Challenges ahead

10 fears Jewish professionals experience, and how we can face them together

As a Jewish educator, most days, I arrive at my office excited and energized about the opportunities to try to make a meaningful impact. But I must confess: On other days, I come to work carrying anxiety and fear about the enormity of the challenges ahead.

The amount of fear that Jewish communal professionals live with is detrimental to our own health, our loved ones and the good we seek to do in the world. 

In my conversations with rabbis, cantors, schoolteachers, nonprofit executive directors and all other kinds of Jewish professionals around the country, I’ve found 10 of the common themes around the gripping fear that inhibits us from doing our best work today. 

  1. Physical Danger

In light of the tragic attacks in Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh; Colleyville, Texas; and Poway, Calif.— as well as the overall rising tide of antisemitism — fear that something similar may happen to us, our colleagues and our community members is a burden we are forced to carry with us every day. 

  1. Emotional Burnout

Despite all of its rewarding aspects, the work of being a Jewish professional is emotionally draining labor. As mere humans, we know there is only so much we can give, yet we’re acutely aware that an insurmountable amount of work for our communities remains before us. 

  1. Politics of COVID Policies 

Week in and week out, we are forced to make decisions about how our organizations are going to handle COVID: what the masking-and-distancing situation will be, how to enforce vaccination requirements and whether it’s safe to gather together at all. These decisions necessarily upset portions of our communities, and there is no way to satisfy everyone. As CDC guidelines evolve in one direction or the other, we are expected to suddenly shift psychologically and procedurally. 

  1. Domestic Political Polarization 

Rather than being driven by Torah ideals, congregations and organizations often think of themselves as Democratic or Republican, and any deviation from the views of the community can be seen as a threat to the group’s identity. This is a major distraction from the work we set out to do. Our communities are often hyper-politicized. 

  1. Extreme Polarization Around the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

With contingents of Jews fervently dedicated solely to the military strength of the Jewish people in the land of Israel and others solely passionate about a call for justice for Palestinians, it is difficult to speak to either extreme about the needs of the other side. Despite Jewish values simultaneously supporting both of these views, anything we say, or don’t say, around this issue often raises the temperature significantly. 

  1. Assimilation 

We feel the weight of the major existential challenges that assimilation poses for the future of the American Jewish community. It can feel impossible to keep the current generation of adults content while also engaging the younger generations. We worry every day about losing people who ought to be in our communities. 

  1. Losing Financial Sustainability 

While support from foundations and philanthropists is what enables us to do the vital work that we do, fear of losing funding for our organizations keeps us up at night. 

  1. Dissonance in Mission Direction 

Judaism has always had to wrestle with the tension between tradition and innovation. In order to maintain relevance and impact, organizations must take on opportunities for innovation without losing their sense of what they stand for. It is nearly impossible to keep both the risk-averse and startup wings of our organizations happy. 

  1. Muddled Moral Clarity 

We live in confusing times philosophically, in which basic notions of truth, morality and justice are questioned. This can cause confusion about what to fight for and how hard to fight for it — what to pray for and how hard to pray for it.

  1. Inability to Meet Personal Needs

We try to balance family with work and continue to learn and grow with all these commitments. Jewish communal professionals also fear for their ability to afford their needs, especially when tuition, synagogue membership and more cost so much. 

“I’m a Jewish professional who cannot afford Jewish institutional life for my family,” Rachel Zylberfin recently wrote for eJewishPhilanthropy. “This thought looped through my mind as my husband and I began researching childcare options for our daughter in the Boston area.”

So what do we do with all this fear? We should first recognize that there is no mitzvah to be a fearless fool, who completely suppresses or represses their fear. But we also must avoid being stymied by fear. 

My hope is that, by examining these fears and contemplating how to address them, we can find a way to feel both validated in our fears and spiritually ready to manage them.

The middle ground is spiritually productive fear. This is a fear that can bring us together into community — because vulnerability builds trust. This is a fear that can be channeled toward empathy without sacrificing the values that we believe in. We must therefore learn to hold the fear with us while at the same time holding the clarity and courage to do the work we’re called to do. This means that we should channel a debilitating emotion into a curious one. This means that we learn to hold the fear rather than the fear hold us.

We must also, of course, take all the right steps around personal mental health, such as ensuring access to therapy, exercise, friendship, sunlight, spirituality and sufficient sleep.

And, before we do anything else, recognizing the immensity of the fears we all face, we should start by all being more gentle with one another. 

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president & dean of Valley Beit Midrash in Scottsdale, Ariz. and is the author of over 20 books on Jewish Ethics.