Putting Our Mask on First: Self-Care for Jewish Professionals - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Putting Our Mask on First: Self-Care for Jewish Professionals

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Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Micol Zimmerman Burkeman, MAJE

Putting our masks on first image

While it’s been a while since I’ve been on an airplane, the instruction is still vivid in my memory. 

“Oxygen masks will drop down from above your seat. Place the mask over your mouth and nose, like this. Pull the strap to tighten it. If you are traveling with children, make sure that your own mask is on first before helping your children.” 

That last line never made sense to me. Put your own mask on first? It was antithetical to everything I had always understood as the role of parents or care-takers. Their job was to first and foremost take care of those that depend on them, those that can’t help themselves. As I got older, the announcement began to make more sense. Can one who is not taken care of effectively care for others? Can we put others’ masks on if we can’t breathe ourselves? 

This understanding became all the more amplified when I started working with educators, clergy and other Jewish professionals whose job it is to take care of others. And who, in an ironic twist of fate, seem actively committed to community-care, child-care and staff-care, at the expense of their own self-care. 

Within the first week of quarantine, I was awe-struck by how quickly Jewish educators, clergy and communal professionals mobilized to action to build virtual, learning communities. I was impressed, and yet unsurprised, because I have seen first-hand how hard and diligently they work to keep their communities safe, loved and taken care of. Also unsurprising, however, was how little time they spent taking care of themselves. This is not a new phenomenon - but one, especially at this current time of heightened stress, anxiety and uncertainty, that we must change. The extent to which we can take care of our communities depends entirely on the extent to which we can take care of ourselves. 

With this in mind, we created a group focused on self-care for educators, clergy and Jewish communal professionals entitled “Putting Our Mask on First,” facilitated by me and Dr. Betsy Stone. Within the first 24 hours, our first group was filled to capacity and so we created a second group, which filled almost as quickly. It became immediately clear to us how necessary these groups were - a space where we could gather amongst colleagues and friends and could reveal our vulnerability, fears and anxiety without fear of judgment or penalty. It has been deeply powerful and empowering to gather with over 50 Jewish professionals every week over the last month to share, support each other, and learn ways to practice self-care and manage our own fears and challenges so we can be at our best for our communities. 

In our experience with this group, we have learned a few important lessons: 

  1. We are not alone. So many of us are experiencing similar challenges, fears and anxieties. Sharing with others helps normalize our experiences and our feelings. And having colleagues on whom we can lean offers critical support and helps alleviate those feelings.
  2. Naming takes away shaming. We hold so many of these feelings inside, fearing that sharing our challenges will open us up to scrutiny, judgement, or even professional repercussions. What we have found is that simply the act of naming our concerns and our fears has helped decrease the feelings of shame and anxiety associated with them and helps us manage them more effectively.
  3. We only do our best at our best. We care so much about the work that we do and put everything we have into it. In fact, we put so much of ourselves into our work that we can quickly lose ourselves and our own needs in it. We keep telling ourselves that we don’t have the time to take care of ourselves and successfully take care of our communities. But we realize that we can only do our best when we are at our best. Self-care must be a priority, for ourselves and for our field.

It is my hope that all of us who work so selflessly and tirelessly in the Jewish world will recognize that self-care is not a luxury but a necessity. I hope that we can model to our teams and our communities the importance of tending to ourselves as much as we tend to others. I hope that we understand that our work is only as good as the care we give ourselves. It is my hope that we start putting our masks on first. 

Micol Zimmerman Burkeman, MAJE, serves as the Recruitment and Leadership Development Associate at HUC-JIR, recruiting the next generation of inspiring Jewish leaders with a focus in the Boston and New England area. She is also a coach, consultant and designer of professional development for Jewish communal professionals across the country. To learn more about Micol, click here


Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu