel.  

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