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A new group is providing R&R for burnt-out CEOs of Jewish nonprofits

R&R believes it is the first organization to provide sabbatical grants to the Jewish communal sector on a national scale.

Idit Klein has been at the helm of Keshet, the Jewish LGBTQ+ organization, since 2001. Over the course of her tenure, she has been able to carve out time for two sabbaticals — July-September 2013 and July-August 2021 — and each time returned to what she described as a “more resilient and sustainable” organization.

“My colleagues had the opportunity to step up in new ways in my absence, stretch in new directions and explore new capacities,” she said. “I believe sabbaticals are vital, not only to give the CEO the opportunity to rest, re-energize, and renew but to strengthen the leadership of others in the organization.”

The reenergizing potential of sabbaticals, especially at a time of rising concern over pandemic burnout, is the guiding motivation of R&R: The Rest of Our Lives, a new organization offering three-month paid sabbatical grants to a handful of CEOs and directors of Jewish nonprofits. 

“We’re talking about a group of humans who are service-oriented, purpose-driven [and] are very good at serving others,” R&R Founder Josh Feldman said. “They have often — to their own detriment — worked beyond their own capacity for years, or even decades. So this is somebody who, in their own self-evaluation, is able to say, ‘This is the right timing for me.’” 

Feldman said R&R is the first organization to provide sabbatical grants to the Jewish communal sector on a national scale, and expects to offer five organizations a total of $60,000 each — $50,000 for the awardees to rest, travel, reflect or renew for a minimum of three consecutive months while maintaining their current salary and benefits; and $10,000 to support interim leaders and staff in the CEO’s absence. 

The sabbatical grants will be awarded by September, with recipients required to take the sabbatical within the following calendar year. The recipients will also come together in a national cohort, which Feldman hopes will provide them with added value.

“We’ve seen over the last two years, people are deeply connected to each other’s lives across time zones and geography. And even though perhaps Zoom fatigue is on the top of some people’s list for the reasons they need rest, there’s also a real sophistication now to how we can be in community across distance.” 

Before founding R&R, Feldman was the founding director of Hillel’s Springboard Fellowship, a two-year paid program for emerging leaders. After learning about the Los Angeles-based Durfee Foundation, which grants paid sabbaticals to local nonprofit CEOs, he wondered if such a model might work for Jewish nonprofits. He developed the idea and applied for 2020’s Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund (JCRIF) grants, funding from a coalition of major Jewish groups that allied to respond to a range of needs during the pandemic. While JCRIF didn’t select the project for a grant, the proposal caught the attention of an anonymous donor who offered seed funding if Feldman would lead the initiative.

R&R currently has two staff members — Feldman and experienced nonprofit professional Rachel Zieleniec, who most recently worked for the Honeymoon Israel Foundation as program director. The group’s budget for the current fiscal year is $400,000, a figure that will rise to $650,000 in the coming year, when the grants will be awarded. The project is fiscally sponsored by the Social Good Fund, a California nonprofit, and funded by individual donors, the Jim Joseph Foundation and RiseUp, a social justice initiative funded by the Nathan Cummings Foundation.

“Burnout happens when perceived obligations outweigh perceived resources,” Betsy Stone, a retired psychologist who is an adjunct lecturer at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and has written previously about burnout at Jewish nonprofits, told eJP. “It actually doesn’t matter if I have the resources, it only matters if I believe I have the resources. And if I believe I don’t have the resources, what tends to happen to us is that other people try to convince us that we do, which generally doesn’t work. Over the course of this pandemic what has really happened has been a huge explosion in responsibilities without an explosion in resources.”

Feldman said the post-pandemic moment has people thinking differently about the future of work and the workplace. Beyond sabbaticals, organizations may offer their staff continued flexibility around work hours and location to make sure that employees are psychologically safe and healthier, he told eJP.

“The audacious goal here, what R&R is after, is what if after a week, month or year of our work, we felt healthier partly because of the organizations we worked in?” he said. “There is a new zeitgeist around rest and rejuvenation. We hope that many communities start to support their grantees and grant recipients with rest-based solutions. There needs to be an entire ecosystem supporting the rest and rejuvenation of workers. And there will be a need that far surpasses their resources unless it’s made a major priority.”

Applications for R&R sabbatical grants are now open to CEOs or people in an equivalent leadership position who have been in their current role at least three years, have at least seven years of professional leadership experience in the nonprofit sector and report directly to the board of a 501(c)(3) nonprofit or fiscally-sponsored project. In addition, applicants’ organizations must have at least five full-time staff members, to ensure that the organization can continue operating in the CEO’s absence. Applicants for sabbatical grants must also demonstrate financial need to underwrite the candidate’s leave, meaning larger organizations with large budgets may be less likely to be selected. 

“There may be an organization [that] doesn’t have the financial resources themselves for this program to work,” Feldman said. “Does their executive and their entire staff deserve rest? Yes. But that doesn’t mean this model will be right for every organization.”

R&R is “operating through an equity lens,” Feldman said. Toward that end, R&R is encouraging CEOs who are Black, indigenous and people of color; LGBTQ+ individuals; people with disabilities, and women and other leaders with underrepresented identities to apply for sabbaticals. 

Keshet’s Klein praised R&R’s mission, adding that all Jewish nonprofit employees should have the opportunity to take a sabbatical. 

“It is extraordinary to see this investment in CEO sabbaticals, and I’d love to see organizations invest in sabbaticals for all staff, no matter their position,” Klein said. “Rest is essential for everyone, and the whole organization benefits when staff can renew their energies.”

“I want the CEO of [a federation] to feel like she’s being treated well, but I want everyone else in that organization to feel that way, [for it to] be structured in a way that strengthens everyone,” Stone agreed. “After the CEO gets time off, do they figure out how to give other people time off?”

Feldman called the CEO grants “just a start,” and “part of a broader focus we need on rest, recovery and rejuvenation for nonprofit workers. But we have to start somewhere, and we have to start now because the need is so great.” R&R plans to partner with philanthropists and foundations in the coming months and years to scale initiatives to meet the needs of more Jewish nonprofit professionals.

“Do we want to offer additional sabbaticals and other rest-based rejuvenation programs?” he said. “Absolutely, and long-term [we] will look to do so, with entry-level through senior leaders.” 

Feldman hopes R&R’s efforts will prompt nonprofit leaders to make rest-based practices and policy, such as sabbaticals, the norm for their organizations. As an example, Feldman named the progressive group social change group Bend the Arc, which offers sabbaticals to all staff for every seven years of employment. 

R&R identifies sabbaticals as “our leading intervention,” but says others are to come, like a deck of rest-themed cards, meant to prompt individuals, teams and organizations to think about rest — or as Feldman says, “micro moments of rest and rejuvenation” — every day. For example, he recommends making meetings 50 minutes instead of an hour; being clear around the hours when people must be in communication with each other; and making sure that professionals are focused on strategies that help them achieve their mission. 

Feldman literally walks the walk of his organization’s raison d’etre; he goes on walks daily and hikes in the mountains of western Massachusetts, and one of R&R’s consulting “interventions” is something called a “walkshop”—a guided walk that can be done outside or inside, with an R&R facilitator issuing prompts while participants walk in silence, giving them the opportunity to move, occupy the space around them and think creatively.

“We believe our primary role is to help soften the ground so that organizations and cultures begin to have a different orientation towards rest,” he said. “Ultimately, we can help move the entire society, because we know that the existential threats we face are bigger than ever, and how we’re going to solve those is not just going to be through new methodologies and new ways of working, it’s going to be in the way we take care of people so that our best, brightest and hardest-working folks in the nonprofit sector can have the energy and resolve to work on all of this.”