By Nate Geller
After three and a half years working at a nonprofit Jewish digital media organization with an international news agency, you’d think I would have developed a tolerance for bad news (or even an appreciation – if it bleeds it leads!). But the last few months have been hard to get used to.
First the pandemic. Then the killing of George Floyd and the ongoing fall out.
I am extremely pained by the loss of life, the injustices, and all of the disruption that has accompanied these stories. But on a personal level, the bad news that hits home for me is related to the crumbling of the Jewish communal enterprise that I have devoted my career to since graduating from the Hornstein Program in Jewish Communal Service in 1983.
I am distraught at what I have seen happen to our beloved Jewish community over the past months, and truly worried about its future. In particular I am thinking a lot about all of those people who have dedicated so much of themselves and their careers to carrying out the mission of vital institutions and organizations, only to find themselves furloughed or laid off.
As someone who has endured several job dislocations over the years, I can say that those periods have been some of my darkest and most distraught times, often stretching on for months and sometimes even years.
From my start in the Federation field doing Young Leadership work and then Planning and Budgeting in Miami, I took a different path to become a director for a very successful Jewish teen summer camp – an arena that has been hit especially hard. While we started our family at that time and it was a good way to return to the Northeast, the position did not work out for me. Luckily I was only out of work for a short time.
A few years later I was fortunate to meet with the new director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry and was hired for a new position that allowed me to travel to the USSR and former Soviet republics to help arrange partnerships between emerging Jewish communities there and Jewish communities in the United States, some of which are still active. I performed that important work for almost a decade through the 1990s, but eventually needed to earn more to afford day school and Jewish summer camp for our kids. So I switched back to a fundraising role for an Israeli graduate Jewish education and rabbinical school, where I worked for several years until my first big dislocation took place in a reorganization that came right around 9/11. Losing that job forced me out of working in the Jewish community for several years and really knocked me down.
Fortunately a friend of mine with a consulting business was able to give me work connected to a contract with the Jewish Federations of North America (then known as UJC). That gig eventually led me back to a 4/5-time position with the The Abraham Fund Initiatives (now The Abraham Initiatives) working to secure funding for Jewish-Arab Coexistence Projects in Israel – the best laboratory for coexistence in the world. Then came another reorganization and dislocation for an extended period after which I found a short-term position working on global antisemitism that also turned into another discouraging dislocation from work.
After so many of my own painful job dislocations, I’d like to think I’ve acquired some wisdom along the way that could help others who are experiencing their own dark period of job loss. Nothing is for certain and of course everyone’s situation is different. But here are a few takeaways from my journey.
First off, I definitely caught a few lucky breaks: I have a loving and supportive wife and kids who I knew needed me – and we were there for each other through the ups and downs. I am also fortunate to be a part of an amazing local Jewish community and congregation where volunteering, participation, and learning are highly valued and helpful.
I understand that not everyone is so lucky, but hopefully everyone has something that can help find a path forward. And, ultimately, if people who are unemployed realize that they need more help than they can find on their own, they should know about the therapeutic options out there for those prepared to pursue them.
I found that my best way out of the darkness and despair was to find ways to help others. Tzedaka and Hesed opportunities. I was fortunate to be able to involve myself in the on the ongoing efforts to help make our community better and sustain our future together with others who have had their own experiences with job dislocation. Staying involved was always the best way out of the difficult times.
During the 9/11 time which was the longest and most difficult I participated in a local program called Project Ezra, sponsored mostly by the Orthodox community, that provided lots of free lectures on re-employment and free Kosher lunches, that brought along networking opportunities. I was also lucky to enroll in a back-to-work boot camp through FEGS, an Employment Agency that sadly went under after I had finished the program, but that program then became a part of the Educational Alliance on the Lower East Side.
Well-intentioned friends told me that I would never find another job at my age. But I did not listen or give up and I kept searching.
Maybe that’s because my mom worked in the school department until she was downsized in her late 80s (something she still mentions) and her mom worked at Cake Masters Kosher Bakery in Philadelphia until her mid-80s as well.
Finally, some good job news finally came: I landed a full-time position at 70 Faces Media in my late 50s, where I am now in my fourth year and possibly at my happiest career point. I am sure that the best possible outcome for me has been working with a successful team and finding fulfillment in the growth and potential of the future of our Jewish engagement and educational opportunities at 70 Faces Media.
It’s been a long road, with many lessons along the way. Perhaps the most important one: My own experience has taught me not to give up hope.
Nate Geller has worked in the Jewish community for almost 40 years in a variety of positions and currently serves as Assistant Director of Development for 70 Faces Media.