Sustaining Our Synagogues, Sustaining Ourselves, Part Two

By Dr. Amy Alfred

This article furthers the concept that in order for our synagogue professionals to be at their best both personally and professionally, examining the ways in which boundaries are set, as well as focusing on ways that they take care of themselves on a regular basis is an important endeavor.

We are always told that in flight we should put on our own oxygen mask before we can effectively help another person with his/hers. If we do not make sure that our breath (both literally and figuratively) is solid, then we cannot aid someone else in feeling grounded. Think about ways you currently take care of yourself – are there two things during a given week that you do regularly to take care of yourself, and two things you might wish to incorporate on a more regular basis? What things prevent you from doing the above, and what boundaries do you need to work on in order to achieve these things? Let’s look at the repercussions in your personal and professional life if you say no to these suggestions…

In part one of this article, we observed our synagogue professional, Sharon, going about her daily activities. She was constantly inundated by requests from both staff and congregants, and it seemed there was little time for her to eat, let alone breathe. As Sharon thought about the ways that she took care of herself, she saw that she was able to set aside an hour per week to talk to her best friend Marjorie who lived across the country. She found this was a good way to feel connected, validated, and recharged. The other area that helped her to feel refreshed was her weekly yoga class, a 75 minute workout that left her calmer and more focused. When asked to ponder what else she could do to take better care of herself, Sharon thought of setting aside time each morning to pack some healthy snacks for work, and she decided she would invest some money in a once per week manicure.

What happens when Sharon is called upon to miss the call with Marjorie? Does it matter if this is a rare or a routine occurrence? While we need to stay flexible at times given myriad demands, it is important to safeguard our precious time in order to keep our appointments, especially our appointments with OURSELVES. If Sharon is often asked to switch around her call with Marjorie (whether the request is made by her family or her colleagues), she can politely state how valuable the call is, and that she will work with that person to meet with them another time. She can close the door to her office or her bedroom, and make it clear that for that hour she will not be interrupted. How about her yoga class? What if one of her children is sick and needs to stay home? Will it always be Sharon who misses her class, or could she consider negotiating with her husband around who stays home when one of their children is in need? Regarding the snacks, Sharon decides to set aside 10 extra minutes per morning to focus on her nutritional needs for the day. What happens when one of the children has a last minute request and needs her help? Does she give up her snacks, or does she think creatively about how to still do this, and attend to her child as well? People in helping professions tend to sacrifice their own needs to focus on others, but sometimes that is not always the healthiest choice. In regards to the manicure, Sharon decides that this will help her have a quiet 30 minutes during the week to relax and breathe, and she will also feel more professional in her workplace. She may need to discuss with her partner why she feels this is an important item to have in their budget.

Even if Sharon is diligent about setting good boundaries around these self-care activities, it is possible she may encounter other road blocks that will hamper her success. These stumbling blocks may occur internally and/or externally. It is crucial for Sharon to reflect on ways that she lets go of her own needs and thus allows her boundaries to be disrespected. In addition, there may be environmental dynamics that make it difficult for Sharon to achieve her objectives. Are there ways that co-workers or congregants in the synagogue help or hinder her goals? Are there perhaps unwritten rules in the family about who takes care of what? There are often several layers when someone feels stuck, and it would be worth Sharon’s energy to look at what happens when she feels she is at an impasse.

In summary, it is important for synagogues to support the very resources and pillars that keep them running so effectively – their synagogue professionals! This includes honoring boundaries that have been set, as well as advocating for measures that ensure regular self-care. This could be a particular block of time carved out that is sacrosanct, or funds that can be used for professional and personal development. There are assets that are allocated at every level of our synagogues, and it behooves us to think creatively about funneling some of these resources to our professionals. When those who buttress our foundations are in need, we must shore up their lives to ensure a greater quality of synagogue life that affects us all.

Dr. Amy Alfred is a licensed psychologist who maintains a private practice in Narberth, PA where she sees many individuals and couples struggling to maintain appropriate boundaries. She consults with synagogues around conflict resolution and good boundary-setting for optimal functioning. For questions or comments, feel free to contact her directly at