Rabbinic Boundaries: Constant Availability
Updated: May 5, 2022
This is installment 1 of a series I'm going to do about boundaries in the rabbinate. Over the last few years in my wonderful job, I've realized how much my years in seminary both made me grow and indoctrinated me into some of the most unhealthy cultural aspects of the rabbinate - things like:
having too many balls in the air at the same time
coddling toxic people
hiding myself to look "professional"
I'm using this series to break these items down, because not all of them are readily apparent.
I showed up to seminary and was given a schedule for orientation. Ulpan, getting to know you meetings, dinners together to bond, evening programs. This sort of thing is all good when you're in your early 20s, but since I was there with a family and young kids, I rarely saw them or my husband. Fast forward to our stateside program, I was in class Monday-Thursday, doing traveling pulpit work on the weekends, working a required internship, and expected at evening events with Board members and travel programs.
Throughout my five years in seminary, there was barely time to do my homework for the 6 or so graduate classes I was taking, let alone time (or energy) to have a family and kids, work out, or have relationships and hobbies outside of seminary. I remember joking that if I were smart, I would have scheduled my nervous breakdown and my divorce to happen after seminary and not during it. Y I K E S.
... Have Real Rabbinic Consequences
This set me up perfectly for the rabbinate, where a full-time job usually means working 6 days a week and our one day off is often interrupted not by death or crisis, but by office mundanity, poor planning, and congregants who don't seem to realize that we don't live at the synagogue. Many rabbis deal stoically with the fact that their congregants have their phone numbers and will call them at all hours (I've gotten texts after 10pm!). Many rabbis answer every phone call in case it's a death. Many rabbis end up with Board members complaining during their reviews that they're unavailable because it takes them a day or so to get back to people in non-emergent situations. Many rabbis cut vacations short, do work on days off, and don't use all their PTO because it's too much work to put up the boundaries.
This behavior is horribly detrimental to rabbinic mental health and job satisfaction. When the rabbi can't get away and expect to not be bothered for mundanity, they feel like they're always on-call (there's a reason doctors rotate!). But seminary primes us for this expectation by using the coercive academic model to dictate for us what our time off looks like.
I've tried a whole bunch of solutions to this, some with more success than others. My people have had to get used to the fact that they can't just drop in and get my undivided attention; they need an appointment if they need my time, and no, I can't always be available this week. When I'm standing in the social hall at the oneg shabbat, if you talk to me about business, I will remind you that it's Shabbat and you should email me afterwards or else we never had this conversation. I screen my calls - all of them. I snooze texts that come in on my day off. Everyone can leave a message, even when someone has died.
Let me repeat that last thing: Everyone can leave a message, even when someone has died.
Boundaries around availability aren't just for my time off, though. When I'm at work, my cell phone is put away. I'm already working on something else for them, and I'll check my phone when I'm about to break for lunch. I'll be doing a different post about email, but I set up HUGE boundaries around my availability there. I put up my email vacation responder all the time and not just for vacation. When I'm at a conference, I'm already working and only checking email once daily. When it's Shabbat, I'm not checking email from candle lighting until Motzei Shabbat. When I'm on a day off, I'm not checking email at all. I refuse to use Slack and such apps, and my Monday.com notifications are disabled for my phone and desktop. I can only check them when I'm actively in the app.
Why I'm Harping on This
This may feel really extreme, but these are boundaries that have really turned around my job satisfaction. The ability to contact one another is one of the amazing things about the modern world, but I'm here to tell you that we've gone WAY too far in the Jewish professional world, and we must rein it in.
We are the people to whom the Sabbath was given, the people who filled the labor movements of the early 20th century. We are the original people who reminded others that we are more than our work. That the Protestant Work Ethic that America loves has seeped into the synagogue should shame us, because our entire religion was founded on the opposite premise.
Rabbis deserve hobbies and time in which to do them. Rabbis' families deserve to know when their rabbinic parent/beloved will be home (with only emergent exceptions). Rabbis deserve vacations without their computers, sabbaticals without months of additional prep work, and regular professional development opportunities where their synagogue duties are covered so they can focus on learning and growing for their communities.
Now you'll notice that nothing I say here is specific to rabbis. This goes for every worker. Part of the reason it needs to be stated explicitly when it comes to rabbis is that we have this idea of the rabbi as being "above" work. Even our sages (check out Shabbat in the Mishneh Torah) refused to call what they do on Shabbat "work" even though it absolutely was. Clergy and Jewish professionals seem to be viewed as exemplifying the awful adage of "get a job you love and you'll never work a day in your life."
This is a lie.
Being a rabbi is both my job and my joy, but I still need rest and boundaries to be a good rabbi, a stable mother/wife/daughter/friend, and a healthy person. No amount of loving your calling overrides finite time, finite energy, and finite resources. Rabbis are not exempt from these natural laws just because we're klei kodesh, and Jewish institutions need to start acknowledging it.
So what do you think? What boundaries have worked for you? As a rabbi, when have you received pushback for asserting your boundaries in Jewish spaces?