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From Jewish Professional to Professional Jew

Posted on Thursday, March 03, 2011 by Robert Bank

Robert Bank is a a lawyer, activist, and the Executive Vice President for American Jewish World Service. Prior to joining AJWS, Robert served as Chief Operating Officer at Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), a national AIDS advocacy, service, and education organization. He can be reached at rbank@ajws.org.

After working for over twenty years on a variety of social justice issues in the secular “non-Jewish world,” I was privileged to meet a number of inspirational Jewish leaders who offered me a path to connect this work more directly to my Jewish identity.  So has working for almost two years in the so-called “Jewish world” in a specifically Jewish organization influenced my identity?  Also, have I observed significant differences between these two sectors?   

My own Jewish identity has been through a number of twists and turns.  Growing up in South Africa, I felt being Jewish meant longing for social justice, embracing Zionism, and having conflicted feelings about Jewish ritual.  My family’s older generation included an observant immigrant Zeida from Lithuania and a Granny – named Mary in an attempt to protect her from anti-Semitism – from London’s East End who had no time for the religious aspects of Judaism.  As first-generation university graduates, my parents valued their professional endeavors above all.  They had little interest in religious matters, but were deeply rooted in Jewish culture.  My childhood was filled with Israeli songs and my Jewish Day School and Habonim mates.  For many years after my bar mitzvah, I laid tefillin everyday but felt that I should hide this practice from my parents.  Yet there were many family squabbles about whether we could go to the soccer game on Friday nights after Shabbat dinner and what was to be done about my older cousin’s non-Jewish girlfriend. 

As important was our hearing the Jewish anti-apartheid activist Helen Suzman advocating for the right to vote for the country’s 40 million Blacks.  And I was deeply influenced by Denis Goldberg, my mother’s cousin, who, while not invoking Judaism, took the Prophets cries so seriously that he together with Nelson Mandela and six others (“The Rivonia Eight”) were eventually charged with treason for their anti-apartheid activities and sentenced to life in prison.

When I immigrated to New York in the late seventies, I no longer found a place for myself within the organized Jewish community, because I was coming out as a gay man.  Much has been written about the difficulty of having a non-heterosexual orientation in any faith community, and my experience was no different.  Being both gay and an activist felt entirely separate and mutually exclusive from being Jewish.  Professionally, I went on to become a lawyer, advocating for the rights of the incarcerated, homeless, drug-addicted, unemployed, undocumented, LGBT, and people living with HIV/AIDS.  I moved into progressively more senior executive leadership and management roles in several of these fields in secular organizations, also working as an activist to advance different social causes both locally and globally.  For me, this was social justice work done by someone raised with Jewish values but it was not Jewish work per se.

About six years ago, I participated in the Selah Leadership Program, which brings together Jewish social change leaders working in the Jewish community and in the secular world.  Finding this community of like-minded Jews was my first step towards re-emerging Jewishly.  It seemed increasingly logical to connect the work I was doing with my Judaism.  Then, as I continued to meet exceptional Jewish leaders, it became clear that I wanted to “take the plunge” and work on social justice issues in the Jewish world.  I am very fortunate to have landed at American Jewish World Service (AJWS), an organization that allows me to fully integrate my Jewish identity with many of the issues that I was so passionate about in the secular world.  This door has opened many others, including feeling a sense of belonging in synagogue and other Jewish environments.

In many ways, I have not found major differences between the Jewish professional world and the professional world I worked in previously. The key challenges are the same.  Even people with similar values find it hard to talk to one another about difficult issues.  Collaboration is really complicated and often remains elusive.  Internally and among organizations, it requires time, conscious effort, civility, and compromise, ingredients that are rare in most sectors and require intentional action and attention. Yes, we are challenged to engage in meaningful, non-alienating discussion about pluralism and Israel and whether our tradition is sufficiently expansive to help non-Jews.  But I experienced equally thorny divisions around values in other worlds.

What seems most salient is our tendency to live in our particular bubble. Having moved from one world to another, I think we must be open to learning from outside our immediate circles.  This is not to say that we should not be deeply engaged with one another, but we are a small minority living in a big world and we need to “cross-over” from time to time. 

Taking on this Jewish professional role, I learned quickly about the battles over values, choices, and resources within the many Jewish communities that make up “the Jewish” community.  While this environment has intrigued, frustrated, and challenged me, it feels critically important to our future as Jews.