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Economy

Wandering in the Wilderness: Jewish Leadership, Values, and Partnership during an Economic Crisis

During this time of financial unknown, Rabbi Mary Zamore and law professor Andrea Kupfer Schneider share best practices for leading with Jewish values to ensure equity and maintain the sacred trust in our communities.

Perhaps this is your congregation: Your board is very worried as membership and school fees are slow to come in. Their search for solutions has started: Cut all employees’ salaries for the coming fiscal year by a set percentage? Significantly decrease the congregation’s contribution to employee health insurance? Lay off employees?

We Jews have a long history of wandering in the wilderness, the unknown, but it does not necessarily make difficult financial decisions during this crisis easier. Both professional and lay leaders wonder how to find a path forward in a manner reflecting the sacred partnership between employer and employee.  

The economic crisis caused by the pandemic is not going away and, in fact, could get worse. As a result, downsizing or payroll reductions are part of current congregational conversations. Amid this stressful context, principles of equity and fairness can get lost. Instead, we urge Jewish professional and lay leaders to ensure that short-term fixes do not become worse than the problem. These fixes can break trust in the sacred partnership among clergy, staff, and community, harm the reputation of our congregations, and can lead to smaller, disconnected communities down the road.

First, the best practices of decision-making must be utilized. We are all operating, perhaps fearfully, in new territory. The health and well-being of the congregation is a shared communal responsibility—neither the rabbi nor the staff nor the lay leaders nor even the biggest donors can ensure congregational health alone. With that recognition, a process of careful, collaborative decision-making is needed. What sometimes appears to take too much time in terms of consulting with all stakeholders, gathering options, ensuring that there is understanding and acceptance allows the board to move fast once the decision is made. Furthermore, transparency—who made the decision? what factors were evaluated?—leads to more trust from stakeholders as well.

Second, keep equity in mind and bias at bay. While most claim gender is not a factor in employment, we often see this bias in unspoken assumptions. Sometimes these come straight from the worst assumptions in business—that an “ideal” worker is one who can devote the most time to work and has no other priorities. Under this fallacy, anything less than a full-time position is devalued (“if it’s so important, why isn’t it full-time?”) and employees with childcare responsibilities are assumed to be less committed. Bias also comes from assumptions that the woman’s salary is the “second” salary of the household and, therefore, not as needed (“let’s protect the male ‘breadwinner’ salaries at the expense of the ‘second’ salaries”).

A third consideration—we should not assume a fixed pie of assets or a fixed set of job descriptions and that there is nothing a congregation can do other than cut salaries. Here too, good processes can help. Some congregations have moved up or added to their fundraising calendars (successfully) to ensure their budgets are intact. For others, the congregation has been able to find creative ways to cut costs or shift personnel to new tasks (i.e. Zoom guru.) And, when budget cutting is unavoidable, consulting with those affected is crucial: Is health care coverage and pension more important than salary; is furloughing better than shifting to fewer hours; even gauging interest in early retirement or voluntarily reduced hours. Brainstorming with the Jewish professionals might reveal ideas that the board leadership have not considered. 

Our top suggestions to promote equity in a crisis:

  1. Check your bias—reflect on what assumptions go into how reductions and downsizing are decided.
  2. Double-check after scenario planning that there are not unintended consequences that particularly harm women, people of color, and other vulnerable populations—and then track this data. Correct, if needed, before continuing with the decisions. Repeat this process when re-staffing occurs: Who is brought back to full pay or full-time?
  3. Equity and equality are different. Fairness does not mean everyone is treated equally. People have different needs and are in different situations (i.e., across the board pay reductions are far more devastating at the lower end of the pay scale).
  4. The most highly compensated can take the lead on pay reductions or voluntary give-back donations. Publicize this broadly. This does not mean breaking contracts or strong-arming employees, however. Concessions should be free-will offerings.
  5. Balance between the economic health of the community and of the clergy and staff. For communities where the economic impact has not been so harsh, it is incongruous to insist on pay reductions. On the other hand, in communities hard hit, difficult decisions made in partnership are necessary.
  6. Consult with key stakeholders (community, clergy, staff, board, and other legal and financial experts) throughout the process. Go slow to go fast.
  7. Consider transparency at every step to build trust.
    • Make the decision-making process transparent (i.e., this is who we consulted) even when employment outcomes are private.
    • Consider the timing of announcements and the sharing of information, as well as the balance of what is private versus appropriate so that everyone feels included and supported.
    • Consult with affected parties how outcomes should be communicated (i.e., when layoffs are announced; with names or just positions; by whom and to whom).
  1. Trust is hard to build and even harder to rebuild—assume the relationship is a long term one and act accordingly. Even those laid off from a congregation often stay as members and are part of the community. The ripple effects of broken trust—feeling unfairly treated—will permeate the larger community.
  2. Remember that decisions made now accrue to the reputation of the congregation. These can both create stronger reputations when a crisis is handled well or can harm a reputation when decisions are poorly made. And, of course, this reputation affects future relationships among clergy, staff, the board, and the community.

At times of crisis, we want to move quickly, reacting immediately. However, that can yield unintended damage. In this wilderness, the financial unknown, we must lead with our Jewish values, utilizing the best practices of process to ensure equity and maintain the sacred trust in our communities.



Rabbi Mary L. Zamore is the Executive Director of Women’s Rabbinic Network, co-leading the Reform Pay Equity Initiative, and her most recent anthology is
The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic (CCAR Press: 2019). Andrea Kupfer Schneider is a Professor of Law and Director of the Institute for Women’s Leadership at Marquette University. 

[1] An earlier iteration of this article appeared in The Forward, Scribe Blog on July 7, 2020. This is based on a presentation available in the URJ Tent, produced in partnership by the Union for Reform Judaism, National Association for Temple Administration, Women of Reform Judaism, and Women’s Rabbinical Network on behalf of the Reform Pay Equity Initiative with funding from the Safety Respect Equity Coalition.

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