community change

Combatting Professional Isolation: The Power of a Local Cohort

By Rabba Rachel Kohl Finegold, Joshua Rubin and Anat Toledano

“For several years, my leadership experience was on the periphery of the Jewish community… I found no collegial network and little opportunity for collaboration and broader contribution. Those professionals I did reach out to seemed uninterested in engagement.”

Isolation, disconnection, feeling like an outsider. No, we are not just talking about the pandemic. Feelings of isolation have existed behind the scenes for Jewish communal professionals for years. Why might our Jewish professionals feel isolated or alone?

“As a newly ordained, progressive female clergy in a fairly traditional city, it was difficult to get a foothold… even though I felt I had much to offer. It saddened me that I was feeling like an unwelcome outsider – in my own community!”

“I have felt isolated in my work as the sole full-time professional staff person in my organization. I lacked the normal support networks that are part of belonging to a larger work environment.”

The above quotes are from Jewish professionals in Montreal, all in senior-level positions in their organizations. These, along with other feelings of isolation, stem from denominational affiliation, geography within the city, being a newcomer, a hyper-focus on one’s own work, lack of an established network to reach other professionals, or a combination of any of these and additional factors.

At the same time, our amazing Montreal community is strong and interconnected. Like many mid-size cities across North America, it is the kind of place where many Jews hold the assumption that they “know everyone.”  

The Passport to Jewish Life Fellowship challenged that assumption. The Fellowship brought together a diverse group of Jewish professionals, including rabbis, teachers, experiential educators, Federation professionals, and entrepreneurs. Most were surprised to meet so many local Jewish professionals that they did not already know. Over time, relationships began to form across organizational lines that would have never otherwise been possible.

Over the year that we have spent learning and growing – and navigating a pandemic – together, we have discovered new possibilities present in our own roles and in our city as a whole. The voices have changed; the isolation diminished. As one participant commented, “Our group has given a bird’s-eye view of how the community works, clarifying many of those aspects of community life that are more opaque to newcomers. It has become a place where I feel comfortable to ask hard questions.” And another participant in our fellowship recently commented that “Through networking… I was able to get a sense of the larger gestalt of our beautiful and precious Montreal Jewish community, and to appreciate that there are so many bright, menschlich, exceptional people working for the good of all.”

What has allowed for this kind of success?

Shared language: The M2 curriculum helped us see that, despite our very diverse roles, we all explore Jewish values and utilize powerful, concrete experiences to enhance Jewish life and identity. We discovered that a camp director, day-school teacher, pulpit rabbi, and communal professional could all use the same language to describe the very different work that they do. This is more than just using buzz words; it is cultivating a language that allows us to exchange ideas with one another, crossing the organizational divides that previously seemed so fixed.

Common goals: Although we all work in different corners of the Jewish landscape, we knew from the start that we were all there for a broader purpose: realizing our goal of what we want Jewish Montreal to look like in the next year, decade, and even beyond. The fellowship also helped alleviate the natural sense of competition between different Jewish organizations in the same city by cultivating an atmosphere of respectful collaboration and genuine mutual investment. Each individual organization’s success is part of our collective success.

Synergy in programming: Sometimes we duplicate one another’s efforts, and other times there is someone else in the group who has exactly the expertise we need. Building a web of interconnectedness has naturally given rise to more program partnerships, instead of us each spinning our wheels to fill communal needs within our own silos.

Long-term commitment: The visionary funders and leadership in our community made a statement and a commitment in designing this 18-month fellowship. The M2 faculty and facilitators were intentional every step of the way, cultivating group formation and fostering an environment of warmth and nonjudgement.

The participants invested their time and made themselves fully present, open, and honest. It was because of this elaborate orchestra of funders, faculty, and participants that these goals have been achieved.

We encourage you to do a few simple things in your own city in order to alleviate feelings of professional isolation. We imagine that there are colleagues that you wouldn’t normally consider reaching out to. Do it anyway! Ask someone from another organization to coffee, or gather a few colleagues in a room (or a Zoom room) together. Show interest in one another’s work, and offer genuine and active collaboration. Articulate where your differences are, and where your goals overlap – not for the sake of increased membership, but for the sake of alleviating professional isolation and feeling more interconnected. We know from our own experience how much of a difference it can make.

Rabba Rachel Kohl Finegold serves as clergy at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim and is the convener of the Community of Practice for the Passport to Jewish Life Fellowship.

Joshua Rubin is a Philanthropic Advisor with the Jewish Community Foundation of Montreal. Anat Toledano is Director of Judaic Studies at JPPS Bialik.

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Passport to Jewish Life Fellowship is an 18-month professional development program for leading educators in Montreal. Fellows gain conceptual ideas and practical tools to strengthen their work, build a collaborative community, and develop a shared language for educational practice. The Fellowship is powered by the Passport to Jewish Life Funders Collaborative, led by Federation CJA and run by M2: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education.