Talmud Torah K’Neged Kulam– Remember?

Rabbi Amitai Adler
November 1, 2012
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Sometimes there is absolutely nothing more rewarding than being a Jewish professional. There are moments when I am in a classroom, teaching kids Torah– helping them connect with their heritage, giving them the tools they need to build nuanced understanding and ask complex questions of our tradition– where it feels worth almost anything, because I’m getting to do what I was put on earth to do, and someone is actually paying me to do it.

Alas, such moments are often both infrequent and weighed down in the balanced by less positive experiences.

I’ve worked for various Jewish institutions in one capacity or another, informally and formally, for extended periods and for one-off gigs. Educational institutions, shuls, nonprofits, the works.

A few have been stellar organizations, admirably short on dysfunctionality, infighting, and petty politics, surprisingly supportive and hamische, and blissfully on-target with regard to their goals. Most have not been.

Any nonprofit organization (I’ve worked in non-Jewish nonprofits, too) is prone to a deeply dysfunctional workplace dynamic. Along with comparatively sane and rational yet engaged and relatively altruistic individuals, nonprofits attract world-savers (mildly obsessive professional altruists with martyr and messiah complexes and either a dash of narcissism or a soupcon of delusions of grandeur– sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference), identity seekers, codependents, and other fun folks playing out the drama of their personal issues on the stage of the professional workplace. The precise balance of dreamer/innovation and pragmatist/functionality so necessary to a nonprofit community/creative organization is extraordinarily difficult to achieve. However, Jewish institutions almost inevitably add to that morass of hazards the usual spectrum of Jewish neuroses and family drama dynamics to which we are so often haplessly prone, and this does us no favor.

To what degree we may ever be able to truly conquer the dysfunctional workplace dynamic of the nonprofit/communal service institution is anyone’s guess.

One important factor, though, in improving the Jewish workplace might be to shun the temptation of the monumental system: giant mega-shuls, foundations, and integrated, monolithic federations, all create too many opportunities for factionalism, internal squabbles, petty politics, and retention of unsuitable employees or clunky methodologies.

But perhaps the most important thing we have to do is to commit ourselves to a constant process of self-auditing, in every Jewish institution: so that every year, every season, every day, every Jewish institution, every Jewish professional, is asking themselves, “How are we serving the Jewish People?”

The goal of every shul, every school, every community organization (except perhaps for tzedakah and counseling programs) should be to educate Jews about Judaism, to empower Jews to take ownership of their Jewish lives with educated and thoughtful Jewish choices, and above all, for more Jews to be doing more mitzvot.

When our schools hire insufficiently proficient Jewish educators, or their faculties are subject to petty rivalries; when shuls hire rabbis and cantors who don’t challenge and empower their memberships, and permit themselves to become bogged down in building projects, committee politics, struggles of influence on boards; when community organizations don’t prioritize education and encouraging active participation in both traditional ritual practice and Jewishly motivated social justice; all of these things are tantamount to abandoning the responsibility of our organizations to work above all other things toward getting Jews to do mitzvot and learn Torah.

Because if that’s not our business, if that’s not our overall agenda, if that’s not our collective raison d’etre across the spectrum of Jewish institutions….

Shimon ha-Tzaddik told us, over 2000 years ago, al shloshah devarim ha-olam omed: al ha-Torah, al ha-avodah, v’al g’milut chasadim, “The world rests on three things: Torah study, prayer/service to God, and doing good deeds.” Hard for a tripod to rest unevenly: on one leg alone, it will collapse.

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