A Lay Leader’s Perspective on Mentoring HUC-JIR Students

Friday, September 12, 2014

Jay H. Geller, member of the HUC-JIR Board of Governors and Western Region Board of Overseers; Chair of the HUC-JIR Communications Committee and the Advisory Board of the School of Jewish Nonprofit Management

Jay H. Geller (center) joined HUC-JIR students on their Germany Close-Up trip exploring the roots of Reform Judaism, the Holocaust, and the renewal of Jewish life in Germany today

I’m often asked why I devote so much of my time to HUC-JIR.  While my activities on HUC-JIR’s Boards and Committees keep me busy, there is one activity that keeps me the busiest and provides me with greatest satisfaction as a lay leader of HUC-JIR: mentoring our students. The greatest joy I experience as a Governor and Overseer is to study, worship, mentor, and socialize with our students. 

I’ve taken three classes with our students in the last four years – Introduction to the Koran, Germany Close-Up (a pre-trip course and two-week Germany learning trip with nine students from the three stateside campuses) and Women in the Bible.  I am currently taking a class on Leviticus.  I learn from my fellow students and they learn from me.  I learn from my professors and they learn from me.  It’s a win-win.

As often as I can, I attend the Thursday tefilah at the Jack H. Skirball Campus in Los Angeles, where fourth- and fifth-year rabbinical students deliver sermons and rabbinical, education, and nonprofit students lead services and chant Torah.  The Thursday service has become my worship community, and I encourage other lay leaders to attend these student-led services as often as possible.

Each of the students in the School of Jewish Nonprofit Management (SJNM) program has the opportunity to have a lay mentor as part of their studies toward four degree options:  (1) A single Master's degree in Jewish Nonprofit Management; (2) a joint Master's degree at HUC-JIR in nonprofit management and Jewish education; (3) a dual Master’s degree at HUC-JIR in nonprofit management and one of four masters degrees at the University of Southern California (USC): Business Administration, Public Administration, Social Work, or Communications; or (4) a certificate in Jewish nonprofit management (which is primarily pursued by rabbinical students). 

My first SJNM mentee was Rabbi Adam Wright, one of my classmates on the Germany Close-Up trip. Adam had just completed his third year of rabbinical school and was entering the two-summer certificate program at the SJNM.  He asked me to be his mentor because of my experience as a lay leader in the Reform Movement and at HUC-JIR.  Over the next three years, we met regularly for lunch or dinner, talked often on the phone, and became very close friends.  Adam is now the Assistant Rabbi at Temple Solel in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, CA and has an incredibly bright future as a leader of 21st-century Reform Judaism. I encourage our rabbinical students to take the SJNM certificate program because knowledge of how nonprofit organizations work is so vital to their work as congregational professionals.

My current mentee is Daniel Cohen, a dual Masters student who is completing his Masters in Jewish Nonprofit Management at HUC-JIR and his Masters of Business Administration degree at USC.  Daniel and I meet regularly for lunch to talk about his experiences at HUC-JIR and USC and I can relate to both his HUC-JIR and USC work because I too have an MBA and, as an intellectual property lawyer, I regularly advise clients on marketing and business issues.  Daniel’s internship this year is at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, where he will be working on the business plan for the Temple’s new Tikkun Olam Center.  With this internship, Daniel will be able to use both his SJNM and USC experience in a Jewish nonprofit setting.  Daniel has a keen intellect and asks the right questions.  He is headed toward a highly successful career bridging the nonprofit and business worlds. 

My informal mentoring is equally rewarding.  Because I’m on the Skirball Campus so much, I’ve gotten to know most of the students in the rabbinical, education, and nonprofit management programs.  Our students serve in a variety of positions in the Western region’s Jewish communities in both the United States and Canada as student rabbis, interns in nonprofit organizations, interns at Hillels, education interns in congregations, and chaplaincy interns.  Students will ask me questions and seek my advice for an additional perspective from that of their professors or internship supervisors. For them, the point of view of a lay leader with years of experience volunteering in the nonprofit world is a valuable additional component to their practical education. 

HUC-JIR’s mission is to develop Jewish professionals to work in a variety of settings – congregations, schools, and nonprofit organizations.  As a lay leader, the small part I can play in helping them become successful professionals immeasurably enriches my life, and, hopefully, theirs as well.

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu