What Jewish educators do
For all of those Jewish educators who are feeling the wear and tear of the job. For those who have used all of their care for everyone else and reserved none for themselves. For those who are in need of a community of supportive colleagues, I urge you to find a community of fellow educators who intimately understand the challenges of the role and can offer support, guidance and collaboration.
Last month, 175 Jewish educators from across North America convened in Houston for the Annual Gathering of the Association of Reform Jewish Educators (ARJE). During tefilah, we listened to the d’var Torah given by our outgoing president, Marisa Kaiser, discussing the oft-used hashtag #whatjewisheducatorsdo. This hashtag is one that’s seen often within the social media circle of Jewish educators. Typically it highlights the less glamorous aspects of the job: untangling a child’s hair from a purse strap, removing a water bead from a nostril, having an account with the local pizza shop where everybody knows your name (and your order), or working through the night to make sure signs are made and placed, treats are baked or packaged, or last-minute supply requests are fulfilled.
“#whatjewisheducatorsdo,” we write resignedly next to our photos of stacked pizza boxes, pounds of challah dough, and 5 computer monitors displaying 15 different zoom Hebrew classes.
Yet this hashtag captures so much more. It captures the educator that stops what they’re doing on a busy school day to tend to a child in distress, whether to get them food, a quiet space or a couch to nap on. It captures the months that go into planning every logistical, curricular and staffing detail for a single weekend retreat that will shape friendships, Jewish identity and a sense of belonging for years to come. It captures the hundreds of educators that shifted their entire schools online in a matter of weeks and ensured that their students and families had a community during an unprecedented time of isolation. It captures the holy and empathic work of being by a family’s side during their most joyful and most difficult moments. This is #whatjewisheducatorsdo.
So when we came together, many of us for the first time in three years, we were exhausted. We were drained. We were preoccupied with all of the things that weren’t getting done, or worse, possibly falling apart in our absence. It felt appropriate, therefore, that the theme of our gathering was “Healthy Leaders, Healthy Learners: Supporting the Well-Being of our Whole Community.” Participants had the option of delving into four different tracks: Healthy youth, healthy workplaces, healthy professionals, and healthy communities. Educators are natural caretakers. They take care of their students and their families, their teachers, their team members, and the community as a whole. Caring for others is #whatjewisheducatorsdo. Unsurprisingly, the participants dove head first into these tracks, eager to develop skills and tools which they can use to better support the well-being of their communities. Who better to lead change in creating caring environments, workplaces and cultures than Jewish educators?
We know, however, that this natural proclivity for caring comes at a price. Jewish educators take care of everyone else at the expense of themselves. Self-care is not #whatJewisheducatorsdo. Our aptitude for caring rarely extends to ourselves and only a lucky few are at organizations that prioritize their well-being. Educators are burnt out, overwhelmed, and struggling to find renewal, and in some cases, meaning in their work. And this is where an organization like the ARJE comes in. As valuable as the learning tracks were, the real magic of the gathering was the way in which educators cared for each other, and were cared for in return.
The gathering gave us a space to share questions and frustrations with those that intimately understood our unique roles and challenges. The opportunity to reflect on the blessings and the impact of our work. The chance to hold each other and be held in camaraderie and support. The space to play and imagine, to vision and dream. A place to celebrate our achievements and each other.
Most important, the gathering gave us a place to be taken care of. We left feeling refreshed and recharged. We left with new connections and an even deeper and robust network of colleagues. We left with a renewed sense of purpose and meaning in our work. We left inspired to create healthier and more caring cultures and spaces for our communities, and for ourselves.
For all of those Jewish educators who are feeling the wear and tear of the job. For those who have used all of their care for everyone else and reserved none for themselves. For those who are in need of a community of supportive colleagues, I urge you to find a community of fellow educators who intimately understand the challenges of the role and can offer support, guidance and collaboration. I encourage you to seek out professional development opportunities where you can renew, grow, and recharge. And I insist that you find a community that will take care of you as vigorously as you take care of your own. We cannot effectively take care of others without adequately caring for ourselves. And it is time that self-care is included on the list of #whatJewisheducatorsdo.
For more information about the Association of Reform Jewish Educators, please visit https://reformeducators.org/.
Micol Zimmerman Burkeman, MAJE, ACC, has worked to elevate and reimagine Jewish education and leadership for the last two decades. As an executive coach, consultant and facilitator, she works with educators, clergy and Jewish communal professionals and organizations to help them increase their impact and maximize their potential. Micol currently serves as the director of the teaching impact fellowship and the recruitment and leadership development associate at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. She is a proud member of the Association of Reform Jewish Educators.