[This post was inspired by my TribeFest panel about working in the Jewish world called “From Passion to Paycheck.” Additional inspiration from Vanessa Hidary, who presented “Top Ten Telltale Signs You’re Working in the Jewish Community,” and Mayim Bialik, who spoke about her connections to Jewish community growing up and as an adult. Here's to the "Jew Crew,' in all of its forms. - EDK]
If you’re a “professional Jew,” you probably find yourself living somewhere between pride and frustration. When you’re proud of your work and feeling that you’re making a difference, there’s no stopping you – you’re in love with Judaism and making an impact in the community, and the combination can be blissful. But then there are the other times, when you’re frustrated - committee standstills, bureaucracy, politics, lack of funding, resistance to change and other factors dismay you, and you begin to believe that the impact you’d hoped to make on your community or the world is beset by impossible hurdles. Maybe you should have gone to medical school, law school or anywhere school, because you suspect (or hope) you’d get more respect from the Jewish community if you were working outside of it.
Of course, in any business there can be bureaucratic holdups and days in which your professional life crushes your will to live. (Too much?) But when it happens in the Jewish nonprofit world, it can feel like your own people, the principles you hold dear and the family members who raised you, are betraying you. And with all that Jewish professional baggage weighing on you during your workweek, the last thing you want during your time off is Jewish engagement. You may find yourself taking a weekend “Jewcation,” opting out of the Jewish community that drains you during the week. That's when your Jewishness becomes something that you do for money, as opposed to something you are or feel connected to.
So how to balance being Jewish with being Jewish-for-a-(you-call-this)-living? Here are a few tips that I’ve found helpful – maybe you will too.
- Focus on the concrete impact of your work. Sure, there’s lots of bureaucracy involved in your work. But what are the measurable outcomes? What are the big issues that your organization tackles? Learning about the human faces and lives that are affected goes a long way toward inspiring you to smile as you work through the job’s challenging moments. (This is why Alina Gerlovin Spaulding’s presentation at TribeFest was such a winner – her personal narrative, of a real person whose life was literally transformed by Jewish communal funding and support, helped all of us concretize our work and realize that we do what we do so that people can live better, more stable and more meaningful lives.)
- Find something Jewish that thrills you and – here’s the challenge - is separate from your work. Practice some Jewish “self-care” that creates a more equitable balance between your personal connection to Jewish identity and your "professional Jew" persona who lives at your office. Whether it’s meditation or prayer or a Shabbat dinner or a Jewish film festival, find Jewish meaning in extra-professional areas of your life. Hopefully this will prevent you from wanting to turn off your Jewish identity when you’re not being paid to care about it.
- Use your position to network, find friends, mentors and allies. In this tightly knit world – inside and outside the Jewish professional sphere - you’re only as stable as the relationships you’ve forged within your professional and personal networks. This piece of advice is not about being a smarmy sycophant, or being inauthentic with people for the sake of advancing your own career. Find the people who are authentic, who can add value to your life and professional trajectory, and forge real, honest connections with them. Ask them to lend their expertise or experience to help you learn how to replicate their success, and be open to the paths they suggest. Be respectful of their time, and offer to buy them lunch or coffee; it’s an investment in your future. Such experts will rarely say no, and you could find yourself a teacher, mentor, friend or connector who can help you see your job in a different light, or help you to begin building bridges to whatever your next step is.
- Dress for the job you want. Beyond the literal splurge on a new suit or a new pair of shoes, dressing for the job you want is also about imagining yourself with a sassy new set of skills that makes you an undeniable asset to your company. Picture your ideal job and the responsibilities and skills required by the person who does that job. Then go out and get those skills – through professional development classes, webinars or other online learning, or spending 20 minutes a day reading the publications vital to your particular segment of our little Jewish nonprofit industry. But as long as you’re growing, even if your project stalls, you’re learning from the process and becoming more valuable than the projects you’re helming. Even if your project ends up languishing in committee and doesn’t move on, you always can.
- Never burn your bridges. At the end of a job, whether you’re leaving because you want to or because you have to, you may feel the need for some sort of grand gesture – making a scene as you leave the building, writing a letter to management to tell them what they could have done better, or crafting a blog expose or tell-all memoir about life in that organization. I get it. Believe me. But also believe me when I tell you to save the “Jerry Maguire” memo for yourself. The Jewish nonprofit world is small, and if you can walk away from a less-than-awesome experience without making any enemies (or frenemies), you should, because you never know what the future holds. So write your letter – but as a journal entry, for yourself, to get the negativity out of your system and to try to learn from it as you move forward into your future.
Admittedly, sometimes it’s very difficult to stay focused on these suggestions. But maybe, as we continue to juggle professional dedication to the community and personal connection to Jewish life, these tips give us all a place to start.
(If you have other tips, feel free to share them in the comments section.)