Elan Burman

Elan Burman MA'06
Capital Campaign Director
Maryland Hillel

"The beauty of Judaism is the ability to draw from multiple giants. The rabbi I referenced would say to me that pedagogy often evokes images of sitting at a grandmaster’s feet. However, this is not the Jewish view. Jewish pedagogy, he argued, is about inviting the child to stand on the shoulders of giants so that they may behold vistas of which the giant only every dreamed."




Elan's
Short Bio

Elan received a Bachelor of Commerce, Politics, Philosophy and Ecomonics from the University of Cape Town in 2004, a Master of Arts in Jewish Communal Service from the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University in 2006, and a Master of Science in Information Systems from Northwestern University in 2016. He has worked for the United Jewish Campaign of Cape Town, the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, and Maryland Hillel.  

Elan is married to Hornstein alumna Jackie Terry Burman (Class of 2007). They have two children, Dina and Ariel.


Elan's Professional Network

Visit the websites of the Jewish organizations mentioned in Alyssa's profile:

Prof. Susan Shevitz  was Elan's advisor. 

Hornstein Alumni Profile


Elan Burman
on the Magnetic Pull of
 Two Jewish Organizations
 & Seemingly
 Inconsequential Tasks

Like some students who come to the Hornstein Program, Elan Burman MA’06 had to get to the end of his undergrad education before he realized that working as a Jewish professional leader aligned with his Jewish identity and perspectives.

 “I tell people that Jewish communal work is the family business, one that growing up I vowed I would never enter,” says Elan, now the Capital Campaign Director at Maryland Hillel where he also worked on a previous occasion. Prior to this, Elan was at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and then the United Jewish Campaign (UJC) in Cape Town, South Africa, another organization where he worked on two different occasions.

Not everyone returns to places of previous employment but Elan has, twice. “These two enterprises—Maryland Hillel and UJC—and the magnetism of each were, and continue to be, a very compelling pull,” he says. Furthermore, “To quote Nelson Mandela, ‘There is nothing like returning to a place that has remained unchanged, to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.’”

Elan’s return to the UJC after close to three years was both a homecoming and a jolt. He laughs. “Documents I’d prepared and filed were exactly where I’d left them. The same people sat in the same chairs.”

Elan is quick to praise the Jewish community in Cape Town and the team at UJC. “Although some things were the same, the opportunities for growth were there. I was given license to create some new systems which I was now prepared to develop and implement.”

Family was the reason for Elan’s return to Cape Town. His grandfather, with whom he is very close, was ill and Jackie his wife, also a Hornstein graduate from the Class of 2007, was expecting their first child.

Elan’s father, Harris Burman, operates the Highlands House Jewish Aged Home in Cape Town. It’s the business Elan refers to when he says Jewish communal service is the family business and where Elan learned important lessons about Jewish values, communal service, and fundamentals about running a business.

As a young teen Elan volunteered at Highlands House. Expecting to work in the office the first day on the job, Elan was surprised to learn that his father had put him on bathroom-cleaning duty—no small task for a home that serves about 250 persons. “Literally, I was going from bathroom to bathroom all day long,” remembers Elan.

“After the first day of this I asked my father if he could give me work that was more meaningful. ‘Elan,’ he said, ‘there’s nothing more meaningful in this home than maintaining clean bathrooms. If we can’t preserve sanitary conditions we have failed in our most rudimentary responsibility. What you are doing is absolutely important.’”

“That experience has stayed with me,” says Elan. “So often we don't recognize how important our contribution or actions are to the success of a higher endeavor.”

While Elan’s specialty is development and fundraising, he views himself as a Jewish educator.

“When I started out, I didn’t naturally gravitate towards development,” says Elan, “but I find it very fulfilling.” 

“At my Hornstein orientation, David Mersky, professor of Hornstein’s class on Jewish philanthropy and fundraising, urged me to consider development and philanthropy as a track,” says Elan. “At the best of times, I get to have conversations with people about their deepest concerns, their visions for the future, and what can be done to realize these aspirations and visions. It’s a privilege to have people open up like that and then watch them follow through.”

Elan gravitates towards leaders and people whose actions are driven by principle. “I watched as a rabbi I had a particularly close relationship with forewent his pulpit rather than cave to pressures to adopt halachic strictures he did not believe in.”

Leadership in Jewish communal work means putting the needs and best interests of the community first says Elan. “Unlike a business that sells a product to an end-customer, [in the Jewish communal profession] we’re fashioning something that we ourselves are consuming. We’re creating the world we want for ourselves and our community. It’s both a duty and a privilege.”  

“The beauty of Judaism is the ability to draw from multiple giants. The rabbi I referenced above would say to me that pedagogy often evokes images of sitting at a grandmaster’s feet. However, this is not the Jewish view. Jewish pedagogy, he argued, is about inviting the child to stand on the shoulders of giants so that they may behold vistas of which the giant only every dreamed.” 



In His Own Words:
  An Interview with Elan Burman

Q: Our life and career paths are sometimes straightforward, a beeline to our target, and other times a mess of mazes, full of false starts and dead ends. Can you describe your life and career path so far?

ELAN: I tell people that Jewish communal work is the family business, one that growing up I vowed I would never enter. Throughout my undergraduate career I had designs on becoming a lawyer.

As I approached graduation, however, I began recognizing how central the Jewish community was to my identity and perspective.

I was fortunate to live in a community where the Hornstein Program is well known. Dayan Gross MA'98, Viv Anstey MA'91, Howard Sackstein MA'92 are all alumni whom I knew and through whom I learned more about the program. I enrolled in Hornstein. Over orientation lunch, David Mersky, in his debonair and compelling fashion, encouraged me to specialize in fundraising. The rest, as they say, is history.

Upon graduation from Hornstein, I returned to Cape Town to work at the United Jewish Campaign in Cape Town. It is a very small shop but arguably has one of the highest penetration rates of any Jewish fundraising initiative.

A year in, I got engaged to Jackie Terry (also a Hornstein graduate in the Class of 2007). She accepted a job offer at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. I began searching for a position in the area and stumbled upon this phenomenal institution called Maryland Hillel for which in 2007 I became the Development Director.

In 2010, my grandfather was ailing and Jackie became pregnant. For these reasons, we returned to Cape Town and the United Jewish Campaign, this time as Assistant Executive Director.

Cape Town was marvelous and the community spectacular. Five years and two children later, we recognized that conditions in South Africa were not conducive to our long-term plans. We moved back to the D.C. area and I was fortunate to be hired as the Director of Major and Planned Gifts at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, where Jackie had previously worked.

It was a time of tremendous growth for me and I gleaned a great deal of knowledge, both about fundraising and myself. Through this process, I realized that I am far more adept in small to medium sized organizations than I am in large entities. Maryland Hillel had rekindled their long-held dreams of creating a new building and the opportunity arose for me to return, which is where I am now.

My career has consequently now involved me returning to two organizations, for different periods. I attribute this to the fact that I am truly passionate about the success of these two enterprises and the magnetism of each was, and continues to be, a very compelling pull.  

Q: What kind of Jewish communal work is your family involved in and how has that influenced your development?

ELAN: The communal work I spoke of is my father’s 21-year service to Highlands House, a Jewish home for the elderly. It’s a 250-person retirement facility that’s communally run. I believe the average age now is around eighty-six.

Growing up we spent a lot of time there. My mother volunteered and so did my brother and I during our school holidays.

One of my most memorable experiences involving my father and Highlands House occurred when I was 13 or 14 years old. My brother and I were on summer vacation, hanging around the house when my father called and said he wanted to see me and my brother in his office the next day. I realized something was up. When we arrived in his office he said to us “You guys are driving your mother crazy. So you've got two choices. You can volunteer somewhere or you can go to summer camp, but I can't have you hanging around the house driving your mother crazy.”

So being the smart boy that I was, I told my father I would volunteer and I’d do so at Highlands House. The next day I arrived all ready, I thought, to work in the office filing or doing some kind of office work and instead, my father put me on toilet-cleaning duty. Do you know how many toilets there are to clean for 250+ people? It’s a never-ending job.

At the end of that first day cleaning toilets, I said to my father, “Abba, I realize I was driving mom crazy but don't you think this is kind of extreme and can’t you give me something more meaningful to do?” Those were my words to him.

“Elan,” he said, “there’s nothing more meaningful in this home than maintaining clean bathrooms. If we can’t preserve sanitary conditions we have failed in our most rudimentary responsibility. What you are doing is absolutely important.”

That experience has stayed with me. So often we don't recognize how important our contribution or actions are to the success of a higher endeavor. In my young mind, I’d built up this idea that I’d be filing or entering data into the computer or something more intriguing but instead my father had me learn that cleaning the toilets was fundamental to the success of the home and the entire operation.

Eventually I graduated from toilet-cleaning and worked in the coffee shop, as the switch board operator, and a variety of other jobs. I was a Jack of all trades but toilet duty was my first job in Jewish communal work, literally going from bathroom to bathroom, an experience that is certainly entrenched in my mind. 

Q: Are you following your father’s method and making sure your kids learn the lessons you’ve learned?

ELAN: (Laughs.) We’ve been very deliberate about our children’s education at the Hebrew Academy and we try to model certain behaviors at home. Of course so much of this is spontaneous but one incident sticks out in my mind. Every evening when we’re all home I ask my children (I have a daughter Dina, who is five and Ariel who is three) what they learned during the day. One evening (we were still in Cape Town) I asked Dina who was about three at the time what she’d learned that day and she said, “Abba, I learned about tzedakah.” So I said, Dina, what’s that? She said, hang on I'll show you. She went to her room and fetched her favorite toy and she said “Please give this to a child who doesn’t have toys.” I was astounded.

We’ve been fortunate to be able to rely on good school systems which teach our children these important values, and if we’re lucky, we have opportunities to engender some of these values as well. It’s imperfect but we try. On Memorial Day we took our kids volunteering. We do the best we can but it’s not always easy.

Q: What does Jackie do?

ELAN: Jackie is working for a very interesting organization in downtown D.C. called Securing America’s Future Energy. It’s a bipartisan lobbying group trying to get America off foreign oil. They're looking to promote legislation favorable to autonomous vehicles, and you know all sorts of things.  

Q: Between two demanding careers and children, are you finding a good work/personal life balance?

ELAN: Coming from South Africa to America meant making some sacrifices. Here in the U.S. the expectation is that we are on duty for many more hours a day or week than is expected in South Africa.

While I’d like to say I’m an equal partner at home, the truth is that I'm very fortunate that Jackie continues to carry the lion's share of the parenting. It’s something I'm cognizant of and aspire to do better. 

Q: It appears your professional work is focused on philanthropy, development, and fundraising, is that right?

ELAN: Yes but I view myself as a Jewish educator, helping people express their values through philanthropy, guiding them towards philanthropic efforts that are meaningful to them. It was a role that I didn’t think I would naturally gravitate to but I find it very fulfilling.

Q: What aspects make it fulfilling?

ELAN: The opportunity to speak to a full gamut of people in the Jewish community about what matters to them is a very unique position. The conversations at their best are about what people deeply care about, what their visions are for the future, and what can be done to realize these aspirations and visions. It’s a privilege to have people open up like that and then watch them follow through.

David Mersky taught me that we've got two ears and one mouth for a reason and that’s because in any development conversation we should be listening twice as hard as we’re speaking. The conversations can be profound.

Q: How do you match your organization’s agenda to those of the philanthropist?

ELAN: In my current role as Capital Campaign Director I have a specific agenda. But I’ve spent the bulk of my professional career in the Federation system where I’ve had multiple projects and that was more about matchmaking and matching the project to a person in a smart way. The beauty about Hillel is that the Hillel of today offers a plethora of opportunities and value propositions. There really is something for everyone within that painting. Certainly my agenda is to try and leverage resources. The building we want to construct is about housing those values and providing the tent in which they can be expressed. I think that Hillel, in particular, is of a size and diversity that there really is something for everybody. 

Q: Can you comment on opportunities you’ve had to practice and/or witness excellent and/or awful leadership in action?

I have always gravitated towards leaders and people whose actions are driven by principle. I watched as a rabbi I had a particularly close relationship with forewent his pulpit rather than cave to pressures to adopt halachic strictures he did not believe in. 

It is such a cliché, but as a South African, I am deeply influenced by my interpretations of Nelson Mandela’s transformational and servitude-based leadership. His selflessness, compassion, and vision informed the future of an entire country that was on the brink.

Sadly, I have also seen bad leadership. I have seen communal actions dictated by the person with the biggest checkbook, rather than the most compelling or reasoned position. Obviously, deference to those that fund a community is important but this cannot come at the expense of sacrificed principles.

I am genuinely appreciative of those who operate from the perspective of empathy.

Q: How have your work experience and travels informed your Jewish identity? 

I wrote my substantive paper at Hornstein on Jewish pluralism, under the supervision of Susan Shevitz whose impact on me was monumental. I was struck by the contrasts between my experiences of South African and American Jewry. Attending Hornstein was my first departure from South Africa since I was a baby.

To quote Mandela, “There is nothing like returning to a place that has remained unchanged, to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.”

My time in Boston was incredibly formative for me and gave articulation and sophistication to views I had innately held but could not defend cogently.

Q: Who has influenced your Jewish identity most profoundly?

The beauty of Judaism is the ability to draw from multiple giants. The rabbi I referenced above would often say to me that pedagogy often evokes images of sitting at a grandmaster’s feet. However, this is not the Jewish view. Jewish pedagogy, he argued, is about inviting the child to stand on the shoulders of giants so that they may behold vistas of which the giant only every dreamed.

I stand on the shoulders of many giants. My father has served as a Jewish professional for the bulk of his career. Most recently, for twenty-one years running a Jewish home for the aged, hardly an enviable job. Rabbi Jack Steinhorn inculcated in me a love of Jewish learning for which I am forever indebted. My teachers at Hornstein gave me a rounded understanding that shaped much of my work. I try always to learn from my colleagues who so often serve as my greatest guides and educators. Of course, I draw from the giants of our tradition—Rabbis Heschel, Soloveitchik, and Kook. The beauty of Judaism is its cumulative wisdom.

Q: Do you have any sage advice for the Class of 2016 who have just graduated?

I encourage each of the graduates to pursue roles that fuel their passions. A paycheck is important, but our profession is best served when we find a niche that gives our values articulation.

Jackie and Elan Burman with children

Jackie and Elan Burman with their two children, Ariel and Dina. 




This interview with Elan was published in the Hornstein Program's Impact Newsletter, July 2016. If you would like to quote any part of this conversation, please attribute content to the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University and link to this page. All rights reserved.