Erica Brown

Jewish career counseling

Literary critic Anatole Broyard once wrote, “To be misunderstood can be the writer’s punishment for having disturbed the reader’s peace.” Readers should be disturbed. It wards off complacency and demonstrates that something published takes on its own animated life, owned not by writer or reader. The fact that it may be taken out of context or intended for a different readership may not matter, given the motility of social media today.

This became evident to me in relation to a recent article of mine in the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. Asked to reflect on my career in Jewish education as a woman, I wrote explicitly that I could not recommend my path to younger colleagues.

The article spawned important comments, some defensive, others more empathic, some angry. Mostly, there’s a lot of confusion, particularly in the Orthodox community. The reactions remind me that, try as we might, gender issues are unavoidable; they still keep us up at night. They are more personal and more complicated than someone else’s problem or someone else’s opportunity.

The misunderstanding for me emerged because of the intense stress on title and not on career path in the responses. Having a title in front of your name is important, but it does not mean you have a career. It means you have a qualification. The practical and existential question is what you’re qualified to do and what you actually do with that qualification.

I have a very blessed professional life. Needing to work really hard is not a reason to suggest alternatives to interested mentees. Hard work gives our lives structure and purpose and provides avenues for genuine contribution. It stretches and shapes us. It’s what God asked of us in the very first days of creation.

But right now, no matter the effort, I could not advise my own daughters in good conscience to pursue a career in Jewish adult education. My reluctance is based on both the lack of communal commitment and opportunity in the field and around a more fundamental question: is a professional pursuit a job or a career? In close to 30 years of teaching Jewish adults, it’s often been a continuous patchwork of meaningful encounters that bring people and ideas together. That is not a career, even if it’s been very worthwhile.

I have spoken to dozens of young female (and male) educators who find that the episodic, part-time nature of their employment is a source of tension and dissatisfaction. They wish someone had told them earlier to have a back-up plan. It all seemed more glorified from the outside looking in than it did when they realized that year after year, they were struggling not only with a comprehensible job description, but with having a “real” job. Funding was only for a few years. An organization changed priorities. A centralized agency shut down.

Responsible career counselors and mentors ask seekers about skills, talents and passions, and then funnel them into career choices that have financial security and potential for growth and promotion — not once, but many times. By security, they mean a decent salary, health benefits, and a pension. Hobbling together a string of part-time responsibilities with one or multiple institutions and no benefits is not a career. Careers, unlike jobs, offer professional networks of like-minded individuals, conferences, specialty publications. Who you talk to, what you read, and continuing education help professionals get better at their jobs. There are obvious measures of evaluation and success, chances to fail and platforms for excellence, and usually someone to help you get there. There are departments and teams and opportunities for meaningful collaboration — not in all jobs, but in ones that stand out as having enduring appeal and impact.

Advising young people about their future is an honor, a terror and a sacred task, so I have to be candid. Meaningful work is not a sufficient reason today to pursue a professional path. Besides, this is not to call out young women who are trying to make a dent in the Jewish universe. This is giving a cold, hard stare at organizations that have not created genuine career opportunities for women. This is not an Orthodox problem, even if the Orthodox community lags noticeably. Our Jewish dollar is still not a male Jewish dollar. Our rights and benefits at work — especially for those in early stages of motherhood — are woefully behind. This is not Sweden. It’s not even mainstream corporate America.

Work does not have to have a linear path. Yet there does need to be a clearer path for female Jewish scholars. It’s too murky and unreliable today. Don’t be satisfied with a title on a business card unless it comes with an office, a good, regular salary and benefits, clear opportunities for promotion and professional growth, supportive colleagues and a chance to actualize some dreams. You’ve worked too hard to get here to settle for anything less.

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).