Addressing Burnout Among Jewish Professionals


Before the trauma hits, why not discuss professional challenges and what we can do to embrace them, writes the director of Jewish studies at a Bryn Mawr day school. 

During a recent con­versation among colleagues about the privileges and challenges that go along with working in the Jewish community, one colleague put it this way: “It can be pretty traumatic to work in the Jewish community.”

“Traumatic?” I asked.

“Sure,” my friend replied, “I’m not talking about physical trauma, but I am talking about emotional trauma.”

“When I think of trauma,” I offered, “I think of medical emergencies, red blinking lights and altered states of consciousness. Permanent damage.”

“Well,” she countered, “when the economy goes downhill, when clients move away unexpectedly, when a board of trus­tees acts hastily or when a professional staff member acts impulsively, ripples of trauma can change the tenor of an organization.”

I began to see her point, but I began to feel a little uncomfortable, too.

I’m sure that I speak for many — if not most — of my colleagues when I express the pride I feel daily for the opportunity to touch others’ lives in meaningful ways. As a teacher and day school administrator, I work with young people, their parents and their devoted teachers. I know a number of other Jewish communal professionals who work with elderly people, preschoolers, Holocaust survivors and new immigrants; some of us are academics and others are organization people. All of us, whether we teach, offer job-hunting advice, provide counseling and health care or manage organizational logistics, do our best to let Jewish ethics inform everything we do.

Many of us entered the field in our idealistic years, just out of college or graduate school. Now, in the middle of our lives, we know that our values have to live in tension with other considerations, some of which might even threaten to compromise our values. In schools, for example, we have to weigh the costs and benefits of small classes, certain kinds of technology and a host of financial issues that are handled by the business office. We also have to check whether our school’s mission is in sync with what prospective students and their families are seeking in a day school.

There are times when Jewish professionals may feel under-appreciated in the rough and tumble of things. We are aware that economic pressures are forcing difficult decisions on many nonprofit organizations, from social service agencies to hospitals, where the client base has expanded and the professional staff has either shrunk or taken on an increased workload.

In some cases, demographic changes, outsourcing and technological advances have changed how we deliver our services. Amid all these developments, it is not surprising that many professionals  feel a measure of insecurity even as we continue to teach, build community and serve others every day. At the same time, being professional also means recognizing the difficult truth that without fiscal responsibility, our beloved institutions might not have any clients or students left. The challenges of our era are very real.

In addition to my professional roles at a day school, I also serve as a lay leader on the executive committee at our family’s synagogue in Mount Airy. So I have the privilege of seeing the lay-professional relationship in action from both sides of the table. There is nothing simple about serving as a lay leader and having the responsibility of perpetuating an institution’s mission and vision in this challenging era.

So what can we do to avert institutional and personal trauma? Let’s continue the conversation about professional challenges and let’s learn what we can do to embrace them. To that end, a group of us working in the field has planned a conference for Jewish communal professionals in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

This conference will bring together Jewish professionals from all denominations and disciplines and provide opportunities for text study, thinking about leadership, dream interpretation and other kinds of meaningful dialogue and personal growth.

At this time of year, we see many references in our Torah readings to the “stiff-necked people” whom Moses was charged with shepherding through the desert. With this conference, we are offering an opportunity to loosen up our stiff necks and, ultimately, to promote the best possible workplaces for the future.

Rabbi Judd Kruger Levingston, Ph.D., serves as director of Jewish studies at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr. He is the author of Sowing the Seeds of Character and is a member of the Germantown Jewish Centre.  For information on the daylong conference on Feb. 4 at Gratz College, visit the Facebook event page, “Serving the Stiff-Necked People in Challenging Times.”