Fostering strong workplace culture to weather tumultuous times

For many working in the Jewish communal sector, the struggle to find a path forward since Oct. 7 has been challenging, to say the least. Since October, we have borne witness to the worst tragedy to happen to the Jewish people since the Holocaust; a global rise in antisemitism; a sense of isolation amongst some partners once considered close allies; shifting philanthropic priorities adding uncertainty to our work; and escalating polarization due to the ongoing violence and loss of innocent life in Israel and Gaza.  To intensify this already turbulent period, many Jewish organizations are rethinking if and how diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives can be woven into the fabric of the Jewish communal sector amidst the surge in antisemitism. 

Yet even in the eye of the storm, it has never been more important that we strengthen our commitment to fostering cultures of safety, respect and equity within our Jewish organizations. Safeguarding the well-being of our staff and maintaining healthy workplaces is paramount if we are to weather this crisis and emerge with a vibrant and purposeful future for our organizations and the broader Jewish community. Organizational leaders must persist in advancing cultures of respect and belonging to effectively steer their teams through these tumultuous times. It is not enough to simply acknowledge these ideals; workplaces must embody them in their policies and actions.

At SRE Network, we recognize this moment as a reminder to take intentional, proactive steps to embed the principles we promote into the fabric of our own organization. In the spirit of openness, it is important to share that our organizational culture, like any other, is not perfect. Embracing this vulnerability inspires our willingness to be on a long-term journey of growth and improvement guided by the wisdom of Pirkei Avot: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” 

Below are some of the areas where we have undertaken new initiatives since Oct. 7, along with our ongoing internal culture work, to support a healthy and inclusive environment. 

Assessment and feedback: SRE regularly participates in Leading Edge’s Employee Experience Survey which includes follow-up consultation for the senior staff with Leading Edge consultants. After reviewing and discussing the results with staff, we identify specific areas for growth and use this information to shape our strategy for enhancing workplace culture.

Additionally, after administering the Standards Self Assessment (SSA) to SRE’s member organizations, we realized it was time to turn the spotlight inward and reflect on our own strengths and opportunities for growth. Each SRE staff member anonymously took the SSA, giving us valuable insights into our organization’s performance across the standards. This paved the way for constructive, collaborative dialogue among the team to reflect on the results and create an action plan.

Respectful management practices: Managers conduct weekly check-ins with the people they supervise and encourage them to lead these meetings. This format empowers staff to take ownership of their projects, fosters autonomy and encourages a constant flow of communication. 

Additionally, managers regularly offer and request feedback to create 360-degree evaluations that happen naturally throughout the year. Resources we turn to to improve our management practices include JPro’s management trainings; Leading Edge’s robust compilation of resources; and The Management Center’s resources and templates.

Pay equity and transparency: We recognize that pay equity and transparency are fundamental pillars of an equitable and respectful workplace. To uphold these values, we proactively include the salary and benefits (including paid family leave) in job descriptions, which can help reduce the pay gap for women and people of color. Beyond this, we created a compensation philosophy, which is reviewed and discussed with all staff members annually. With this salary transparency, we strive to build an environment where fairness in compensation and a culture of accountability and trust are prioritized. In the words of “We’re permanently seeing red” (eJewishPhilanthropy, April 4), “this is not just about more or better pay, but about fair and equitable pay.”

Staff morale and camaraderie: We prioritize promoting connectivity and collaboration through weekly staff meetings. Each month, a different staff member serves as the team meeting facilitator to cultivate a sense of shared ownership. Additionally, we seek to make work-life balance a reality, not just a talking point. We do this by encouraging staff to take their vacations — not messaging staff on their days off — and by providing flexible work hours in a remote environment. We also allocate part of our budget toward an annual staff retreat, staff gifts for lifecycle events, and travel, so our all-remote staff can feel connected and valued. 

Ongoing learning: We encourage continuous professional development through a dedicated budget for staff to learn more about safety, respect and equity topics and regularly share related opportunities in the “ongoing learning” team Slack channel. We also invite all staff to participate in monthly SRE webinars and seek other professional development opportunities from organizations within and outside the Jewish community.

Engaging expert consultants: We enlisted the expertise of Equity in the Center to serve as consultants, deepening our understanding of and commitment to building an anti-racist culture. As part of this, our staff engaged in in-depth conversations about our organization’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, where gaps exist and how we can collectively advance this work.

Leadership involvement: SRE Network’s board and lay leadership are vital pillars in bolstering a healthy workplace culture and driving forward our dedication to equity and inclusion initiatives. Their strategic guidance and proactive advocacy further our organization’s commitment to prioritizing a workplace environment where diverse perspectives are valued and everyone can thrive, innovate and collaborate effectively. 

Going forward, there is still much work to continue to do. In the coming months, we are excited to hire a part-time senior adviser for workplace culture and belonging to support our efforts in creating a more inclusive and respectful organization. We also plan to take Leading Edge’s Focused Engagement Survey, analyze the results as a team and use that conversation to inform our next steps.

I share these approaches not to be self-serving, because I know SRE is a work in progress and we still have a way to go to achieve the culture we strive to have. Rather, I share these practices because no one should ever feel alone or lost in this work. Despite the challenges in front of us, we are all connected by a shared dedication to the Jewish values of kavod (respect) and b’tzelem Elokim (seeing each person as made in the image of the Divine). If we implement tangible strategies for change and foster a culture of continuous learning and collaboration, together we can build a Jewish communal sector that can weather this storm and emerge stronger and more resilient on the other side.

Shaina Wasserman is the interim executive director and senior director of strategic operations at SRE Network