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Our Profession Is Not Your Hobby

Synagogue volunteers make the Jewish world go round.

Step into any synagogue in North America and you will quickly find entire ecosystems of volunteers who bless their communities with their talent, their selflessness, their resources and their time. Without volunteers, there is no temple food pantry that feeds hundreds of families in the local community. There is no support group for parents of adult children with disabilities. There is no new member welcome breakfast, no family mitzvah day to clean up the local beach, no beautiful co-created art on the walls of our sanctuaries. Without volunteers, much of the programming and engagement opportunities we take for granted at our Jewish institutions would simply disappear. And… years of synagogue volunteering is not equivalent to years of professional training. Giving a beautiful eulogy at a funeral does not make one a Rabbi, being able to sing Aveinu Malkeinu does not make one a Cantor, and 10 years on the Building Committee does not make one qualified to be a synagogue Executive Director.

Synagogue work is a craft. Building strong Jewish institutions requires knowledge, finesse, education, and training. It is insulting to imply that anyone with a love for their synagogue, or expertise in a somewhat related field, could fill that role simply because they care.

If you walked into your hair salon and were introduced to your favorite stylist’s daughter, who wanted to try her hand at cutting hair as a personal hobby, it’s likely you wouldn’t sit down in that salon chair. Nor would you return to a dentist who was actually a retired real estate agent, or hand your iPhone to an Apple Store Genius who was just pitching in on their day off from their florist business. Yet somehow, it’s not abnormal to work at a synagogue and have essential work processes managed by someone’s niece with an interest in social media, or a past board member who just really wanted to “help out” in something they may or may not know all that much about. We get it - budgets are tighter than ever, quality staff members are difficult to find, and sometimes there really are congregants with expertise they are willing to graciously donate to their communities, and for that we are grateful. But, when the line between staff member and volunteer gets blurry, it is to the detriment of the organization as a whole, and may actually do more harm than good.

Synagogue staff members have contracts. They have salaries, performance expectations, annual reviews, and supervisors. They are held accountable for the work they do, and they report to someone who can give them direction and guidance. Volunteers do not, and that means that they’re under no obligation (other than their good intent) to conform to workplace expectations set by leadership.

When a well-meaning (and likely budget conscious) lay-leader suggests replacing the work of a paid staff member with a volunteer, the message that comes across is that the labor is not worth paying for, and that the skill set and expertise that synagogue professionals have spent years honing and crafting can simply be exchanged for someone with limited experience or knowledge of the field. And, while it’s unlikely that any synagogue has the budget to pay for every single staff member they’d like to employ in an ideal world, skilled work is best done by skilled professionals and those people deserve to be compensated.

Volunteer work is extremely valuable, and it is a pillar in Jewish communal life. When we misappropriate it, we run the risk of burning out our lay leaders, and lowering the professional standards for paid synagogue employees. If we want to continue to innovate and excel, we must be willing to respect professional labor from people who specialize in it, and know that it does not come for free.


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