Restore and Replenish

Look to the lumberjacks to inspire Jewish professional renewal

In Short

Jewish professionals have not been diligent about taking a break to sharpen our axes: we worked through weekends and cultivated a culture of toxic productivity, reinforcing unrealistic, inequitable expectations. And we're exhausted.

Author and inspirational speaker Simon Sinek tells a story about two lumberjacks who start and stop their work at the same time each day. One works straight through, while the other leaves for an hour each day. The lumberjack who leaves each day continually chops more wood than his colleague, and after some time the other lumberjack gets frustrated and says, “We start at the same time, and stop at the same time. Every day you disappear for an hour, and you still chop more wood than me. Where do you go for that hour?” The other lumberjack stops and replies, “I go home and sharpen my ax.”

I am exhausted. And, not the kind of exhaustion that can be fixed by a good night’s sleep or a vacation. Exhausted in the way that indicates something is wrong. Burnout isn’t a medical diagnosis, but it certainly impacts physical and mental health. 

As I reflect on my own work and check in with colleagues who are struggling with similar feelings, I get the sense that we have, as a field, not been diligent about taking a break to sharpen our axes. Particularly during the pandemic, we have worked through weekends, done more rather than less and cultivated a culture of toxic productivity. In doing so, we have reinforced unrealistic expectations that are not equitable, perpetuated employment practices that make organizational change harder to achieve and defined success by the number of hours worked rather than how effectively we are meeting our mission. 

We are currently the lumberjack who chops all day but continues to be less productive. And we have the resources as a field to identify the tools that can help us be more balanced, more productive, healthier and sharper professionals. Here are some of the ways that I have kept my professional ax sharp:

The power of mentors: Pirkei Avot exhorts us to “find yourself a teacher and also acquire a friend.” I have been so blessed in my career to have colleagues and mentors to rely on and listen to as they offer feedback. One of my most consistent sources of advice is from a group of other camp professionals, upon whom I have relied to help me identify when I am headed for trouble. Their experience, care and concern provides a support system that I can’t easily quantify. One mentor who has been part of my professional journey over the past number of years, has nurtured my career but is equally interested in my spiritual and familial journey. A community of colleagues and mentors is not just a place for advice, but a source of strength and restoration, particularly in difficult moments. When anyone asks me how they can sharpen their work, my first response is to seek out really good mentors, really early on.

Practice the pause: In my JCC work, one of my colleagues was fond of the saying “practice the pause,” to take a breath and a break before our stress level gets too high. This is one cornerstone of emotional, spiritual and interpersonal wellness, and we would be wise to ask what spiritual, emotional and physical practices can help us to stop and sharpen. For instance, I deeply value time spent outdoors:  a walking meeting, a jog through the park or a hike in the woods with my family is the best kind of medicine.

Evaluate for growth: Another teaching from Pirkei Avot reminds us that “where there is no sustenance, there is no Torah.” As an organizational leader, I strive to respond to the needs of this moment not just for myself, but for the colleagues I partner with and the organizations I serve. For our organizations, this might include participating in employee surveys like the one from Leading Edge. In its 2021 survey, we learned that employees are passionate about their work and proud of their organizations but at the same time feel overworked and underpaid. Employees also reported insufficient opportunity for growth and advancement as well as time off across the board. More than 11,000 professionals from 220-plus organizations took that survey, representing only a drop in the Jewish professional community bucket. A regular pulse check with employees is a chance for organizations to listen, respond and grow, and for the employees to reflect on their needs and make their voices heard as a collective(?).

Clarity of values and vision: Noted management consultant Peter Drucker asks people to “cultivate a deep understanding of yourself” as they look to lead. He understood that getting clarity on your personal values and vision will help you work effectively and also ensure that the work is meaningful. Jewish professionals, too, will be sharper in their work if they have a clarity of personal vision, mission and values. I see my personal vision as building capacity within the Jewish community to engage every Jew using our deeply-held core values, and inspired by Psalms: “The stone the masons rejected has now become the cornerstone.” Everything in my professional work attempts to align with that vision of radical inclusion and equity. Vision-guided leadership can ensure that our work meets our personal vision and that vice versa. Those pieces may not match perfectly, but I believe that this clarity is critical to sharpening ourselves and the success of the organizations we lead.

Let it go and let it be: Gardening is a deep source of pausing for me. This year we let our garden lie fallow as part of the shmita year land sabbatical practice as laid out in Exodus: “For six years you should sow your land and then gather its produce. But in the seventh, you should let it go and let it be.” A sabbatical is familiar to the academic world, but is all too uncommon in the Jewish community. After 14 years of full-time professional work, I am only now taking my first professional break to refresh and reflect on what I have accomplished and where I feel called to go next. I am letting it go and letting it be.

This is good for me as a human and as a professional andfor the organizations I serve. R&R, a nonprofit in the Jewish community working to increase visibility around sabbatical practices, recently announced its first cohort of sabbatical grants for top-level Jewish communal professionals. In the press release announcing these grants, Josh Feldman noted that “sabbaticals are proven to reduce burnout, retain talent and spark the next generation of great ideas.” Even when organizational leaders deeply believe in this idea of sharpening away from work, organizations still struggle with a culture of scarcity that makes sabbaticals uncommon. Our desire to continually produce is something that I personally struggle with, even during this break from professional work. But I know that it is important to my own growth and development and will make me a better, more compassionate, more successful colleague as I return to the field in the months ahead.  

As the lumberjacks from our story teach us, our current ideas around productivity and leadership impact both our work and the professionals in our ecosystem. Toxic productivity is draining our field and our colleagues, leaving us exhausted and burnt out. We know these best practices will make us better, we are unwilling — or unable — to make the changes necessary to operationalize this growth. But by engaging with mentors and colleagues in reflective listening, practicing regular pauses in our work, working with our organizations to evaluate our strategies and plot pathways for growth, striving to gain clarity in our personal visions and values and creating a culture of deep extended rest, we can cultivate a healthier and more productive Jewish community ecosystem.

Rabbi James Greene is a 2008 graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and is currently serving as the president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.