Blurring the Boundary Between Work and Life

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November 1, 2012
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Ayana Morse AND Josh Feldman

We work in the Jewish world and it is also our home. We build a sense of community through our jobs, and many of our neighbors and friends are also our core constituents. As a couple, we blur the lines between life and work almost daily.

Are we working when we run into community members at the farmers market? When we share Shabbat dinner with friends when those friends are members of the governing boards and advisory committees that make decisions about our work? When the guy next to us on the plane asks what we do and it sparks a lengthy conversation about Jewish ethics?

We also experience the more common, less Jewish-specific questions about blurring life and work: Are we working every time we check our email? Every time we share our morning coffee? Every time we make dinner together and debrief each other over the latest trials and tribulations at work?

The issue of work-life balance is not unique to the Jewish communal sector. It is, though, more notable when “work” is also one’s “community.” We are always on; we are always institutional ambassadors — whether we encounter constituents at a Jewish event directly sponsored by one of our organizations or not. Attending services, lifecycle events, and arts and cultural happenings has become our work, and, honestly, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

With the birth of our son last September, our work-life balance began to evolve. We are newly challenged to rethink how we prioritize our time and commitments. The unlimited energy we once felt has given way to endless planning and juggling  — assessing which community events we need to attend and which events we simply want to attend. Sometimes, these choices are personal as we strive to find meaning in our lives. Other times, we act strategically for our organizations, showing up purely because we need to, or at least we think we do.

We sometimes groan when the overlap is such that our date night, the one night a week when we might get a babysitter, turns out to involve attending a work function together. Once there, it is all too common for us to realize that there is no place else we would want to be (though it surely doesn’t count as a date!). At our best, we act as sounding boards for each other, helping the other to think strategically without overworking. We both need more downtime than we did pre-baby, and often the best thing we can do is to convince the other to take a nap.

Being a two-parent working household requires sacrifice. We each strive to balance the time and attention devoted to our family, our
vocations, and ourselves. And yet, our experiences have been deeply fulfilling. Our “busyness”
is about creating a powerful, imaginative,
energetic community, and that makes our
challenge worthwhile. That intersection of work and family has brought immense meaning to our lives and often it is an important end unto itself. We are both people of faith, and that faith is in humankind. Both of us prefer deep involvement rather than spectatorship; we find learning easier when we are also teaching. It is our belief that our happiness is tied to those who surround us, and that our prosperity is our community’s prosperity.

Our Jewish organizations are mission- and values-driven, which means that they are exciting and all-encompassing environments. Because we believe in what we do and in the community we are building, the nuanced question of whether we are “working” becomes deeply important. Both of us, as individuals and as leaders of an institution, need to look carefully at this matter and ask ourselves tough questions: Are we supporting a good work-life balance?  Are we fostering physical, spiritual, and mental health for ourselves and our communities? In a time when productivity and effectiveness are highly valued, this exploration benefits each one of us, as well as the greater Jewish community as a whole.

Writing about this conundrum is a privilege. Working in the Jewish community is, as well. We love what we do and we hope to model a way of working and living that isn’t crazy making — a model that takes seriously the notion that Jewish culture is, in large part, about people. How we treat ourselves, and how we are treated by Jewish institutions — and how those are aligned to build strong families — are part of our lifelong journey. If you run into someone like us at the farmers market, please know that we’ll be excited to see you.  We just might not know if we are working.

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Ayana Morse is co-executive director of the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles, where she is leading the charge in reanimating Jewish life on the Eastside. She is a co-founder of East Side Jews (eastsidejews.com). Morse has been working in the Jewish nonprofit sector since 2005, and she hasmore than a decade of experience as a Jewish educator. She studied theater education at Emerson College and participated in LABOOST (the Los Angeles Business Owner Outreach Support and Training Program), a mentoring program for small business owners.

Josh Feldman, associate director of the Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists, is passionate about the intersection of art and leadership. As a leadership development professional, he most recently served as national director of the Jeremiah Fellowship of the Progressive Jewish Alliance. He is a co-founder of East Side Jews (eastsidejews.com) and an adviser for the Emma Fellowship, (emmafellowship.org).

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