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  • Writer's pictureSara Zober

Jewish Professionals Can't Self-Care Our Way out of Burnout

Yeah, I said it. Well before the pandemic, as early as 2006, we began to see rabbis burning out in greater numbers than before. In 2010, the NYT wrote about this being a problem across denominations and religions; clergy were in serious trouble. The NYT postulated that cellphones and social media have exacerbated the 24/7 availability of clergy, while boundary issues and the shrinking pool of volunteers (the NYT blamed this lack on the two-income families that are now the norm) have caused us to take on more tasks than our predecessors ever have needed to do. We are also hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and stuck in mostly associate and assistant jobs, experiencing a vastly different financial reality than our predecessors, many of whom were senior rabbis by the time they were 40.

And then the pandemic hit. By October, rabbinical institutions were begging synagogues to give their rabbis a dedicated, post-High Holidays one-week break. (Spoiler alert: most rabbis, myself included, were too busy to even see the op-ed advocating for our time off.) Compounded upon the stress of nurturing a community through a pandemic are now the additional stresses of learning new technology, managing tech and ritual simultaneously, keeping up with congregants from a distance, more funerals than we've ever done, and for those of us who have school age kids at home, doing all of this while juggling their remote or hybrid schedules. And I and many others also had to renegotiate contracts through this, as well. Yikes.

I don't even have to mention this past year's politics and polarization. You're overwhelmed too, right?

It's no wonder rabbis are burning out in record numbers. I'm only three years out from ordination, and already know two people who were in school with me who have left the rabbinate entirely. After two weeks of I-didn't-check-a-single-email vacation (but I did field many calls and texts, oy), I'm only beginning to see a way out of the exhaustion that's accumulated since last March.

And let's be clear about what vacation looks like for clergy. The two weeks before you leave are done in double-time, making the resources for others to do the services and other things while you're away, getting coverage, praying that the bat mitzvah families don't implode when you're not there to field questions, and worrying about that board meeting where you won't be present.

Then you put up your vacation responder, power down the laptop, and a short while later your phone rings. "Sorry, rabbi, I know you're on vacation but it's a really short question..." Then you get a text from someone who doesn't check their email (so probably never got the notice you were on vacation). Then a board member calls to ask if they should strike these membership units from the record or if we want to give them one last call. (Of *course* we want to give them one last call - we're still their rabbis whether they're members or not.) Then someone dies, someone else needs a visit at the prison, and the hospital calls because a Jewish family is taking a loved one off life support.

That's what vacation looks like.

The reality is that we're really not that indispensable. We're just highly respected, managing a volunteer staff, and everyone wants to consult the rabbi and make sure things are done correctly. I appreciate it. But even responding to each of these with "I'll get back to you when I'm back in the office on X date" takes a LOT of emotional energy and makes taking time off an effort in itself.

These are our people and we love them and care about them. But we clergy also need a break to recharge, and those breaks that were hard to get before the pandemic are ABSURDLY HARD to get now. We all need downtime. Not a bubble bath, not drinks once a week with a girlfriend, not a massage. We need real downtime where we can handle our own stuff. Our own lives. Where we sleep and binge Netflix and go on dates with our spouses without our phones or vacation with our kids and don't check email. We need other, regular, scheduled breaks where we the time to learn and read and study and think up amazing things to teach you and programs you'll love.

These breaks make us better rabbis, but they also make communities healthier. It's not good for a community to rely only on professional staff for all their events and services. It's not good for the rabbi to also be teaching religious school and tutoring the bar mitzvah kid and running the youth group and doing the hiring and running the PowerPoint and making the PowerPoint and writing for the newsletter and okaying all the copy writing for the website and and and...

The only way we will get our rabbis out of this awful burnout cycle is when the Jew in the pew steps up and says that they're interested in helping to make things happen. When the rabbi again becomes the spiritual center of the synagogue instead of mainly the administrative center. When "rabbi" once again means "teacher" and not CEO. In my opinion, the decline of healthy Jewish communities has absolutely nothing to do with our intermarriage rate, assimilation, demographics, Israel, or any of the other stuff. It has to do with our fee-for-service model here in America and the use of rabbis as administrative heads and managers of synagogues.

We can do all these administrative jobs. A rabbi is usually a capable, jack-of-all-trades. We are usually caring and loving and willing to do whatever needs to be done for the betterment of the community. The question isn't can we do these jobs. Rather, the question should be are we the best person to be doing this job? And also what are we not doing because we're doing this instead?

We need to remember that rabbis are a finite resource. We have finite time and energy and everything we do means that we're not doing something else. What that looks like is this:

You want a religious school for your kids? I appreciate your tuition fees, but what I really need are teachers, aides, someone artsy to do a bulletin board in the hallway, someone handy with the skills to mount a TV in the classroom. I want to be writing amazing curriculum and training teachers to grow their Hebrew skills, but right now I'm spending my time trying to hire teachers, make sure they get their employment paperwork in, find subs, and clean out the classrooms from last year.

You want me to write great sermons and learn new music? I'd love to, but now I spend a lot of time where I used to think and write making PowerPoint Digital Siddurim so the people online can follow along, and making sure that I do all the data entry to ensure that the artists who write the songs we sing get fairly paid.

You want me to sit with your child and help around bar and bat mitzvah? Happy to, but in order to free up time, someone else needs to coordinate the payroll for tutors, manage the schedule, and stay on top of your kid to practice. If I'm doing those things, I don't have time to meet repeatedly with your child to help structure their d'var Torah, to teach Trope to an advanced kid, to calm your nerves about your baby turning 13.

We, as a Jewish world, need to take a breath right now. We need to look at our institutions and ask some basic questions, because priorities have gotten terribly out of whack. Here are a few good questions I'd invite us all to consider:

1. Are our professional staff (rabbis, cantors, educators) doing jobs that necessitate their expertise?

2. How much of our professionals' portfolios are administrative work that can be outsourced?

3. What resources do we have to reach out and find volunteers to help take some of this work?

4. What is the culture of volunteerism at our institution?

5. What do our professionals feel like they need more time to do? Study? Meet with congregants? Write? Teach? Network?

6. What are we doing that we're wasting time or energy on? Do we really need to be doing a newsletter every week? Or would it be better to do a less frequent newsletter and focus professional energy on the website? On a blog? On education?

7. How can our larger umbrella organizations help us? The URJ, CCAR, AAC, local Federation, Board of Rabbis? How can we collaborate so we can fill some of these gaps rather than all of us inventing the wheel all the time?

We have a wonderful opportunity to look inward and take stock of what we are doing as institutions and as individual professionals. We can make these jobs and our communities healthier by taking communal responsibility for our institutions and the health of our professionals as well. This will both help address our rabbinic burnout problem and make our communities more healthy by distributing the energy more equitably.

Not only that, but this will energize the laity and empower them to take ownership and control of their own communities. And when rabbis have lay people who are committed and involved and excited, we are better able to give more energy than we normally could, staving off what might normally cause burnout and exhaustion. Rabbis' portfolios will always expand to fill our time and energy, but with this enthusiastic partnership between the Jew in the pew, their rabbi, and our wider Jewish community, our communities will continue to grow even in the absence of rabbinic attention because the community itself is engaged and inspiring to everyone involved.

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