By Rabbi Aaron Lerner
When my daughter was three, I once noticed her pretending to pack a suitcase, filling it with mismatched clothes, stuffed animals, and board books.
“I see you’re packing,” I said. “Are you going on vacation?”
“No, Abba,” she replied, “I’m headed to a conference.”
She had already noticed a significant part of my life as a Jewish professional: constantly scurrying around the country for meetings. That year, I had jetted off for fellowship gatherings, brainstorming sessions, to speak on panels, and just to network. As much as I derived personally and professionally, the conferences were taking their toll.
As thousands of Jewish professional and lay leaders head for Washington, D.C. this weekend for the AIPAC Policy Conference, it’s worth reflecting on why it’s worth attending these mass gatherings, and how professionals can make the most of them.
Full disclosure: I actually enjoy out-of-town conferences. I like seeing colleagues, sharing ideas, and stepping out of my work routine. Conference experiences have helped me form my vision as an educator and even led to my first Hillel job after a career in finance.
And as much as I miss my family, just boarding a plane without car seats and three kids in tow feels luxurious.
Conferences can also be grueling, with schedules often packed from dawn until way after dark. Sure, many sessions are optional, but the more driven among us feel compelled to show up everywhere. I have found myself at an early minyan, a breakfast meeting, back-to-back sessions, a programmed lunch, and a donor dinner, topped with an evening plenary and late-night reception.
All told, it’s easy to work several 15-hour days without noticing the toll, both physical and emotional. I’ve returned home ill, felt overwhelmed, suffered the consequences of overlooking emails or neglecting domestic crises.
Recognizing this, some conference organizers have begun offering options to promote wellness: a midday break, a quiet lounge area, or reminders about fitness opportunities. At last year’s Hillel International conference, the interim CEO modeled wellness by showing up to breakfast in his workout clothes after jogging!
Still, it’s up to participants to find our own balance.
So, based on research combined with personal experimentation, I offer the following evidence-based strategies for surviving and thriving at Jewish conferences:
1. Ignore the schedule. Decide in advance what’s most important and do those things. The conference planners don’t actually expect you to go straight from 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Those are just the listed opportunities!
Identify a few sessions that are essential, and a few colleagues with whom you really want to connect.
2. Limit overall time spent traveling. Aiming for professional balance, this year I skipped two pre-gatherings, and opted out of three conferences entirely. I vetted these decisions with my board chair if I perceived an expectation that I would be attending a particular event.
3. Exercise. We all know that we should exercise a little each day, but too often we forget this at conferences. I plan in advance to find a session I can skip to go for a run. I’ve tried online yoga videos while skipping breakfast, or, when I’m short on time, seven-minute workouts available on YouTube.
4. Sleep. It’s okay to leave late-night receptions a bit earlier than others or cut back on breakfast meetings. I generally avoid more than a little alcohol, stop using my phone at least 45 minutes before bedtime, and steer clear of caffeine after 2 p.m. Sleep aids or melatonin can be helpful, but check with your doctor.
5. One Plate. I love to eat! Even mediocre food at a conference buffet. But when I eat too much and then sit a lot, I get Conference Belly. Enough said. So I stick to one plate per meal, with at least half of it being salad or veggies. Or I skip one meal entirely in exchange for the extra snacking I do while traveling.
6. Be Present. People will forgive you for ditching a session here and there if you’re fully present at those you attend. Make eye contact, remember names, listen well, smile, express empathy, participate fully, and offer support to colleagues. When I do things well, I can show that I really do care even as I’m evading parts of the schedule to exercise and sleep.
7. Check in with home when you can be fully present. I try to check in at a time and place that allow me to actually pay attention. (Of course, that might not be the ideal time for your partner and/or kids.)
8. Triage everything else. For email, I try responding only to the most urgent and important messages. I leave everything else for the plane.
It’s possible to make the most of conferences, but it takes planning and a little chutzpah to enjoy the gathering, learn, network, and return home happy and healthy. I encourage you to experiment and create your own plan to survive and thrive at conferences in 2020 and beyond.
Rabbi Aaron Lerner is Executive Director, Hillel at UCLA.