On The Outside: Life After Being A Professional Jew
Emilia Diamant is a Red Sox fanatic, dog mom, MSW, Beyoncé Stan, and executive director of Jeremiah Program BOSTON.
For some time now I’ve called myself a “recovering Jewish professional.” After six years of full-time work in Jewish institutions (both in and out of a synagogue), I took a job with a secular direct service organization. I left for a lot of reasons—I wasn’t using my Master’s in Social Work, I wasn’t fulfilled by my work, my politics kept getting me in trouble. Working in both Jewish and non-Jewish universes has shown me some serious plusses and minuses of both, and I’ve learned so much from both sectors.
Being a Professional Jew
One of the most challenging pieces of being a Jewish professional was my world that had long been idealized and sacred now became part of the daily frustration of work. There were interpersonal issues with colleagues and the underbelly of non-profit politics, plus the unique detriment of turning the place you used to pray now into a place you have to be “on.” In a small Jewish community like North Carolina, I couldn’t just hop over to a neighboring shul without being recognized. I began to feel resentful of prayer spaces because I found myself looking over my shoulder at the families in the room, wondering if they were happy or their needs were being met. Retreats with teens were rarely a space to connect with young people, but rather constant anticipation of what was next and the planning that needed to be done.
But there was joy, of course. When my grandmother died, I didn’t have to go far for people to organize a memorial service—they did so instantaneously and without my asking. Jewish holidays were automatically days off (this comes up later in my secular job), and I was often invited over for dinner in the sukkah or latkes.
Working in the Jewish community challenged me to show up as a Jew in a different way. When 50+ hours of your week are spent steeped in Judaism, I had to imagine what my identity looked like outside of work. When I went into non-Jewish spaces and someone asked what I do, I was automatically Jewish, and had to talk about the community I came from—it was Reform, it was pluralistic, it was progressive. It meant I had to define myself quickly and clearly so that what kind of Jew I was came through. Which, of course, led to lots of self-reflection.
Being a Professional on the Outside
The biggest challenges in venturing into non-Jewish work are in two categories—the big and the small. The small being that I totally forgot to take Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur off my first year at Jeremiah Program, which led to some awkward conversations with family members about where I’d be for the high holidays. The big being facing anti-Semitism in the way it shows up everywhere, not overt but quietly and with coded language.
Luckily, my years in Jewish work had prepared me for this. I have a community that has my back, that supports me and guides me through the tricky moments. I found my Jewish colleague in Minnesota and he reminded me (and our boss) that the retreat we had scheduled would need to be pushed a day to accommodate the New Year. I have friends to turn to when criticisms lobbed at me feel like thinly veiled accusations of being sneaky or conniving.
The new context has changed the way I relate to my Judaism–my holidays are more about rest and relaxation than prayer (but that’s part of my larger aversion to shul at the moment, more on that someday soon). My Jewish identity comes with me to work in the form of food; last December my mother and I cooked latkes for 15 single moms and their kids at my office. I showed them how to light the hanukkiah and sing the prayer. My Judaism is a bit more compartmentalized than it is all of me–I go to teach on Monday nights at Temple Israel Boston, where I engage with teens around Jewish values and justice. I show up at Shabbat dinners with friends from Jewish organizing fellowships. I hang a Hebrew calendar on my wall in my office. It’s not everything about my life anymore, it’s more sprinkled in where I can make it work. And that feels right, to be honest.
When Jewish professionalism consumed my life, I felt burnt out and burnt by my community. My political world was unacceptable to many in my Jewish world. I have not found the same resistance in my secular job. While I may have to do more teaching, more encouraging, more explaining, no one questions my need to express my Jewish identity freely.
So, full-time Jewish professionalism taught me a lot about myself, including the fact that when it comes down to it, I don’t want to be a full time professional. I want to figure out ways to make my Judaism part of the world I live and move in every day, one that’s more political and diverse than the ones I experienced in the past. But my hope is that one day those lines won’t feel so hard, and maybe I can venture back into the community that gave me the values I hold so dear.