“Where Are You Now? Losing Yourself in Jewish Communal Work”

By Rabbi Arnie Samlan

“Why did you leave Jewish communal service?” I asked the young man sitting across from me.

“Lack of boundaries,” he replied.

Another way of framing that response is: When you undertake a career in Jewish communal work, you risk losing yourself. Rabbi Dr. Yossi Kastan, a rising star in Jewish day school leadership (and a local colleague), addresses this problem head-on in his recent ELI Talk.

The elements of the challenge, which are not unique to day school heads (or to Jewish educators) seem to fall into these categories, according to his talk:

  • Leadership: My experience is that every organization wants to hire a visionary leader, but the day-to-day demands that the organization then places upon him, make him into a functional leader instead. I was once in a session led by Dr. Erica Brown, in which she asked, “What is your greatest single challenge.” My immediate response was “lack of time for reflection.” To remain the visionary leader that is needed today, leaders need time to reflect and to re-ground themselves into who they are and what they envision.
  • Transience of Work: Yossi comments on the constant job changes of those in the field. As disheartening as that is, it is not endemic to Jewish educational leadership. Based on statistics from Bureau of Labor Statistics, people change jobs every 4 ½ years, with some groups averaging only 2.5 years in a job. What that means in a Jewish educational role is that you’ve barely begun to articulate a vision (and maybe to take steps to implement part of it) before you leave and the next person will articulate a different vision. In my humble opinion (and as one who left his last job after that 2.5 year average tenure), we need to take a serious look at any communal institution that changes professional leadership at the rates that Yossi mentions.
  • Loneliness: The phrase “it’s lonely at the top” is a real reflection on the demands that are placed on colleagues in Jewish educational leadership (and the rabbinate, and CEO’s of Jewish nonprofits, etc.). Early in my career, I went to lunch with a colleague from my then-community while we were out of town at a conference. “Odd,” he said to me. “We work 10 minutes from each other, but we have to be 1000 miles from home before we sit and have lunch together.” If I am to believe TV shows, people in all walks of life go have a meal or drink together after work on a regular basis. Ask your friendly neighborhood Jewish professional educational leader how often that happens in her life. And yes, the unique challenges of our career paths make it difficult for “outsiders,” even our own family members, to fully grasp.

In his talk, Yossi doesn’t provide simple answers. What he does do is to lay out the challenges. And perhaps, by being cognizant of those challenges, we can make the changes that are needed to keep good people (like him) serving the schools and institutions where he/she/we can make a difference in our communities.

Rabbi Arnie Samlan, Executive Director of Orloff Central Agency for Jewish Education of Broward County, FL (Orloff CAJE), is a Jewish educational leader whose work has impacted Jewish learners, community leaders and professionals across North America. A committed leader in the use of social media in Jewish learning, his ideas can be found on his blog, arnolddsamlan.wordpress.com and his Twitter feed @jewishconnectiv, which has a following of over 4,700.

Drawing on the model of Jewish discourse and the latest in digital technology, ELI Talks captures, transmits, and nurtures inspired Jewish ideas. For more, visit elitalks.org or email info@elitalks.org.