Sustaining Our Synagogues, Sustaining Ourselves

By Dr. Amy Alfred

Sustaining our synagogues for the future is an important goal indeed, and we may need to start by supporting our synagogue professionals in setting good boundaries in order to prevent burnout. Shoring up one’s own internal resources makes it easier to do the job. This article looks at how to develop and maintain appropriate boundaries given the myriad demands on our rabbis and senior staff. A boundary is something that indicates or fixes a limit, like a personal property line. It is like a membrane that keeps an organism intact. There are many different kinds of boundaries, and these include physical, emotional, time, relationship, work, parent, and spiritual ones. In order to feel balanced, it is important to know your own and others approach setting boundaries.

To illustrate, a typical day in the life of a synagogue executive named Sharon may include rising early for a quick workout, followed by a shower and getting her three kids fed and out the door for school, after which she grabs a piece of fruit and leaves for the half hour commute to work, just in time for an 8:30 am meeting with the ritual committee. At 9:30 she is asked to address a member’s concern about his bill, along with a congregant calling to say her loved one died, and wondering how the synagogue can help her manage this life event. By 11 a.m. Sharon is in a conference with the rabbi and cantor, who wish to discuss the upcoming budget and ways to trim costs. At noon she tries to get in a quick snack and do a bit of the paperwork that has piled up on her desk. At one p.m. she meets with a family who is preparing for their son’s bar mitzvah. She is interrupted by the staff janitor, who lets her know there is a big problem with the water in the dairy kitchen. She finishes up with the bar mitzvah family, and then runs into the kitchen around 2:30 to have a quick sandwich. Before she can finish, she is waylaid by the ed director who wants help with logistics for the preschool service at the end of the week. Checking email and voicemail, Sharon finds there are a number of fires to be put out – a request from a person at her son’s school that she sit on a new committee, her husband calling to say he won’t be back from a business trip as early as planned, and the president of the synagogue calling to say the meeting they had scheduled needed to be moved to a night she is not usually there. And the list goes on…

So… what must Sharon do to be able to juggle these many balls with a sense of integrity and calm? We are always told that in flight we should put on our own oxygen mask before we can effectively help anyone else put on theirs. And this may mean that we have to know when to set a boundary and care for ourselves first.

So how can we create effective personal boundaries?

Be clear about the boundary both to yourself and others.

  • Once the boundary has been crossed, remind the person of your boundary and ask for help in maintaining that boundary.
  • If the person continues to violate the boundary, ask firmly and politely for the behavior to stop. If it continues, consider what further action is needed to stop the behavior.
  • Identify ways to position yourself in a time and place that minimizes the opportunity for your boundaries to be crossed.
  • Thank those people around you who honor your boundaries.
  • Always try to understand and honor the boundaries of those around you.
  • For Sharon, she might wish to set a boundary around the executive board scheduling meetings on her night off. She can communicate to the group that this night is the only one she has to be with her family. If a meeting is still scheduled, she can remind them that night is not going to work for her. She can ask them to respect her family time. She can decide to miss the meeting and this may be beneficial in two ways. Either the group sees how much they need her input, and may change the time for the next meeting, OR, they see that they can function well without her presence all the time, and feel good about proceeding without her. Either way, Sharon is teaching people how to treat her when she sets up an appropriate boundary.

Some techniques to enhance the functioning of the boundaries may include:

  1. Tune into your feelings.
  2. Be direct.
  3. Give yourself permission.
  4. Practice self-awareness.
  5. Name your limits.
  6. Consider your past and present.
  7. Make self-care a priority.
  8. Seek support.
  9. Be assertive.
  10. Start small.

From a personal perspective, Sharon becomes more aware of how much she starts and stops eating during the day. She knows this leaves her with little energy and less internal resources to deal with the job at hand. She may wish to set some boundaries around eating breakfast and/or lunch sitting down, not rushing from task to task. So for breakfast, she can try to enlist the aid of her husband so that she can sit down with everyone. For lunch, she may have her administrative assistant block out a half hour where she takes no appointments. She will need to set the boundary when someone comes knocking on her door with “just a quick question”!

In summary, it is well worth our time to help synagogue professionals create, maintain, and honor their boundaries. This promotes a greater sense of well-being which can then be transmitted to increased self-efficacy both on and off the job. Sustaining these very important leaders in our congregation will have the desired effect of trickling down to all of the big and small places where they continually leave their mark.

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