Yesterday, I received an e-mail with the urgent subject line “Of Utmost Importance Concerning PLP!” I assumed it was a final reminder to pay the registration fee for their upcoming ThinkTank4 conference. When I opened the e-mail, I was instead greeted with notice that Professional Leaders Project would be phasing out operations by the end of the month. (For full text of the e-mail, check out The Fundermentalist.) Let me first say that my immediate reaction was sadness for the professionals working for the organization who have now lost their jobs. JewishJournal.com reports that the shutdown is a side-effect of the death of primary funder William Davidson. PLP’s Executive Director Rhoda Weisman has expressed hopes that once his estate is sorted out, funding will resume and the program will be revived, but frankly, that would shock me. (Ironically, the Spider-Man Broadway musical is experiencing a similar shut-down and facing similar skepticism right now. Frankly, if one of these projects is going to rise from the dead, my money’s on the wall-crawler.)
But let’s face it, most of us don’t come to Jewschool for the same kind of reporting you can get from the JTA. So I thought the interesting side to this story that no one seems to be writing yet is to consider whether PLP was worth the millions of dollars invested in the organization over the past five years.
You may recall that I’ve had mixed feelings about the usefulness of PLP. On the one hand, I’ve met a lot of great people doing interesting and important things in the Jewish world. On the other hand, many people involved with PLP have felt its goals were unclear and its promises unfulfilled. There’s been a sense among some of my peers that pet projects (both in terms of programs and people) have been nurtured by PLP but others have been treated as the unfavored step-child. As someone participating in a NY-based network despite living in Boston, I’ve been disappointed that PLP hasn’t connected me to the other PLP-affiliated people in the Boston area, which is at least in part a side-effect of the various PLP programs operating in separate orbits.
I reached out to my Facebook friends and friends-of-friends to see if anyone would be willing to share some thoughts on PLP at this time. I got a range of responses, from those grateful to PLP to some quite venomous. You’ll note that of the quotes I compiled below, none come from Academic Fellows. It’s not that I don’t know anyone who’s been a PLP Academic Fellow, but my experience rarely brought me into contact with that cohort, which I believe is symptomatic of some of the problems with the way the organization operated. But enough out of me, let’s see what others had to say.
David Ellowitch, LiveNetworks participant:
It’s never been a secret that I’m a fan of PLP, despite its many imperfections… I live in an area that does not have a large or active young Jewish community, and I married a non-Jew. Although my Jewish identity is important to me, it is difficult to find ways to keep Judaism in my life. For the last few years, PLP provided an opportunity for me to examine my Jewishness and maintain my connection to the Jewish community. The people who I met through my involvement in PLP are of the highest quality. I have made friends that I will hold onto for years, and expanded my professional network among a truly impressive group of people.
Josh Novikoff, LiveNetworks participant and co-chair of the PLP/Hartman Global Beit Midrash program:
PLP was a tremendous resource for networking, mentorship, and personal development. I came to think of my mentor as a cross between a second Jewish mentor and “life coach” and I see how I’ve grown both in terms of commitment to the Jewish world and in personal leadership capacity through my participation. The organization was able to provide guidance and direction, as well as a network of very worthwhile peers to bounce ideas off of and learn from.
Ariel Beery, participant and presenter at two ThinkTanks, former member of PLP Advisory Board:
These are challenging economic times, and I think all of us who are seeking to provide tools to our community members and increase their connection with one another have to wonder whether the community would support us through these tough time, or whether we need to go back to the drawing board and understand what value we can bring to people’s lives.
Robyn Faintich, participant in SkillSummits:
I am so disappointed that PLP is ceasing operations. When an organization strives to mentor and support young Jewish professionals and emerging lay leadership, they are taking responsibility for the future of the international Jewish community. Ceasing operations leaves a vacuum in this sacred work. I do wish that the PLP executive leadership would have involved the Talent in trying to solve the problem-let us know the huge obstacles they were facing. With incredible enthusiasm, passion, brain power, and commitment, I am confident that the Talent themselves (and collectively) would have figured out a way to ensure PLPs future.
And a couple of folks who asked that I withhold their names…
From a SkillSummit participant:
While the actual sessions were not what I would call ‘stellar’ the networking was phenomenal. The people I met through PLP are, and will continue to be, a phenomenal resource for me. What bothers me the most about this perhaps is that I joined PLP SkillSummit to be able to attend ThinkTank4. I laid out a lot of travel money to attend two out-of-town SkillSummits as an investment in the opportunity to be at ThinkTank, and now that opportunity and investment is gone.
From a LiveNetworks participant:
PLP first presented itself as this great secret cabal of young Jewish professionals being given lucrative access to senior management of Jewish organizations and funders. The Jewish version of the Skull and Bones Society it was not. Yes, it was somewhat secretive, however only in so far as that it was not a well known entity in the professional Jewish world. Furthermore, myself and many of the “Talent” I met at the ThinkTank really didn’t fully understand what PLP was or what it meant for us that we were a part of it. Its name was vague, its promotional materials were vague, its staff was vague about what the organization’s intentions were. It was constantly a work in progress.
It turned out that PLP was hardly the cream of the crop in terms of the best and brightest young talent in the Jewish world. Most of the up-and-coming artists and true innovators I met in the PLP talent pool quickly grew disillusioned and frustrated. PLP did not give us access to senior professional leaders in the Jewish world whom many of us couldn’t have met on our own. We ended up being treated like pupils with the senior professionals we did meet, rather than a meeting of the minds only separated by a generational gap.
I went in with high expectations that almost all went unfulfilled. I needed true professional assistance to take a volunteer project I started to the next level. I needed technical assistance, advice and access to funders. PLP was unable to provide any of that. The Executive Director said that PLP could provide projects with some seed money, but when I followed up, PLP failed to come through. I needed help with my career and professional mentorship. I turned to PLP, and PLP failed to deliver on that front as well. I asked for help getting professional connections in Israel. I asked every PLP staff member. None of them were able to provide me with a single professional contact in all of Israel; how is that possible for a Jewish organization?
I met some wonderful individuals through PLP, but very much regret my participation.
I don’t mean for this to be a post that takes any kind of pleasure in the demise of an organization. As you can tell, even for those who found great disappointment in PLP, the networking opportunities were a highlight. As I mentioned last time I blogged about the organization, I felt the leadership had heard many of our complaints and was taking steps to run things better for the next cohort. I’m sorry the organization won’t get the chance to learn from its own mistakes, but perhaps the rest of us still can.