Let Me Count the Ways: Being A Jewish Professional — 5 Things You Need to Know

by Carol Oseran Starin

Sometimes things come together in interesting ways.

Last week I was invited to talk with a group of new Jewish professionals. Gloria, a new education director, asked me: Must I always be a professional? Will I always be associated with my job? Will I always be introduced as “Ms. Goldstein, the principal of Temple Sinai?”

Last week my colleague Rivy Kletenik gave a drash about Ya’akov. Jacob tricked Esau to get what he wanted. He sold a bowl of soup for his father’s birthright — the right to be the oldest — to receive his father’s blessing and all that comes with being the oldest. Something he got with that birthright was the obligation to marry Leah — the girl he didn’t want. And the trickery that began with Jacob was carried through to Jacob’s family that ended up in Egypt and 400 years of slavery. What I learned from Rivy is that sometimes personal decisions are national decisions. Sometimes the weight of the Jewish people rests on our personal actions.

Are you the principal of a school? Are you a teacher of Jewish children? The answer to Gloria’s question is ‘yes.’ We made decisions to take certain kinds of jobs — and with our jobs comes responsibility to our constituency and to the Jewish people.

Here are 5 things Jewish professionals need to know:

1. Expect to be seen.

At the grocery store and at Blockbuster. Kids are thrilled to see their teachers in ‘real life’ places doing the same things they’re doing. Use these experiences to build relationships. “Wow Sean, I didn’t know you were interested in Harry Potter!” I saw that movie, too. Come talk with me about the movie next Sunday before class.” If you’re in the x-rated movie aisle, you should be shopping in some other neighborhood. If you’re concerned that the Schwartz family will notice the bacon in your shopping cart you may need to re-think some of your decisions. We work for the community and we are part of the community. In this way our jobs are unique. We’re pretty much always on the job.

2. Keep confidences.

We work with people — lots of them. Kids, parents, other professionals, and congregants. A lot of people tell us a lot of things. Frequently people tell us about other people. Being a professional means NEVER repeating any of these confidences and never even hinting that you know something. Being a professional also means that we are not the source of private, personal information. Know that you will be quoted. We have no control over what other people say — especially about us. Know that the only mouth over which you have control is your own.

3. Always be a role model.

This may be hard to hear. But, we represent the Jewish people. We need to try to live the values we teach. We need to be ethical, honorable and politic.

• Don’t gossip or embarrass anyone.
• Be scrupulous in the ways you spend the Jewish people’s money.
• If there is political controversy with the rabbi, cantor or members of the synagogue board — stay out of it.
• If the kids are davening, you are davening with them.

4. Balance the personal and the professional.

Know your boundaries. Yes, you want to be friendly when you run into Mrs. Goldstein at the grocery store. But, if she uses this chance meeting to ask how her Bobby is doing in class, you will need to kindly, but firmly, invite her to call you at your office. Tell her that you want to be sure you can give her your complete attention. Give her your phone number. Tell her what hours you’re available.

5. Use your position and the constant scrutiny as an opportunity.

Work the room. When you’re at bar/bat mitzvah parties, weddings, ongei Shabbat, the theater–wherever Jewish people congregate — you have an opportunity to make connections and build relationships. You also have an opportunity to `sell your product’ — your auction, your third grade Shabbat dinner, your family education course.

A party is a fundraising opportunity. People give to people — not to causes. So, make sure you’re a person that people know, like, trust, and respect. A lovely conversation at Sadie’s wedding dinner can later turn into a “Mrs. Goldberg, I remember you told me that Dina was thinking about applying to NYU. I know the Hillel director there and wonder if you’d like me to make a call before you leave on your college tour.”

A few years ago (Fall, 1999) Rabbi Brad Artson wrote an article in the Spectator Magazine called “Giving The Bumble Bee A Boost: Teaching Judaism.” He began by saying that rabbis can never shop in private. One day when he was shopping at Ralph’s, the local supermarket, a five year-old from his Hebrew School spotted him. The boy turned to his mother and yelled “Look Mommy, God is in Ralph’s.” I’m sure many teachers and principals have had the same experience. As Rabbi Artson says, “When you work as a Jewish teacher, you embody the Torah. You become God’s representative.” Like Ya’akov, the decisions we make may influence the future of the Jewish people.

When you are a Jewish professional, you are, by default — if not by desire — a Jewish leader. You represent the Jewish people. The decisions you make Take it seriously. It’s an honor.