Schools, Shuls, and Hillels, Two Years Later

The following is a transcript of Episode 95 of the Identity Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer, and we’re recording on Friday, April 8th, 2022. 

So ready or not, Pesach is coming. The 12th chapter of the book of Exodus is the pivotal moment in the story of the Exodus. And I actually recommend pulling it out and reading it again. The truth is even when you get to the story of the Exodus, when we read it in the Haggadah, you don’t actually read that original story. Mostly the Haggadah is commentaries and songs, stories about the story, but what makes the original telling of the story in the book of exit is so incredible is that the pivotal climactic moment, right, when the firstborn gets smitten or smited, I guess, um, when the Israelites actually triumphantly depart from Egypt, that story is buffeted in chapter 12 by two sets of instructions on how to commemorate the story. 

One that’s told before they leave and one after they leave. Before they leave, before the exodus, we get the obligation to bring a lamb into every household, slaughtering it and eating it, putting the blood on the doorposts. And then right after the Exodus at the beginning of chapter 13, we’re given the laws of consecrating the firstborn, and in both of these sets of regulations that surround the story of the Exodus, we hear the repeated trope of the Passover story, which is about asking about the past and storytelling about it.

It’s incredible to me that even before the very first Passover takes place, we’re actually obligated to remember something that hasn’t happened yet. Isn’t it amazing that right after that first Exodus takes place, the Torah gives us the instructions about how to be obsessed with remembering it. I guess what I’m trying to notice here is the speed with which formative experiences become memories, whether we like it or not.

And I’m thinking about this, not only because Pesach is on the mind, but because I want us to pause and think about all of these memories that are already entrenching themselves in us from these past, really difficult, unprecedented two years. We’re not out of the woods from the pandemic, uh, even though the pace of getting back to some version of business as usual is varying pretty widely in our community, depending where we live and what kind of institutions we work in.

And even so, it’s not like there’s going to be some time in the future when the official memory of this period of time, what we learned and how we changed is going to be forged and then canonically established. The memories of this time and their meaninghey kick in faster than we can. We’ve talked about so much about the pandemic for the past two years, and it might still not be enough for us to fully contemplate what all of this has really meant. 

For Jewish professionals, the costs and consequences have been enormous. A year ago. I convened today’s panel of Jewish leaders to pause at the one year mark of the Jewish calendar and to discuss what COVID had wrought on their three institutions, some of our communities most cherished and sacred, the synagogue, the day school, the Hillel.

I’m grateful that they’re back now to help us mark time once again. Now, these three folks are not a representative sample. They include my shul’s rabbi, Rabbi Barry Dov Katz of CSAIR here in Riverdale, and include the head of my children’s day school, Stephanie Ives of Beit Rabban Day School in Manhattan to whom I am also married, and Tilly Shemer, my friend, and the Hillel director at University of Michigan. I think I’m supposed to say go blue.

But is there such a thing as a representative Jewish leader, it kind of doesn’t matter. They’re all passionate and compassionate individuals striving to hold together communities and to hold individuals throughout this turmoil. And on top of the pandemic have now added a whole slew of other social phenomena, the mental health crisis, which we’ll talk about today, the great resignation, developmental delays in children and teenagers, inflation, the politics of masking, and so much more to the set of considerations they have to reckon with in running great, or even just sustainable Jewish institutions.

So this show is like another installment of a time capsule. A means to pause, acknowledge the memories that have already been forged and to name the ones that need to be forged and a way for us to also take the temperature of our Jewish community and its institutions. 

So I want to start, I want to start by asking you all to take a little bit of a look back in February, 2020, remember of February of 2020. It’s hard to remember. It was like business as usual, kind of, there was something weird on the horizon, but it was business as usual. In March, 2021, when we last convened as a group, it was the eye of the storm. Uh, there was a little bit of promise on the horizon, but it was really the eye of the storm. And now in April, 2022, I want to, I want to start just by asking you about maybe the health of your institution at this point. And maybe a little bit of a view into your own experience, your own temperament as a leader, who’s had to hold together a community after two years of all of these complications. Barry, maybe we’ll start with you.

Barry: Sure. So I think, you know, your comments about memory and how we’re forming memories in real time. And being very conscious of that feels very true. For me it’s been a year that reminds me that there’s just a lot about life that is uncertain and the power of faith and the power of connection and just the cycles of intense periods of concern and equally intense periods where we’re just looking for something to hold on to. 

I think that I have, uh, become a little skeptical about predictions about what’s going to be permanent and the trends, and what’s going to be in a few months and the data and all that. And I’m just trying to get up every morning and do something. Anything that kind of moves me towards my goals. One of my concerns as a rabbi is are people going to come back to shul?

Are they too comfortable with the alternative, coffee at home, walking with a friend, curling up with a book and occasional local minyan or popping into shul every once in a while. You know what I’m seeing in my congregation, that for some people that disruption of the last two years was actually liberating and they loved all of those options.

There’s also been an incredible sense of loss. A few months into the pandemic, a woman who was in her nineties, going to shul every week of her whole life since her father built a synagogue with his own hands on Staten Island, called me and we were talking and she said, am I ever going to see the inside of a shul again?

And, she actually died this year, the week before she was planning to come back to shul and it was really heartbreaking. And there’s just a lot of stories like that, about people who have this, like yearning to go back and either they’re coming back and it’s not exactly what they thought it would be, or they’re still a little nervous to come back.

I think that the question about, for me, at least about Shabbat morning and sort of what I’m seeing there is part of a communal vision for Shabbat. Like what’s Shabbat going to be for our community? And I’m seeing people experimenting. People coming to shul who’ve never come to shul, looking for community and inspiration. 

People participating in programs. Last year, we did an online challah bake that included a video that introduced the recipe and we delivered bottles of grape juice that had a special label on it. And it was all distant. Everyone was separate, but people came out of the woodwork to bake their challah and share it with their neighbors, even though we were all separate.

And, and I’m seeing people who’ve never come to shul who are coming to shul and are really looking for something. And I’m seeing people always used to come to shul, but maybe not as regularly as they once did, were looking for something maybe that they remember and struggling with it not being quite that like all the people aren’t there anymore.

And again, on Purim, we had 90 people at the pregame for Purim, which is mostly young families. And then we had hundreds and hundreds of people in synagogue. And I, you could just see the muscle memory kicking back into gear, oh this is what shul is like. And so I’m really hoping that people are going through this iterative process of trying something, trying something a little different, are going to find their ways towards the goal.

And I hope the goal is recreating Shabbat as really the beating heart of our community. You asked about leadership? Yeah, it’s been a really hard time to be a rabbi. Uh, the logistics of adapting how discourse, I think, has been degraded because people aren’t in regular connection with each other.

There’s so many things to be upset about and to be anxious about. And all of it, I think looms much larger when you don’t have the regularity of a kiddish, of a meeting in person, those things that sort of shave down the edges. You know, for me personally, I love being with people and not being with people has been really draining.

And I think that, you know, rabbis are people too. And so we’re dealing with all of our own, you know, family stuff and communal stuff and personal stuff. And there’s really been an expectation for sure, for the first year plus of a pandemic that it would be 24/7. I think people have realized that that’s not sustainable.

And I feel like I’m still giving a lot, and also not getting back as much in the currency that is valuable to me as I once did, which is just seeing people, you know, people being part of the community. I have a lot, a lot more I could say about it, but I’ll stop. 

Yehuda: Yeah, I’ll just pull out a couple of things that you said, a couple of threads, one of them which I do want to come back to, is the question of whether or not people are going to come back in the way that they did. Um, you talked a little bit about a communal vision for Shabbat and the whole question of collective experience.

And then this whole piece, which you said at the beginning, which I also want to come back to, about predictions and the skepticism about those predictions. I’ve felt chastened by that, personally. You want to try to help people think about what’s coming down the pike, that’s why it’s easier to be a historian than it is a prophet, right? To talk about the past than it is the future. 

So maybe Tilly, you could give us your sense of both health of your institution and also how you see yourself right now, how or how you feel right now, showing up as a leader for an institution.

Tilly: Yeah. I feel very much in the middle of this still. And I know a lot of people are feeling on the other side of it, but as a leader, I feel like we’re in the middle. You know, when I look back and I think about last year, we use the language of re-imagining. I feel like we really re-imagined what we were doing as a Hillel and how we were serving our community.

This year really has been a theme of rebuilding. What does it look like for us to try to bring people back together in community, as you say, and, um, still hold caution for the moment that we’re in, and upholding safety for our students, for our staff team. And I think next year is really, I’m hopeful, is really going to be a year of rebirth.

And so I feel in the middle of that and, and planning towards that rebirth moment. So when I think about what we did last year and that we held on to this year, we’ve really sought to continue to provide, to offer, to serve, to create access points for Jewish life. I felt going into this academic year in particular, uh, just a lot of exhaustion out there.

And especially in the spaces where we were just trying to figure out how do we keep going? And then how do we start to make that shift towards more in person? And I find that in reaction to that, our own organization was doing, you know, what we could to encourage our staff to, uh, both do and stop at the same time.

Um, so as a leader, I think that I’m always challenged by how much do we push to seek out opportunities and do new things and keep going, and how much do we just stop and pause and breathe and hug and give ourselves a break. And I felt that very deeply this year, I feel like our senior team in particular is just trying to encourage each other to take vacation, take time off, check-in with each other as staff, check-in with our students more regularly. 

I find that human resources-wise, we are encouraging more remote work, working from home to navigate childcare. I think that there’s a new understanding in particular for those who are in operations that they can work, sometimes much more effectively, but in much more flexible ways than what we had before.

And I found just recently, when we posted new job descriptions, that we included language about flexible hours and working remotely for certain roles, because I think that that’s just viewed as more possible now, or even the norm. So that’s one shift and I think the patience for that, flexibility around that, has really changed us as an organization.

In terms of coming back together, I think that the siloing really impacted us. And what I mean by that is the silo in both of the social distancing and limiting social interactions, but also the silencing that we experienced by being with only like-minded people. And so last year we leaned into those silos to support students in their homes with Shabbat and holiday programming.

But then we found it particularly difficult to come back together this year and rebuild community and bring people back together and show them the value of doing that. And in that I’m not forgetting the fact that there was a lot of political polarization and seeking out like-minded people even before the pandemic.

And I think that that deepened during the pandemic and people just got used to being with their own people. So we’re really trying to find that balance now between supporting the in-the-home experiences and giving people the comfort of being with their people while also pushing people to come back together and find that joy and value in being together as a community.

And the last thing that I’ll say, different from Barry’s experience, is that when you have students that cycle through so quickly in a university environment, they don’t have that muscle memory that they’re coming back to. They have no institutional memory of what we did as an organization. And so, um, we really noticed that that institutional memory was lost and we couldn’t just rely on students knowing our culture or our calendar or what we had to offer.

And so there was a lot of reteaching and sharing what existed previously and what was possible. But I think it was also quite liberating for us because it encouraged our staff, it encouraged our student leaders, to think new and create new and imagine new possibilities for us moving forward.

Yehuda: I love that because, I know that if my shul did Purim differently next year, then you would encounter all sorts of resistance, whether or not it was a much better idea of like, that’s not how we do things, but meanwhile, in the Hillel world, I remember working briefly at a Hillel and there was like, every year, freshmen orientation has a bagel brunch, and it looks exactly like this.

And it was like Torah from Sinai. And the strange thing was nobody was ever there who had been there the previous year, except the staff. And like, but there’s a total unwillingness to interrogate that. So, so I do want to come back later on to the whole question of like the culture of innovation and change and growth and versus the use of this opportunity to pause, um, because I think it has all sorts of implications, but let me bring Stephanie in. So, so give us a sense, a little bit about the health of your institution. I’ve had a front-row seat to this a little bit, um, the health of your institution, but also how you’re feeling and showing up as a leader after two years of pandemic.

Stephanie: Well I think it’s, um, I think it’s appropriate that I’ve lost my voice right now. And that I think that if you don’t have COVID, you must be at work because now you can cover your face and not spread it. So I think it’s kind of both a literal and a metaphor for how I feel right now. 

I’m really in the place that Tilly referred to of, um, figuring out how to navigate the constant re-imagining with the importance of being anchored in who you are that everybody knows, because frankly, there’s some really special measure of magic re-imagining that can only happen when you stop the institutional re-imagining right?

Like we’ve been on a treadmill of re-imagining. And for us, uh, it started obviously with closing school, figuring out how to open school online, admitting that we weren’t going back to school in person, embracing that, opening school in person five days a week with a full-time program in September 2020. But really having to re-imagine what school looked like, because our school is, uh, for every school they had to reimagine. For us, we’re a small school where community from preschool through eighth grade is so essential to the identity and the experience. And the inability to gather was huge, right? And there was a lot of cuts, cuts of things that are, are essential pieces to the program, right?

Because of a series of COVID concerns, some of which turned out to be really important. Some of which, as we know now, were actually not that critical. And then, we went into a place this summer of thinking, going into the summer, we’re going to go back to normal. And the re-imagining we get to do is the l’chatchila re-imagining, not the b’di eved. 

It’s the by choice reimagining, not the reimagining you have to do because circumstances require that of you. So we were going into the summer, our senior team retreat at the end of school, was about, well what have we learned through this? And how are we going to keep the silver linings, right?

And how are we going to move forward on the things that we had to put pause on? And as it turned out, by the end of the summer, we were in a place of, oh my gosh, how do we reimagine school again? Now that we know more about COVID, we understand the science better. And also, um, there is a surge and we can’t keep our children eternally in this place of the not full experience.

Right. So how do we imagine the full experience, which was not the goal of 2020, the full experience within the context of COVID? And that has evolved so many times over the course of this year, there’s a depletion actually in the reimagining. For me usually, and for my team, I pride myself on having joined a place where change management is easier than anywhere I have ever been.

You bring a new idea to the teachers and it has a reason and they’re just, they jump on it here. Right. And they recognize where we are not meeting our goals. And they’re always, always willing to try something new, even if it requires a tremendous amount of learning and work for them. That is not the general culture of schools and institutions.

Right. So I have always laughed and been like, oh no change management. That’s not really a big deal here, but we’ve had so much change that what usually for us is invigorating is starting to feel depleting for the adults.Now, what I think is remarkable. And I really believe this because I look all the time for the cracks, right. 

What I think is remarkable is, the kids are doing great, right? Yes, they’re dealing with mental health issues that all children are in human beings are dealing with. Yes, we are starting to discover some language-based learning disabilities we didn’t notice before they unmasked, right? 

So there’s little things like this that we wouldn’t have imagined having happened. Um, yes, there are preschoolers who missed some critical socialization, some adolescents who missed some critical socialization, but overall, our kids have been in school in person five days a week, full time. And now we have enough research to show that that like, that’s, that is gold for these kids’ development and they’re doing great.

And I think our adults are really depleted and it’s manifesting in a few ways that make me worry about culture. And I guess I would say, I am thinking now in a way I have never thought about anything. I’m thinking about how do we move into a place over the summer where we introduce nothing new as an institution?

No new policies, no new curricula, no new big ideas. And we say to teachers, do your thing, get to your classroom, do your thing, use us to help you, but allow yourself to authentically reimagine with the kids the way that you can only do when we are not telling you what to do all the time.

Yehuda: Okay, so here, this is now a composite of all the things that you said. I think we’ve landed on something really important because what all of you are just have described in one way or another is an attempt to rehabilitate or to get back to, not life in a normal way, but to restore a sense of balance and health to the people in the shul, to your students and your staff, to your teachers, Stephanie, in all of these examples, there’s a kind of, um, how do we slow down the pace of dramatic change and growth in order to be able to just get back a little bit, to enable our people to become whole again. 

Now here’s the problem. So there are those who have argued myself included early in the pandemic, you know, “etchat otah ani mazkira yom.” Um, you know, I’ll bring back my own sins on this, um, who anticipated, and I think it’s not wrong that the pandemic was going to be an accelerant of major trends in Jewish institutional life, around denominational Judaism, around institutional affiliation, et cetera. It was going to be an accelerant of those trends. 

Jewish philanthropy in turn for the last two years, spent a lot of time saying let’s use the pandemic to make change in the Jewish community. And by the way, you see this starting to happen in major changes in the denominations around, um, rabbinical schools and major institutions.

There’s going to be, um, significant pivots and change. And one of the ways in which Jewish institutions keep pace with that change is if they are, contrary to what you said, Tilly, constantly innovating, constantly moving forward. And the problem is, right, it’s very hard to steer your boat towards a new direction when your whole crew is basically bailing out the boat in the back from all the water that’s gotten in there.

And you could say the main work right now is bailing out the ship, right? Restoring a sense of balance. But in the meantime, when you finally feel that you got in the water out of the boat, you’re further from your destination, you might be turned around, you might’ve been carried to a different place.

So how do we hold those two, it’s a microcosm question because each of you are looking at your own particular institutions and the health of your constituents and health of your people, but from a macroeconomic level, there are real concerns about the system. So how do you think about holding those intention? 

Tilly, maybe I’ll start with you because you made reference to that whole terminology around stopping a little bit around innovation, doing things differently instead of, instead, just holding your people. And it’s very moving, it’s very powerful, but how do you hold that in, in relationship to what feels to be a much larger institutional trends in the Jewish community?

Tilly: One of our major changes that we adopted, um, because we knew we needed to make a shift going into this pandemic was how we were going to support the in-the-home experience, which I talked about last year when we came together. And one of the things that we did was we recognize that we knew how to do big in our Hillel very well, and to be able to support a couple of Shabbat dinners in the home or Seders in the home every once in a while.

But we knew that we were going to have to really take an institutional shift and culture shift for our staff and students towards the in-the-home experience. And we turn to our partners at One Table, who do wonderful work at providing a platform for young adults to be able to sign up to host their own Shabbat dinners and holiday meals in their home.

And we adopted this platform for our own Hillel so that we could bring that technology to drive the engagements that we were going to, uh, that we knew that we needed to rely on to just organize the year. And what was so fascinating was that we were able to take that platform that was used primarily for Shabbat in the home and holidays in the home and, and use it for everything that we were doing, whether it was a student group leader that was now hosting a speaker on zoom, or, Hillel was able to gather people together, but we needed to limit it to 25 people and you had to RSVP.

And so we use this platform to be able to do that. And then when we thought about going into this year and continuing to use this platform, we realized that it was going to enable us to be that hybrid organization, that both supported in the home and continue to grow that, and also empowered our student leaders to use this platform to think about, how am I advertising my events? How am I inviting my peers to my events? How am I achieving my goals for this events? and then following up after the events. 

So we used the platform for everything this year, and it has enabled us to empower not just the students who are out there hosting dinner in their homes, but our own student leaders who are trying to build niche communities, micro-communities around similar interests that they hold.

So when I think about the re-imagine, rebuild, rebirth, last year, we had to completely reimagine and use this platform out of necessity. This year was really using the platform to rebuild our communities, um, in ways that showed all of the diversity of how Hillel supports our communities. And next year, my hope is that we’re going to be able to use this platform in a more innovative way to think beyond the traditional student leader, beyond the student hosting in their home, and really empower students to think about themselves as creators of Jewish life and Jewish community, whether they hold a leadership role in our Hillel or not.

So we’re hoping that there is going to be a new way of using this technology that we adopted out of necessity and really be creative about how our students are able to gather and go to a Jewish-themed movie together, or go see Fiddler on the Roof together and do that, supported by Hillel, but not necessarily organized by Hillel and really allow them to take ownership over the kind of Jewish community that they’re going to create.

And we know that it’s going to have a lasting impact on the kind of choices they make and the kind of communities that they feel they can build for themselves far beyond when they graduate from the University of Michigan.

Yehuda: Right. And in your particular example, by effectively becoming a stronger concierge, a concierge with wisdom, right, of Jewish experiences of autonomy. You actually could both do two things at once, which is create a much more innovative system for Hillel to be able to cultivate serious Jewish life and choices, and also potentially maintain a different culture among your staff.

Because the more that this happens through such platforms, yeah. You can be really flexible about where people work and where they don’t work. Right? You’re not pricing a tremendous amount of burden on staff to be in the building at all times, just in case a Jewish student happens to walk in.

But here, Stephanie, your issue is in some ways the opposite. You, you’re not talking about re-imagining Beit Rabban to be a technological platform. And yet you also said you want to take a summer in which you’re not going to reinvent or reimagine, and the school can probably absorb a summer of not reinventing and re-imagining, but I’m curious about it as a long-term piece.

Stephanie: So I’ll just say like for the culture of this institution, taking a summer to not reimagine, is actually cataclysmic, right? Like we, we do all this analysis at the end of every year with our teachers on how we’re doing in every, in every category. We get all this feedback. The teachers know that the senior team like sits on it over the summer, discusses like, what do we need to bring in here? What do we need? 

It’s educationally, it’s Jewishly, it’s relationally. And we always start the school year with two weeks of in-servicing. Okay. These are our top three goals based on what we heard from you, based on the research we’ve done. And here are the interventions that are coming in this year. They might take three years, et cetera. 

So this is actually really big in our culture. So I would say like saying no, it’s not a pause, and it’s not, oh, I hate innovation. It’s, the place to innovate right now is to go back to our foundation, because what has happened in the past two years, our foundations have been shaken.

Everybody’s foundations have been shaken, right? And I believe deeply that for a school, for sure, for kids to be able to learn and thrive, but probably for any institution and community, an anchoring sense of belonging at the founder is the foundation and everything can be built on that. And I feel like that we are in a moment where we need to say, let’s go back to that foundation.

And any innovation that we’re putting in has to be directly an advancement of that. As all the re-imagining has happened over the past few years around COVID, we have also, just like many institutions felt a really strong need to address racial literacy in our school. So we have transformed ourselves around that a new curriculum.

Over the past few years from Me Too, and other incidents, we have re-imagined child safety and our health education. We are re-imagining our Israel education. These are the kinds of things we always do. And is core to who we are. The brain science of reading, et cetera. Right now, I want to pause on every re-imagining and re-imagining COVID and say, let’s innovate in the space of how we become a stronger sense of anchoring community.

And what does that mean? That’s the hardest, because that means that you have to be present. You have to be not depleted. You need to work on the one-on-one relationships of love and trust and investing in all those things means that you really can’t be on a hamster wheel and do that with integrity. So that’s what I think we have to do.

Yehuda: Yeah. Barry, I guess the shul version of this is the sermon that you gave on Yom Kippur this past year that I had the benefit of, of hearing, a very moving sermon and one in which, this is not not usually your style, but I felt, castigated in the good way of yep, like, come back to shul. Yeah, that was the message. There was more to it than that, but it was come back to shul.

And there also is a kind of non-technological version. That’s what I think you were talking about at the beginning of, it’s not about whether this is better than it was, or we’re not fixing this. We’re not changing that. It’s just get people back to shul.

And I wonder, I wonder how that’s landing. Um, and you, you made mention to the fact that for some people pandemic was good. I liked not traveling. I liked what happened to our family’s Shabbat and holiday observances, when there was no pressure on inviting guests. So what are you seeing on the other end of that?

And especially in the synagogue market, which is one of these places where there’s a kind of constant culture of marketplace, how do you get people and hold on to them? Because people don’t think in terms of membership in the same way as they once did, how has that language of just come back to shul, it may not be everything you want it to be, but it’s really important for you to show up.

Barry: So listening to listening to, uh, Stephanie and Tilly talk, and you, I just keep on coming back to that idea, which is like, we know how to do this. Like we have Shabbat. Six days, you work really hard. And then one day you take a step back and you look, you see what it is that you did. The Vilna Gaon talks about “rega achar. Gamar hama’aseh.”

Like Shabbat is the time, like all the work is done and now you just have to take a step back. And I think what both of you described was the result of having worked really hard. And now we’re taking a step back and sort of seeing where things are and, you know, in the synagogue context, I think that that’s what we need to do.

We learned a lot over the last few years about ourselves as volunteers and as employees and as professionals and as people in the world, I think people did sort of refine what their essence was about, and there were those moments of insight. It’s easy to have those things be covered over when we just sort of get back on the hamster wheel.

But I think to remind ourselves of those things and to build in Shabbat in some form so that we can keep on coming back to those lessons learned. One of the things that was really remarkable about the past two years is how people stepped up in the congregation. Uh, our membership is strong. We’ve had a lot of people join over the pandemic.

People who’ve never set foot in our building have joined because they came to our pre-Shabbat Kabbalat Shabbat, or a class that we’ve run, or they didn’t come to anything, but they just felt this need to be part of something. And I’m meeting new members, met people who have been members for two years now at kiddish for the first time.

This is the first time they’re setting foot in the synagogue. And it’s incredible. And the other thing that’s been incredible is how generous people are. People saw the value of synagogues. And I think in a landscape where there’s lots of people who were predicting the end of synagogues and those legacy institutions are not going to be able to stand.

I think synagogues proved their value proposition really powerfully. And what I hope is that both internally we’re able to do that step back. What do we learn? And then jump back in and that some of the funding organizations that you refer to call up synagogues and day schools and Hillels and say, what did you learn about yourselves last two years?

And where can we give money to help you expand on that? Right. Instead of thinking, you know, sort of thinking in theory about what, what might be the thing, right? In moments where we’ve had a moment of insight, how could we move forward in those things? 

Like a small example, there was a, you know, we had the whole crop of kids who did their bar and bat mitzvahs on zoom. And there was a kid who did her bat mitzvah on zoom. It was a Thursday night. It was pretty much the beginning of the pandemic. It was sort of a quick turnaround to moving to that.

I’ve found that the kids were the first ones to understand like, okay, it’s not going to be what I thought, but we’re moving on. Parents, I think, had a little bit more trouble with that. So this uh, young woman did her bat mitzvah online on zoom, just her parents in the house, set up a little recording studio.

And then last year she did like the little come to shul, have an aliyah at mincha. And this year she realized like her learning, the thing that she realized was she wanted to celebrate with her community and the family came back this weekend. And it was a lovely thing. The thing that she wanted to do more than anything was to study some Torah with me and do a dvar Torah, which she did magnificently.

And like, that’s an example of like, she did that. She looked back, she realized, okay, the zoom thing was great. And it did, she felt like she was a bat mitzvah, but now I have this desire to do something a little different, a little more. And I think that we can all do that at the institutional level.

Stephanie: Can I jump in for a second on that? Um, I love that whole thing. I love everything about what you said, Barry, which is not surprising to me, but, um, the piece about funding coming to the people who have run institutions and to asking the question of what you have learnt, that is really critical because all of us are exhausted and still have to run institutions.

Right. But we need to mind the learning here and that’s where the innovation should come from. Like, if you’re going to have an innovative period post this trauma, it should really come from all of the learnings. I want to share one that I’ve had and that I need to figure out what to do with, because it’s very powerful.

And like I said, for me, learning, school, growing in all the ways that we see children growing – anchoring sense of community. Now, what has happened with our community is that it has grown drastically from the perspective of grandparents, friends, family members, joining, and because of zoom.

And because all of a sudden we became the non-physical JCC of family lives. I think a lot of schools experienced this, where they were providing sort of all these things that you usually get at shul or in your JCC or through family gatherings, et cetera. 

So, um, we just had so much grandparent involvement. Grandparents started coming to everything, to our weekly assemblies, which were online. Like they are now part of the community and the way that the kids know whose grandparents are who, and, you know, we call on them at different events we have, and they bring their stick with them. Right.

And just last week or two weeks ago, we had our first in-person Someone Special day. That’s the day where grandparents and other someones that special come to school. We hadn’t had one since 2019 in person. And I was totally blown away because I’ve done these for years. What they used to be like was guests coming into a building and you’re introducing them and you’re taking them through in a very curated way.

The people who walked into this building who have not been in this building in three years were not guests. They were fully part of the community. They knew all the kids. They knew all the staff member. The conversations we had were at a totally different level, the number of people who came up to me and said things like the highlight of our week is Shabbat B’Yachad, our Friday assembly.

Like all the events that you did is what kept us connected to our grandchildren, through the pandemic, et cetera. And like, this is also evidenced by a significant increase in giving. So in terms of giving of time, our donations have gone up substantially over COVID from the, from parents, but also from the larger community member. 

And I think people who are in schools always think about like, well, what, what should be grandparents be doing here? Like obviously want their investments, right. But isn’t it like, doesn’t it make sense to use people who are retired to work at Jewish day schools and periodically, there’s a beautiful moment that you see, like when a day school is housed next to a senior living facility, et cetera.

I’m coming out of this thing, this is community here in a very deep way that anchors the kids, that anchors the adults, and is such authentic Jewish community and logical and practically capable. What do we do with this? I would love somebody to ask me how they can invest in that.

Yehuda: So what both of you did just now was basically turned this from not just a description of this gap between innovation and kind of sustaining institutions, but a little bit of a kind of constructive exercise around what we learned as institutional leaders and how we fix these challenges.

So I want to put two big challenges out there that I think really need constructive thinking, because right now there’s a prevailing amount of anxiety. The the first is around mental health. What do institutions need right now? Primarily for young people. I mean, we’re seeing it in our, Hartman runs two high schools. We’re seeing it in our gap year program, which is quite significant. It’s been building for quite some time. Pandemic again, is an accelerant of some larger trends. But this is going to be a place where I think there just needs to be a lot more work, uh, not just young people, but adults as well.

And the second is a lot of people are quitting their jobs, and a lot of people who do what you do are quitting their jobs. I know Stephanie, you’re dealing with a real difficulties around, um, teacher recruitment. Uh, just not viewed as compelling jobs. Uh, rabbis are quitting en masse. Retirements have been accelerated.

We have this weird problem in the rabbinic world where we’re not training enough rabbinical students for the number of jobs that are available. It’s like completely weird. And certainly in the Hillel, Jewish professional world also. So, maybe we’ll start with the second one and then we’ll, and we’ll come back to mental health.

Let’s start with this question of what do we do for this field around the great resignation. And I also just want to name being a rabbi, ostensibly, you’re putting your life into it, but there are better paying jobs. They’re connected to retirement plans, but, and yet they’re not drawing a lot of sustained passion for people over longer careers. What do we do about this? 

Um, Tilly, maybe we’ll start with you. What, what do we do about this, um, this challenge around the Jewish professional pipeline, um, as it, as it hits this moment right now,

Tilly: I think so much of it has to happen before they are at the stage of being the early entry professionals. They need to see a career for themselves as Jewish professionals, whether that’s Jewish educators, whether that’s in direct service right out of college, exploring the possibility of working, at Hillel as a first step to exploring a Jewish professional career for themselves.

And I think that we need to inspire, whether it’s at a college-age or whether it’s much before, we really need to inspire with our own leadership, to encourage young people to see a Jewish professional career as a, as a possibility for themselves. And I think that we all need to think about how we are modeling a Jewish professional career for people to see this as a possibility for themselves.

The other thing that I’m thinking deeply about right now is what are the kinds of supports that we have in place for early entry professionals in Jewish institutions that make them want to stay, that make them want to have that experience for a few years at a Hillel and then go to rabbinical school or then go to get a Jewish educational degree and bring that back to the Jewish professional world.

And that’s where I think that we need to think a lot about the kinds of supports we’re offering our early entry professionals, the investment in them, the balance of their work and life. The policies we have and the encouragement we do around vacation, professional development, seeking opportunities for themselves to grow.

We’re seeing a lot of movements outside of the Jewish world around family leave policies. There’s a wonderful initiative through the Skimm called show us your leave, which is all about showing family leave policies, vacation policies, how for-profit organizations are supporting their professionals, that I think we need to bring into the Jewish professional world as well, and be much more transparent about how we are living out our Jewish values in supporting our professionals to be able to take the kinds of leaves that they want and need to build their families or to be responsive to family members that have health needs. 

So I think that that’s another area that I’d love to see grow. And then lastly, the comment that I made before about flexibility in the workplace, certainly when you have direct service professionals, it’s much harder to be working from home.

But I think a lot of our jobs, operationally, we can have greater flexibility around remote work. And I think this time has shown leaders in the Jewish community how supportive we need to be around our staff, caring for their families and being able to be responsive to their family needs when their daycares close, when their kids have to be home for 10 days.

We have figured out how to make it work in this time. And so we’ve proven that it can be done and should continue to be done, to allow for the kind of flexibility that our family, our parents need, our families need in order to be present at work when they’re present at work and then to be present at home when they need to be present at home.

Yehuda: So Barry, let me turn to you because I think the whole question about rabbis and the rabbinic pipeline, and the rabbinic resignation crisis has been the most visible place where the Jewish community is starting to talk about these questions. What do you think needs to change or what do you think is possible to change to strengthen this field, which is so, I mean, we’ve been led by rabbis for all of our most meaningful parts of our history. So, um, what do we need to do?

Barry: So, our kids are watching, they’re watching very carefully. They’re watching how their parents, adults talk to leaders, how communities are put together, how leaders of various kinds, whether the rabbis or other Jewish professionals are supported. And so I think the first thing we can do is just really reflect a little bit about how are we treating our Jewish professionals.

As Tilly said, we’re dealing with really intense emotions right now, around the pandemic and around anti-Semitism and Israel and American politics and so many other things. And as I mentioned before, the level of discourse in the country and in the Jewish community and in smaller institutions can be pretty brutal.

And I think kids are watching really carefully and some of them are thinking, do I really want to be part of that? So I think the first thing we can do is just look at ourselves and how are we acting? 

And I also think that this moment, as we get some of that perspective you talked about earlier, I think that young people are gonna realize that the disruption that they see in the world right now, that can be addressed by serving as a Jewish professional. That there is this incredible need. There’s incredible pain out there. People are trying to imagine what’s going to be next and Jewish professionals, rabbis, and other Jewish professionals. We know how to do that. We have the pastoral training. We’re very often the first addressed to, for people who are struggling in different ways.

We know lots of Jewish texts that speak of disruption and resilience and putting it back together. We have words of prayer that express the emotions of this time. And I think people are going to need that. And our kids are going to realize that if they really want to serve this is going to be a really powerful way to do that.

And I also believe that communities that are thoughtful about how they take care of their professionals, you know, all the things that Tilly said, time off, time for renewal, asking what can we do to support you in the way that you want to be supported. I think is really important. The community that I worked for, my synagogue, has been incredibly generous these last two years with extra time off for staff and for family leave.

And in general talking about sabbaticals and other sorts of time off, and that is really crucial. I think that there’s also an opportunity here for professionals to look at the laypeople who’ve really been energized over the past few years and say, you know what? You are doing bikkur cholim in an amazing way.

You know, you’re part of the pastoral team and to give those people the training so that they can really take on some of the work and also be part of the team of professionals. Years ago we had a volunteer in our synagogue named Elsie Rousau, and Elsie was a part of our staff. She was the greeter on Shabbat morning and she wrote the thank you notes to people who made donations.

And, you know, she was a model for me of what every synagogue should have. Every synagogue should have an Elsie who is part of the world of the synagogue, of the synagogue staff, and contribute so much to it and give so much wisdom and helps us. And there a lot of people who can be part of that wider team for us.

And I think people should just call their rabbi, call their Jewish professional and say, I want to be helpful. Here are my skills. How can I serve with you? You know, rabbis and other professionals have felt really alone at times over the past few years and, and people stepping up is going to be very energizing.

And like I said before, the best thing you can do is show up. Right. If your institution is doing things live, get yourself in the door. If it’s the still the zoom thing, or, like come to the things that are happening, because that is going to show Jewish professionals that what we’re doing is valuable. And I know it takes a lot to get past the inertia of, I haven’t been doing it for a long time. I’m feeling that as well, but it really does fill the souls of rabbis when people respond, say, I’m here. I heard what you said. I showed up. 

Yehuda: So, um, I want to make sure it gets to this last question, which is around mental health. And I want to hear from Stephanie and Tilly on this, cause you’re really on the front lines, from this work. It’s very visible if you have children in your home, it’s visible in schools, in Hillels, in gap year programs.

And whether it’s the loneliness brought about by pandemic, um, the way social distancing had different effects on children of different ages, masking and developmental delays. Um, what do we need to be doing as a broader Jewish community to respond to this, uh, both in the kind of triage sense, what kind of resources are needed by our Jewish institutions to deal with this and what are the longer-term kind of investments that we as a Jewish community might make to help our help those members of our community who are really struggling through this moment right now. Stephanie, you want to start us off?

Stephanie: Yes, I think this is obviously a really critical conversation and I’ll say, I don’t think it is exclusively ever about one thing, mental health. Everyone has had a simultaneous trauma. 

Right. Experiencing different traumas, but at the same time, and that makes it really difficult to support each other and be present. But there’s also a bunch of other things from it, from the perspective of children growing up through this, this trauma is something that they’ve experienced, right, that has upended some normal development in childhood. 

It’s also come at a time where you’re really, because of that age, looking at your parents and how your parents and the adults and how they’re experiencing it. So that’s another layer. Obviously it’s affected people’s financials, I could go on. But the other thing I’m noticing is there’s also been so much social upheavel. Right. And so much geopolitical upheavel. And I see our students more engaged in that than they ever were before. I think society is pretty engaged right now, or at least society we live in, but they’re more engaged in various causes of social justice than they were before the pandemic.

And I do think this is all sort of coming together. And that, that itself, while it inspires. And I was thinking about what Barry said. I think that we have kids right now on this accelerated track towards communal leadership, because they are stepping up to notice and to help in so many ways that honestly, it feels accelerated.

And I hope that we are helping them see the Jewish community’s response. And by the way, the Jewish community has done a remarkable job in a lot of these areas. So we’ve been able to highlight the rabbis, the communal leaders, et cetera, doing this. So I do think this is going to be a time that’s inspiring for kids for, I hope Jewish communal leadership, but communal leadership and involvement in general. 

I also think there is an unbelievable heaviness that our children are carrying between the intersection of these things and the awareness and recognition of like all that is broken. And so I’ll say that, and I’ll also say it is virtually impossible to find a therapist on the Upper West Side right now for any child, no matter what you are willing to pay. For anybody who is struggling financially, because as you all know, a therapy session of $300 a session is like a bargain, in Manhattan, at least. If you’re financially struggling, I’ve never seen this, like this kids cannot get therapy that they need. 

And the whole issue of like, not being able to hire in schools, that’s not a Jewish issue. That is an issue, like, people are just leaving education in all capacities en masse. I think that has to do with the fact that like all that flexibility, Tilly, that you described. Everybody wants that now. Everybody sees that now. You can’t have that in education in the way that it’s structured. You’d have to blow up the whole system.

And all we have learned in the past couple of years was that being at home, blowing up the system in that way, frankly didn’t work. Right. So I think that exhaustion is in large part for teachers, the people who work in schools, in comparison to what the rest of the world is experiencing. But that includes school psychologists. That includes mental health. I have had some conversations with some funders here about trying to help students access, um, the mental health that they need and staff. You know, people have been helpful here and there, but I wish there would be a massive intervention to support our children in this, in this world.

I wish I weren’t asking. I wish I were being told not, oh, you have to create it, but okay. You know, this group is going to provide this to schools. You don’t have to apply. You don’t have to write a whole explanation of it’s necessary, what you’re going to do with the money. Just sign your kids up, right. And, your parents of your kids up. That’d be huge.

Yehuda: Tilly, you know, obviously you’re on the frontline of this as well. Every Hillel director I’ve spoken to over the past two years has said, that’s the work right now. Hillel directors are essentially first responders.

What do we need to do as a community to help support you in this work and to help support this field, both for its own sake and also so that Hillel directors can also be Jewish educators, Jewish communal professionals, people who inspire. I just feel like we need responses on both of those fronts.

Tilly: I think that’s right, Yehuda. And I think many people out there think that the issue that weighs most heavily on us as Hillel directors is Israel on campus. And when I speak with my colleagues or when I consider what keeps me up at night, it’s the mental health of our students and the social and academic pressures that they’re under. And let’s add to that. The pressures that their family members have been under and the tremendous impact losing a parent or a sibling to suicide has on them, which is something that we’ve experienced this past year. 

I’m not sure whether this time has exacerbated the mental health crisis or whether it is just shining a more powerful spotlight on the issues that students were already facing and the pressures that they experience.

When I think about my own Hillel and others out there across the country, we’re taking this very seriously by adding to our staff teams, professionals or interns with social work backgrounds, to I recognize that I’m not a social work professional and others on our team are not. And we, we need to have internally on our staff team. Or very accessible and just outside of our staff teams,  resources, where we can direct students to, that don’t have a three week, five week, six week waiting list in order to see a professional. 

And it has to be integrated into our regular offerings of what we do as a Hillel. So for example, we started a weekly discussion group here for students who were looking for communal support that is led by a social work grad student, something that we’ve never done before.

We’ve added to our social media, weekly tips from staff and students around mental health breaks and activities that they can do. And one student told me just last week that they have been meditating every day since the first meditation class that she took with this communal support group, probably about two months ago, which really assured me that we are having a real lasting impact on our students in this area.

I’m sure that there are many people out there who are thinking, what does meditation have to do with building Jewish community? And to me, it has everything to do with giving our students the tools and resources, to lead a healthy life. And the fact that they are finding that in their Jewish community makes me feel like we are being responsive to our student needs.

What I hope is that participating in Hillel itself is that mental health break for, uh, students. I once had a students, uh, tell me after a mussar class that I was teaching, a Jewish learning class that, that they felt every time they left this class on a Wednesday night, that they felt like they were walking out of yoga. That’s what I want our students to feel when they’re walking out of a Jewish learning experience at Hillel, a ritual experience at Hillel, a social experience at Hillel. I want them to feel like they have community, that they have people who are here to support them, that they have that sense of separation and the opportunity to breathe and to just be themselves when they come to Hillel.

That’s going to have a lasting impact on our students and the way in which they’re able to navigate the social and academic pressures during their time on campus. And hopefully give them the tools that will continue long after they graduate from our university.

Yehuda: No, it reminds me, I had a colleague at Hartman years ago, who used to say that our programs for rabbis were like a spa for rabbis during the summer. And I, I didn’t like that language cause I was like, no, it’s hard work. Rabbis are coming to learn. We want them to come learn. and you know, maybe, maybe it’s not so bad to be a little bit spa-like.

And it echoes with what Barry said early on of like Shabbat is actually a day of rest and, and coming to shul and, and reprioritizing those Jewish experiences as experiences of real restfulness and something different is, is a big piece of this story.

Tilly: I’ll just add one thing that I’m noticing, that the first Jewish professional conferences that we’re seeing, where we are gathering again for the first time, they are very different in their agenda and in their location. The directors of a Hillel International convened directors in Florida. And it was a very light agenda and very heavy on pool time and mealtime and social time. The Jewish Funders Network just had their gathering in Florida as well.

I think that there’s a real recognition right now that our Jewish professionals too need this time to be able to come together with their colleagues again, have light agendas that are light on the heavy contents and heavy on the lights gathering and being together. And to feel like you can stop and breathe yourself as a professional as well.

I’m curious to see what the long-term impact of that for our own professional developments is going to be moving forward.

Yehuda: That’s a good insight. I, I, we had, took our team to Ramah Darom a couple of weeks ago, and it was a rigorous schedule cause we have a lot of work to do after two years of, of not being the same place. But I think the most memorable parts of it were singing by the campfire and playing beach volleyball.

And to notice that that’s part of why it is what we do, what we do. Uh, and I’m grateful to all three of you. I think I heard throughout this conversation. You know, especially around how to inspire, uh, in this work. You know, you talked about tools of resilience. A lot of what we most recently talked about, especially around mental health, are about giving people tools of resilience.

But I think what ultimately drives people into this work is what drives very visibly all of you, which is belief in transcendence, belief in something bigger, in the Jewish people, in God, in Judaism, in the state of Israel, those kinds of commitments are why we stay in this work, even though it’s unbelievably difficult and it’s been really hard for the last two years. 

And I would love to see more and more role models like, uh, like all three of you, telling that story and showing up in the world to motivate more people, to give their professional lives to the Jewish people. So thanks to all of you for listening to our show and special thanks to my guests, Tilly Shemer, Stephanie Ives, and Rabbi Barry Dov Katz.

Identity Crisis is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. It was produced this week by David Zvi Kalman and M Louis Gordon, edited by Gareth Hobbes and mixed by Cory Choi at Silver Sound NYC with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz and music provided by so-called. Transcripts of our show are now available on our website, typically about a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, you can visit us online shalomhartman.org.

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