Managing the Fears of Change

changeBy Dr Gabe Goldman

This year the Pittsburgh Agency for Jewish Learning (AJL), supported by funding from the Jewish Community Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, sponsored a series of workshops – called “K’hillot Kayamot: Sustainable Communities” – on congregational change. Congregation leadership teams met throughout the year with Debra Brosan, MA, OD, of GestaltWorks to identify needed changes and strategies for achieving them.

My experience with K’hillot Kayamot (I attended the sessions as a representative of the AJL) brought to mind the daunting challenges I encountered a number of years ago, while working with the Board of a large Jewish organization of a major Midwestern Jewish community. The organization’s goal of expanding its work was being met by staff resistance that had morphed into a paralyzing fear of making any changes or taking any risks. This was long before I became acquainted with Kurt Lewin’s phrase, resistance, referring to forces mitigating against change.

Initially puzzled, I asked myself what was so frightening about changing the name of a program or creating a teen center or offering Jewish education courses that had never been offered previously? Why would staff see these relatively minor decisions as major, life-shattering events? That was when I realized that my first step needed to be to get in touch with my own feelings of anxiety and fear in order understand the nature and depth of the fear the staff was feeling.

How to do so? I decided to make a drastic change in my own appearance by shaving off my beard and mustache (of 25 years) and changing my hair color! Please bear in mind that this was way before average guys pierced their ears or got highlights, way before mainstream members of either sex displayed extravagant body art, etc. Just thinking about making these changes made me extremely anxious – which let me know I’d hit upon the perfect mechanism for acquiring empathy with the staff I was working with.

Well, nervous as it made me, I went through with my plan. And, not surprisingly, the experience was highly instructive. Ultimately, four “principles” of change emerged, and these became the foundation of my understanding of change to this day. I saw them reflected in the “K’hillot Kayamot” program this year, as I have seen them reflected in every process of change and risk-taking that I have participated in over the last three decades. I share them with you below.

1. All Change Produces Anxiety and No Change Is Insignificant

The closer the date came to going beardless and becoming a blonde, the more convinced I became that I was about to make a complete fool of myself and demolish any modicum of professional respect I’d garnered over the years. Though the changes I was about to make to myself were relatively minor, they did not feel that way to me at the time.

The point? It does not matter how insignificant a change may appear to be from “the outside.” What matters is how much risk is perceived to be involved by the individuals undergoing the change. The higher the perceived risk, the greater the level of discomfort they will experience. What happens, for example, when a congregation decides to stop using a traditional prayer melody? Pretty insignificant, right? Not at all! More than one congregation has been divided by this very “insignificant” change. Change-makers must recognize that all change is viewed as risky by those it most affects.

2. It Takes Time to Get Used to Changes

When I first looked in the mirror after shaving my face and coloring my hair, I was so shocked I could feel the blood drain from my head. The reflection I saw was not me! I developed a love-hate relationship with mirrors. I wanted and needed to see myself but I continued to be scared by what I saw.

Pre-change anxiety does not simply disappear once the actual change is initiated (e.g. once the new Board is constituted, the new director hired, the new mission is formulated, the new budget put in place). Staff does not have an “anxiety switch” that automatically clicks to “off.” It takes time to grow into change. Staff needs opportunities to look at the new “face” of their organization and to allow the new image to replace the old image.

3. Change Is Not Obvious Even When It Is

My greatest shock was how few of my co-workers or colleagues actually noticed the changes I had made. Some people asked if I had bought new glasses or gotten my hair cut. Others refused to believe that I had sported a beard the entire time that had known me.

In short, changes (and the underlying reasons for change) are not nearly as obvious to others as they are to the people initiating the changes. Even the most dramatic organizational changes can go unnoticed or can be misunderstood unless these changes are explicitly pointed out and explained. So don’t forget to narrate – before and afterwards – the changes being made, the reasons for these changes, and the benefits accruing from them.

4. Change Is an Ongoing Process

Eventually my new hair color grew out and, had I stopped shaving, my beard would have returned. Which points up perhaps the most important lesson I learned from my experience – change will revert back to status quo if it is not maintained. In other words, change is not a one-time event but rather an ongoing process that requires an ongoing commitment.

All too often, for example, changes implemented in Jewish education are made without any infrastructure for maintaining the changes. When this happens, years of work and even the most extraordinary changes can be undone in the blink of an eye.


Jewish organizations are frequently faced with change – either change thrust upon them or change they initiate. Either way, these changes are certain to generate anxiety and fear over what is to come. Recognizing this and taking steps to alleviate this fear will greatly reduce the degree of disharmony change process can create. It is important for organizations undergoing change to remember that 1) All change generates anxiety and fear; 2) People need time to get used to changes; 3) Changes (and the reason for making changes) are not necessarily obvious and need to be explained; 4) Change is not a singular event but an ongoing process that requires an ongoing commitment.

Dr Gabe Goldman is Director of Experiential Education at the Pittsburgh Agency for Jewish Education.