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Bringing Out the Best in Our Professionals Through Jewish Mindfulness and Middot

By Mark S. Young, Rabbi Marc Margolius, Michal Fox Smart, and Rabbi Tracy Kaplowitz, Ph.D.

It’s late, and the marketing director at the JCC is trying to finish the budget for her department. Her kids are begging her to read to them before bed. Two months ago, she would have ignored their pleas until they gave up or left her to work, resentful of the interruption. Worse, she might have shooed them from the room. Now, even with several hours more to go on the budget, she recognizes she has a choice—and an opportunity to respond to her kids as her best self. She closes the laptop, and shows up for them, demonstrating the middot (character traits or values) she’s been striving to improve: gevurah (placing a wise boundary around work), emunah (trustworthiness), and chesed (showing a loving connection).

What prompted this JCC professional to pause, recognize the instinct to keep working, and respond wisely, rather than react out of ingrained habit?

She just completed Awareness in Action (AiA): Cultivating Character Through Mindfulness and Middot, a 10-week program of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS). As part of a new partnership between IJS and JCC Association of North America, 25 JCC professionals from 23 JCCs and JCC Association recently enrolled in AiA.

This collaboration emerged from a confluence of IJS’s mission to elevate and enhance Jewish spiritual practices throughout Jewish life and the aim of JResponse®, a signature program of JCC Association, to support JCCs and their communities during and after a time of crisis.

The pilot partnership, funded by a joint grant from the Jim Joseph, Schusterman, and AVIV foundations and the Maimonides Fund, immerses JCC professionals in Jewish mindfulness practice and helps them cultivate core middot (ethical/spiritual qualities) in their personal and work lives. Using self-paced videos, live practice sessions with IJS faculty, and chevruta (partner) learning, they’re strengthening their capacity to stay resilient and responsive under stress.

In Phase II of the pilot, now launching, the program will expand exponentially. Each member of this 25-person cohort will organize and facilitate groups of 10 staff members in the program they themselves recently completed, “paying it forward,” if you will. They will receive facilitator training while an additional 250 JCC professionals will immerse in practices that will provide them with essential emotional and spiritual tools and support to show up as their best selves, especially under challenging circumstances. Phase II also includes an exclusive track for JCC CEOs, so they can add these critical skills to their toolbox, strengthen their own resilience, and enhance their leadership during these difficult days and beyond.

Through this pilot experience, IJS, JResponse®, and JCC Association are proud to engage hundreds of JCC professionals in discovering and using the sacred strengths they already possess to nourish their spirits and sustain their efforts to strengthen the Jewish community and enrich Jewish life. With 12,000 full-time professionals at 172 JCCs across North America plus 41,000 part-time and seasonal professionals, we envision that trained JCC professionals could facilitate the IJS AiA program for additional peer cohorts and for their constituents, using Jewish mindfulness to build broad communal resilience and ensure that much of the JCC Movement has these creative tools available to help them navigate present and future challenges.

IJS seeks to expand its partnership to other agencies and networks, ultimately reaching clergy and Jewish community professionals in cities and towns across the continent. This initial partnership demonstrates “proof of concept” in bringing this program to scale and holds tremendous potential to bring the many benefits of Jewish mindfulness practices to a wider audience.

As we now know firsthand, Jewish mindfulness and middot practices enable organizations to offer their staff and constituents meaningful opportunities to learn to be more present, more aware, and more compassionate toward themselves—leading, in turn, to wise and skillful responses rather than reactions that stem from confusion, pain, fear, or anger. With these tools at hand, individuals throughout North America’s Jewish community can decrease stress, increase productivity, and rise to meet challenges—large and small—with resilience, courage, and wisdom.

Check out the complete list of JCCs participating in this partnership.

This essay originally appeared in eJewish Philanthropy.

Michal Fox Smart is chief program officer at Institute for Jewish Spirituality. Rabbi Tracy Kaplowitz, Ph.D., is director of operations at JWB Jewish Chaplains Council®, a signature program of JCC Association of North America. Rabbi Marc Margolius is senior program director at Institute for Jewish Spirituality. Mark S. Young is director of JResponse® at JCC Association of North America and the author of “Bless Our Workforce.”

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