I have a serious fear of blood draws, and yet, at 22 weeks pregnant, there is only so much leeway in putting them off. I waited for the phlebotomist in an exam room at LabCorp, my stomach churning, hands shaking. Earlier that morning, I told my husband not to come with me because I didn’t want him to see me in such an irrationally panicked state. Chanel, a petite woman in her early 20s wearing leopard print scrubs walked into my room, asked me some routine questions from her computer, and then looked over at me and said, “Are you nervous? Don’t worry, Sara, I will take really good care of you.” Her sweet gesture didn’t register through my anxiety.
She went to get the smallest needle, mostly used for children, and then calmly and gently made the insertion. I was sitting there, averting my eyes, still shaking as the blood dripped out into the tubes, and she asked me if I would like to hold her hand. As her latex glove softly held my cold, clammy hands, tears ran down my face, produced by an alchemy of fear and surprise at an act of incredible kindness. I have since told this story many times and, each time, I get choked up remembering what it felt like to hold Chanel’s hand.
In the professional Jewish community right now, we are spending considerable energy and resources developing programs and curricula to help guide our constituents toward caring for one another, developing deeper relationships with each other, asking questions that get to the core of what we care about and struggle with. I absolutely understand the drive and necessity to create systems to develop communities that care for one another; I run an organization, ImmerseNYC, that is working to develop just these types of programs.
Yet, we know in our core, that love and caring cannot only be the product of thoughtfully-crafted programs. There must be a simplicity beyond the complexity of our Jewish organizational and congregational attempts at connection and engagement – we actually just have to try to love one another. Luckily, we can each have lots of practice trying to love each other with our co-workers, our friends, our families, our phlebotomists.
When I recently shared at a Jewish professional development conference that I think we can begin to transform our Jewish institutions through the simple act of expressing love at our workplaces, I was met with chuckles and responses like, “You run a small organization, you have no idea what it’s really like out there.”
Let me make the case for love:
In her “broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions,” social psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, teaches that “…multiple, discreet, positive emotions are essential elements of optimal functioning.” Meaning everything we do as Jewish professionals will be more creative and more thoughtful if we work in environments that cultivate “joy, interest, contentment, and love.” The opposite is also true.
In our daily liturgy, we pray, “Ahavat olam…amcha ahavta – with eternal love, God loves God’s people.” If we are really going to live the word “Jewish” as in “Jewish communal professional” then let’s try to be God-like in how we treat each other. Concretely, I mean taking a few extra minutes every day to move beyond small talk. I mean asking deeper check-in questions at staff meetings, and then being willing to model an answer that is appropriately vulnerable.
Hafiz, a Persian poet of the 14th century, writes:
If God invited you to a party and said,
“Everyone in the ballroom tonight will be my special guest,”
how would you then treat them when you arrived?
And [we] know that there is no one in
this world who is not standing upon
God’s jeweled dance floor.
I like to start individual and group check-ins with our ImmerseNYC staff by asking, “How are you?” I have since learned that this is a revolutionary act, never before experienced by the wonderful women with whom I am blessed to work. That question doesn’t mean we spend the whole check-in speaking personally or that we don’t take our work together seriously; it is intended to create sacred space in my office in which we all remind ourselves that those sitting across from us are ‘standing upon God’s jeweled dance floor.’ If we treat each other as anything less, then I’m not clear what the point is of all of the good, Jewish work we are engaged in trying to accomplish outside our office walls.
At LabCorp, I was an adult woman trembling at a routine 5-minute-long medical procedure, and my phlebotomist showed me love and kindness, reminding me that I am God’s ‘special guest.’ We all are.
We will need plenty of complex strategies to reinvent and transform Jewish communal life for our time. Yet, I believe a significant part of the success of these strategies lies in striving to create simple, quiet, profound experiences of kindness and love among colleagues and in our workplaces.