Twice before, at turning points/new beginnings in my career, I wrote and shared musings for parashat Re’eh entitled B’lo L’sav’a. It seemed fitting at yet another new beginning to revisit this theme again.
Some of you know my history, some do not. I was trained in childhood as a musician and scientist. As fate would have it, I wound up with a career in the performing arts – and not even onstage, but backstage. I was happy in my career. The twists and turns of life brought me to a place where participation and involvement in the Jewish community became important to me. I started by using my musical skills in service to Judaism, but was soon drafted into teaching as well. It wasn’t long before I found myself as the director of a supplemental school. As my passion grew, I decided that I needed to commit myself to working full-time in the Jewish arena. I went back to school, studied theology (not exactly a typical path, but that’s a story for another time) and began to support myself solely through work in the Jewish community.
I wish I could have said “began to support myself solely as a Jewish educator” but the reality is it wasn’t enough. Even teaching full-time at a day school I found it necessary (not just desirable) to supplement my income by using my musical and technology skills. Without additional work as a synagogue music director, teaching at local synagogue schools, plus the editing I did for Torah Aura, the parnassa, the means of livelihood, would be insufficient.
In the years since, I have returned to serving in an administrative capacity for synagogue supplemental schools. While the parnassa was better I still found it inadequate without continuing to be involved in other activities-musical, educational, and even theatrical-yet all Jewish.
Then I relocated again, and the economy went south. While I was able to piece together a little supplemental school teaching, bar/bat mitzvah tutoring, and occasional musical gigs, the ever slowing spigot led to a prolonged bout of under employment and even periods of complete unemployment. It wasn’t fun, and even began to dampen my passion, something I thought wasn’t possible.
Though I sought work as a supplemental school principal, the pickings were slim, and many synagogues, in poor financial health, couldn’t offer me reasonable compensation and benefits for someone of my age and experience. Luckily I was open to a sideways/lateral career move, and now I start a new job as music teacher for a day school on Manhattan’s upper west side. I am still going to have to supplement that work (especially given the cost of living in NYC) and will likely continue to be wearing lots of different hats.
I certainly made some poor career choices if financial security and comfort was my ultimate goal. The theater business, the music business, and Jewish education (I refuse to call that a business – and thinking of it as a business has been the cause of a lot of the problem we have with it) – none of them known for being particularly lucrative (well, as in any profession, some people do make a great living in the performing arts and music-but for every star there are hundreds of others who toil in the vineyards.)
Yes, I like nice things. I like to live in nice places. Yet I still value some intangibles more than property and lifestyle. I have learned that quality of life is dependent not just on economics. I enjoy what I do. I am passionate about it. In my careers, I have experienced some of the best and worst that these professions have to offer. Right now, I’m just beginning to shake off the effects of a pretty strong challenge to my passion and enthusiasm. My flame got pretty low for a while-almost just embers, truth be told. The spark remained, and slowly, beginning with my part-time work last spring as a substitute music specialist for a NYC synagogue, and my just completed stint as a music specialist for the 92nd St Y day camps, I can feel the flame rekindling. Those positions both showed me that I still had deep wells of passion and enthusiasm on which to draw – and I hope and pray that those deep internal sources become renewed and replenished as time goes on. They have been depleted pretty heavily, but somehow (or through the aegis of someOne) they never ran dry. Once again explaining why the haftarah for Re’eh speaks to me so strongly:
Isaiah Chapter 55 1 Ho, all who are thirsty, Come for water, Even if you have no money, Come, buy food and eat: Buy food without money, Wine and milk without cost. 2 Why do you spend money for what is not bread, Your earnings for what does not satisfy? Give heed to Me, And you shall eat choice food And enjoy the richest viands. 3 Incline your ear and come to Me; Hearken, and you shall be revived. (JPS)
When I first wrote a musing on this theme, I said I'm wasn’t going to offer excuses for the paltry salaries paid to Jewish educators, and I stand by those words. It remains a shanda, an embarrassment to the entire Jewish community. We have not put our money where our mouth is. On top of the already dismal pay, benefits, etc. we now have the additional complications of the bad economy and the changing face of Judaism and Jewish Education.
Something I’ve not written about before when musing on this theme, however, is the tendency of synagogues and other Jewish institutions to take excessive advantage of the passion of their undervalued staff.
I was reminded of this just the other day by a tweet that called my attention to a discussion on the Darim Online blog jewpoint0.org about an all too common reality in the Jewish (and larger religious/non-profit) community – the accidental techie. You know – the person who by default of knowledge, ability, passion, and volunteerism becomes the synagogue’s tech or web site or social media point person. I added these thoughts to the discussion:
I’d like to expand the category to talk about people like myself – the “professional” accidental techie – i.e. synagogue staff who become defacto IT, web, and social media support and point persons. I have to admit that, as a social deviant, I allowed, and often pushed, for this to happen so I wonder how often it’s truly accidental? As a digital naturalized citizen (my self-coined term since neither digital native nor digital immigrant describes me) who has been active in computing and online since 1980, I have decades of experience as the “accidental techie” and have always enjoyed it. However, I have always worked hard to insure I was not indispensable in that role-keeping things as transparent as I could, so that, inevitably, when I moved on, there was continuity. Unfortunately, not all the places I worked took the hints, and they suffered as a result. Synagogues have a long and sad history of abusing the “and other duties as assigned” clauses in employees’ contracts, and while I have always enjoyed the addition of tech responsibilities to my work, I have on occasion come to resent the dependence and expectation – and the continued insistence to only use volunteers or staff who have other primary duties for this work. Yes, every synagogue has money woes. My own inability to find work as a synagogue educator and thus having to move sideways into other Jewish work is ample evidence. Yet in this digital age, synagogues need to invest in having staff with primary responsibility for technology/social media/etc. Woe unto those who continue to rely on the accidental techie. Wow, when I consider how much more money I could have been making if I were a computer/IT professional instead of choosing to dedicate my life in service to Judaism…
Nevertheless, while I may be a bit older, wiser, and cautious, and I may lament about it a bit, I’m still the passionate and eager accidental techie when asked. In addition to musical and technology skills, my employers over the decades (synagogues, JCC, etc.) also happily plumbed the depths of my theatrical skills, getting me to set up, fix, and adjust their sound systems, or stages, etc. I was even crazy enough to volunteer to be the technical coordinator for those two crazy mass synagogue choir concerts the DC Metro area Jewish community put together for the 350th anniversary of Jews in America, and the 60th birthday of Israel.
Part of me feels like Sancho Panza wanting to ask Don Quixote why he does what he does, and part of me feels like Don Quixote, trying to explain to Sancho the depth of my passion. I’ve always had passion for things, and even in my careers before devoting myself to working full-time in the Jewish community, I had the passion of which others would willingly take advantage. At first, I couldn’t help myself.Then I entered the denial phase where I simply convinced myself I was only doing all this extra stuff because I wanted to do it. When I look back and see how much I did for love in the theater business, working for all those community theaters for little or no compensation, in addition to my full-time work in theater I recognize that this is just who I am. I have come to terms with it. I’m still bad at saying no, but I have a little more self-awareness than before. (Or so I’d like to believe…)
It is nice to know that now feeling continually called to work in service to our faith and tradition, I, and most of us (if not all of us) in Jewish Education realize the truth revealed in Isaiah's words:
Lama tishk'lu-kesef b'lo lechem; vigiachem b'lo l'sav'a? Why do you spend money for what is not bread, Your earnings for what does not satisfy?
I love what I do. It does give me satisfaction. I like things, I like comfort, but not so much so that I would give up the joy of doing work I enjoy doing for the sake of just having more money, more things, more comfort. If I have any “b’lo l’sav’a” in my life – a lack of satiation – it is not in the way this of which this text speaks. If I hunger, it is for more of what I already do with passion. I could be in another profession, and earning much greater amounts of money to spend and save. Yet I could not do this in a profession about which I was not passionate and be happy.
I cannot say it better than I did in my previous musings on this theme:
Even the minimal salary of a Jewish educator is a king's ransom when it is spent for what is truly bread, and for what truly satisfies. The bread and satisfaction that is available to those who worship Ad”nai and follow G”d's ways. To those who seek to teach these ways to our children.
By reinvesting what I earn back into the Jewish community, by seeking to live by G”d's commandments, by showing khesed and acting righteously, I get greater value for my money. The commitment of a Jewish educator to the future of Judaism opens the door to riches beyond imagination.
©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester
Portions ©2003 and 2000 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Re'eh 5770 Meating Urges
Re'eh 5766-Lo Toseif V'lo Tigra
Re'eh 5765--Revised 5759-Open Your Hand
Re'eh 5761--Our Own Gifts
Re'eh 5760/5763--B'lo l'sav'a
Re'eh 5759--Open Your Hand
Re'eh 5757/5758--How To Tell Prophet From Profit