Time to listen

A brief reflection on habitual burnout

Since my article on burnout in Jewish communal professionals was published, I have been both pleased and worried by the response. It’s clear that the article touched a raw nerve among professionals — rabbis, educators, youth professionals, social workers and volunteer coordinators. They have told me they gave it to lay leadership, that they discussed it at staff meetings, that it was passed around the internet. The questions I tried to raise do not have simple answers and cannot be reduced to time off. What I’ve heard from professionals is that COVID-19 illuminated the problems that already existed in communal service – long hours, lower pay than in the private sector, complicated relationships with lay leadership, and a perceived lack of respect. My article simply enabled us to now name what we all have experienced.

The response from some lay leaders has been wonderful. I’ve heard from communal professionals that their leadership was disturbed and concerned that they were suffering – and surprised at how universal that suffering might be. Some congregations have already begun to respond – with time off, other forms of support and long discussions about the nature of communal work. Some have offered bonuses and a deeper sense of gratitude – gratitude beyond a simple thank you, which only lasts as long as it takes to say it. Some have increased their budgets for staff training and development. These constitute real support.

But others have been dismissive. I’ve heard way too many stories of leaders saying, “Well, we’ve all worked hard” and “It’s been a tough year for everyone.” No doubt that is true. In no way did I intend to say that ONLY communal professionals were suffering. We’ve all suffered. My concern was, and remains, that these people are invaluable to the functioning of our communities and that we treat them like they’re fungible, as though we’re doing them a favor by employing them. 

What’s the next big thing facing Jewish communities? In my perfect world, one of our big foundations will lead the charge. I hope that someone funds a deep study into why people enter Jewish communal service and why they leave. That we will ask the people who have left what might have helped them stay. I believe it won’t be money. I believe it will be kavod.

My fear is simple: from my vantage point in the lay community and as a former communal professional, I don’t want to see skilled, trained, dedicated people leave us. I want us to elevate these roles, much as I wish we would elevate the roles of teachers and nurses and grocery clerks in the larger community. The people who sustained us, and our communities, for the last 15 months deserve our respect. Respect is measured in honor, in time  in true gratitude, as well as dollars. Respect is measured by the receiver, not by the giver. If your people are suffering, that’s actually more important than whether you think it’s justified. 

We have a lot of people in pain now. Let’s not play the comparative suffering game. Let’s care for each other in meaningful ways. Let’s build from the experiences we’ve had. Let’s listen.

Betsy S. Stone, Ph.D., is a retired psychologist who currently teaches as an adjunct lecturer at HUC-JIR. Her classes include Human Development for Educators, The Spiritual Life-Cycle, Adolescent Development and Teens In and Out of Crisis. She is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.