The Roots of Disappointment: Are Jewish Organizations More Like Homes or Workplaces?

Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler
November 15, 2012
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After a series of rejections from jobs as a rabbi and/or Jewish educator, I finally received some feedback as to what I might have been doing “wrong”. The senior rabbi (who had been present at all three of my interviews for that position) kindly shared insight that I’ve come to see as an important turning point in my career. He said, “it breaks my heart to say this, but you should try being a little less authentic.”

When I share this story, the response most often is disbelief. “Did he really say that? In those exact words?” I can’t help but smile. The more I’ve reflected on this experience, the more I appreciate the candor with which the feedback was shared and also the insight it’s given me about the possible cause for much of the discontent in the Jewish professional milieu.

We expect Jewish organizations to be more like homes, more like families, than like workplaces. We expect our bosses to be like loving patriarchs and matriarchs and our colleagues to be like siblings or dear friends. And, as a result, everyone ends up frustrated, disappointed, and disgruntled.

I was showing up at job interviews baring my soul and earnestly opening my heart to those charged with judging my qualification to be an employee. “Maybe you should try being a little less authentic” was an honest and loving response to my request for feedback in this context.

While I might wish for a professional role – especially in the Jewish community – wherein I (and the nuances of my theology, my personal and rabbinic experiences, and idiosyncratic preferences) would be welcomed with open arms, it may be unrealistic to imagine a workplace or job description designed particularly with my soul and my life experience in mind.

Do I wish things were otherwise? Yes. Would I prefer to work for a Jewish organization that treated its employees like family: expanding and contracting in response to the needs of its membership and professional staff? Would an ideal Jewish organization be flexible enough to shift and change as the membership and professional staff entered and left the institution? I think so. But expecting things to be other than they are right now is what has created much of the suffering I’ve witnessed in Jewish professional life.

If change is necessary (and I believe that it is), how do we go about effecting a meaningful and sustainable shift in the culture of Jewish workplaces? I’d love to see us create a network of people who are concerned about the experiences of employees in the Jewish workplace: clergy people, social workers, administrators, educators, lay-leaders, funders, and all “stake holders”. We need to first provide a safe forum for each person to share their stories so that each participant can absorb new perspectives on why and how the organization functions as it does. People should be encouraged to share expectations, disappointments, fears, hopes with their colleagues. Each should be encouraged to answer the question, “what would it take for me to forgive my community?”

And then, there is a foundation for the work of repairing our Jewish workplaces. Right now, our experiences are shrouded in shame and in anger. We need to decide whether Jewish organizations are families or workplaces – and then be honest about whichever choice we make.

Questions for Reflection:
How might the Jewish world look different if its leaders and employees were welcomed for their authenticity?
What does Jewish authenticity look like to you?
How might we incorporate the Jewish values we espouse in our HR Policies in Jewish organizations?

I encourage you to continue thinking about these questions by reading an extraordinary piece by my friend and colleague, Karen Erlichman, http://zeek.forward.com/articles/116638/

An important note: The greatest gift of my career so far has been discovering the community of Aitz Hayim Center for Jewish Living in the suburbs of Chicago, where I currently serve as a rabbi. Authenticity is everything. I count my blessings every day that I am part of this loving and generous home where my idiosyncrasies are cherished alongside everyone else’s. I am grateful to be a part of this living laboratory for “Judaism Beyond Belief” and look forward to the day when my colleagues and friends are afforded a similar privilege as Jewish professionals.

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Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler works at the Aitz Hayim Center for Jewish Living in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. She also serves as the Director of the Berit Mila Program of Reform Judaism. She received master’s degrees from the University of Judaism and from Harvard Graduate School of Education and was ordained as a rabbi by Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion in 2006, where she found deep meaning writing and researching her Rabbinic Thesis on the Book of Job: "Talk to Me: (Or, When More Bad Things Happen to Good People)." She is married to Rabbi Amitai Adler (also an S Blog contributor) and this year became Michael Zachary Joel Adler's mother.

1 Comment

  1. As a member of Aitz Hayim I look forward each shabbot to participate in a service lead by the most authentic rabbi I know. (OK, I actually don’t know a lot of rabbis, so Julie and her co-rabbi Lizzie, are the Gold Standards). Julie’s insights, humor and warmth make each Torah reading an experience for everyone. And she’s the only rabbi that hasn’t thrown me out of a service…yet. Those that turned her down for rabbis posts are the real losers. As the sying goes: For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:a time to break down, and a time to build up. Happy to build up Julie’s authenticity anytime.

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