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With Kind Regards: Compassionate Workplace Culture in Jewish Organizations

Parashat Behar-Behukotai

Friday, May 7

Just yesterday, a group of Jewish professionals and consultants (led by David Phillips, Harrell Wittenstein, Sara Miller-Paul, and Richard Levin) published “With Kind Regards: The Bivrachah Study,” a survey and data collection regarding workplace culture in Jewish non-profit organizations. Out of more than 400 respondents, all current or recent employees of Jewish nonprofits, only 19.4% said that they would promote working in a Jewish nonprofit to their friends or colleagues. According to their study, 22.5% of respondents felt that they were treated disrespectfully by board members and supervisors. Of those who resigned or were terminated, “50% felt that they were not set up to succeed, and 48.5% felt that someone in a higher position used their power inappropriately.” Of course, percentages do not begin to scratch the surface of the stories shared in interviews with these respondents, with issues ranging from lack of training, to miscommunication about pay and benefits, to fear for physical safety.

In August, 2019, Bivrachah set up their study in response to the oft-repeated statement, “Well, you know how Jewish organizations are…” Jewish nonprofits, like many nonprofits, are often strapped for money. As a result of a sense of family and peoplehood, our organizations often lack clear professional boundaries, organization, and documentation. Many of the people performing the bulk of the work in our organizations are unpaid volunteers or donors, whose feelings and opinions may cause friction when they are at odds with paid professional staff. Because Jewish organizations appeal to our very souls, emotional stakes are often high, even in every-day decisions like picking an internet provider or formatting a bulletin. The Bivrachah study recognizes that even though a large percentage of those who work at Jewish nonprofits feel respected and empowered by their work, even one person is too many to suffer distress from organizations built to bolster our lives and to give the Jewish people the good name towards which we strive.

We return to the Holiness Code, Parashat Kedoshim, to learn about our obligations towards employees: You shall not defraud your fellow. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning (Leviticus 19:11).

As each of these three statements are presented in succession, hundreds of years of commentators agree that financial mistreatment of an employee equates to fraud and robbery. When an employer withholds funds meant for someone else, that employer steals from the deserving party. 

In a commentary fitting for many modern Jewish nonprofits, the 18th century Moroccan Rabbi ChayimIbn Attar writes, “Your neighbor (reiekha) signifies that it is sinful, even if the offender knows that his friend will forgive him for laying hands on his property.” In so many of our Jewish communities, we grow close to those who work in our midst, close enough that it becomes too easy to take advantage of each other’s trust. In our modern Jewish nonprofits, we must remember that no matter how small or friendly of a community we are, we are also bound to treat those who work on behalf of our Jewish values with respect and dignity.

In September of 2019, a think tank for Jewish nonprofits, Leading Edge, developed the following criteria for whether a Jewish organization is a great place to work - trusted leaders, common purpose, respected employees, talent development, clear salary and benefits, and diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. The Leading Edge and Bivracha both call for an active expression of our organizational values and greater Jewish values in the ways in which we hire, train, and dismiss employees within our organizations. In recognizing the inherent Godliness in each person we encounter, we define roles and provide resources to set up our employees’ success. We check in and provide exit interviews to learn more about how to best support current and future staff. And of course, in a Jewish organization, there should be no such thing as, “A person’s only worth what we’re willing to pay.” Each staff member must be compensated with a fair, living wage.

Ultimately, that fair treatment of workers must extend beyond Jewish nonprofits, as well. For the Jewish employers in the room, whether you own a company or hire a housekeeper, you are forbidden to defraud those who work for you. For the people in the room who serve on the board of any nonprofit, you are obligated to make sure those you hire are given clear explanations of their compensation and roles. And as we’ve touched on before in this space, as consumers and donors, we all have the responsibility to do our research if we ever become suspicious of the workplace culture of the companies and organizations we support.

At Agudath Achim, we are entering a staff transition period, as Michelle prepares to move over the summer, and as we begin interviews for her replacement. I say this cognizant of the fact that several people interviewing for the Office Manager position may be listening at this moment. As we begin our transition, we look not only to our traditional Jewish text, but also, to our vision statement for guidance on best practices. Our vision statement reads:

Congregation Agudath Achim is an inclusive, egalitarian Conservative congregation in Shreveport, Louisiana, whose members are committed to each other, to active participation in worship services, to meaningful Jewish learning, and to spiritual growth.

That model of inclusivity and egalitarianism cannot end just with the members of our congregation; we address those who work in our building with respectful language and do not discriminate when we hire. We express our Conservative Jewish views by following the halakhah of providing compensation on time, whether for our security officers, our vendors, or our more regular employees. And we express those views by respecting their Shabbatot, their off-hours. Just as this space is one of meaningful learning and spiritual growth for the members of our congregation, we make space for learning and growth on the job. We show the best of who the Jewish people can be, we welcome them into our loving community, and we stand ready to answer any Jewish questions that may arise.

Ethical, compassionate treatment of those who work for and with us can become complicated, whether in a multi-billion dollar conglomerate or in a Jewish community with limited funds and volunteers. But at the end of the day, we can always turn back to Rabbi Hillel’s simple guidance in Talmud BavliMasekhet Shabbat (31a): “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary - go and learn it!"

 

Sat, June 25 2022 26 Sivan 5782