The Tshuvah Process in Jewish Communal Organizations

artwork by Judith Klein; (click image)

We are approaching the High Holiday season; Rosh Hashanah is “early” this year – just a week away. At this time of year we both celebrate and contemplate the meaning of life, in general, and the meaning of our individual lives and our relationship with others, in particular. An essential part of this process is Tshuvah, which is usually translated as repentance/returning. In Jewish tradition God can forgive us for our oversights and omissions that are between God and us. However, before we approach God and ask for forgiveness, we must do Tshuvah for our behavior toward other people: We have to come to terms with those whom we have slighted or wronged and return to the relationship we had prior to the falling-out we experienced with them.

As Jewish communal professionals or volunteers, our work is all about the relationships we have with other people. Throughout the day we interact with those with whom we work and those we serve. Inevitably tensions, misunderstandings, and disagreements arise. Sometimes a breakdown in communication occurs, or we are irritated by another individual’s different work style, or our set of priorities may differ. Negative feelings may fester, making for strained relationships.

It is difficult to continue working with people when we wish we did not have to deal with them at all. As volunteers we might have to attend board or committee meetings and work on a project with people we do not like. Or as staff members we may feel nothing but tension in meetings with some of our colleagues. Neither of these situations is unusual, and when there is a negative dynamic it affects how we feel about our connection to the organization and our work, whether as a volunteer or as a paid staff member.

This time of year provides us with both the opportunity and the process to approach people to make amends and get the relationships we have with them on track. Doing Tshuvah, a key concept of the High Holidays, is about much more than repentance. It also involves a process where we engage with other people in trying to improve our connections and relationships.

Doing Tshuvah does not mean standing on ceremony and repeating over and over again what someone did to harm or insult you. It does not mean dwelling on the negative aspect of your connection with others. Instead, its emphasis is on correcting whatever went wrong and re-establishing a positive relationship with the other person.

There is a simple five-step process for engaging in Tshuvah with the individual persons with whom we relate in our Jewish communal lives.

  1. Identify the people with whom you feel tension or discomfort.
  2. Gain clarity about whether the relationship is weak because of something they said or did to you or something you said or did to them.
  3. Decide to approach the other person to “clear the air” and “straighten out the relationship.”
  4. Set a time to meet with the person so you can engage in a meaningful conversation, rather than catching them on the go.
  5. Begin the conversation by saying that you have felt tension between the two of you or you realize that the two of you have not gotten along and you would like to try and make amends. Focus on what it will take to strengthen the relationship; do not go over and over who did what to whom.

It is sometimes difficult to move beyond the feeling of being slighted or insulted. However, when one party demonstrates a willingness to change the situation, then you are halfway to rehabilitating the connection between the two of you. It does not mean you will necessarily love each other, but it does provide the opportunity for the two of you to work together without the overlay of negative feelings.

This process can be helpful in all types of relationships throughout the organization: between volunteers or between volunteers and staff members, between staff members, or between supervisors and supervisees.

A similar process can be followed when dealing with groups of people, whether a group of volunteer leaders who serve on a committee together or a group of staff members working on a project. The Tshuvah process provides an opportunity for self-evaluation and for members to provide feedback on their relationship and way of working together. Once the members of groups have a chance to look at their relationship with the goal of strengthening their connections, this process can create a more positive work environment.

The Jewish community can only be strengthened by people who not only get along with each other but who also enjoy working together. Using the rhythm of the Jewish year and implementing the Tshuvah process provide added value, strengthening the working relationship between people – staff and volunteers alike.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy