Should Our Work Give Us Money or Give Us Meaning? Yes
Jewish Week Online Columnist
Photo Galleria: 

As a child, I was completely certain about three things: 1) that mushrooms were disgusting; 2) that little brothers were a pain; and 3) that I would become a doctor. Fast forward a few decades and I find myself eagerly topping my burgers with mushrooms, genuinely enjoying the company of my little brother (who now towers over me by almost a foot), and happily working as a professional coach.

It’s not unusual that my palate would become more sophisticated, or that my relationship with my kid brother would mature. It’s also not unusual that my anticipated career path would change from what I had predicted as a child. After all, if most of our career paths hadn’t changed since we were children, wouldn’t our country be overrun with cowboys, superheroes and ballerinas?  What strikes me is that, while I didn’t become a doctor (thanks a lot, Organic Chemistry!), I did take on a role that is rooted in the same primary driver. Whether I was going to save lives as a doctor or improve the quality of lives as a coach, one way or another, I always wanted work that made an impact.

But impact wasn’t – and isn’t - enough for me. I also wanted work that allowed me to learn and master new skills, where I would be recognized for my accomplishments, get to express myself and my values through my work, and where I would be paid at a level where I felt  appreciated and motivated.

Is that too much to ask for? 

For many people working in the Jewish communal world (a field in which I worked for a decade before becoming a consultant to the field), the answer to that question has been a resounding “no!” – or, more accurately, “It feels like it is too much to ask for, but it shouldn’t be.” Over the past few weeks, the ejewishphilanthropy blog has run articles on this very topic by several thought leaders in the field. In his article, The $54,000 Strategy: A Bold Solution to Undervaluing our Jewish Professionals, Mark Young, Program Coordinator of the Experiential Learning Initiative at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of the Jewish Theological Seminary, made the case that we should “compensate talented individuals pursuing careers in Jewish professional life well, really well, monetarily and otherwise.” He contends that we shouldn’t “force talented people to choose between earning respectable money and receiving strong career support vs. realizing their passion for service to the Jewish community.”

In his responsive piece, Money Can’t Buy Love… and Neither Can, um, Compulsory Professional Development Seminars, Ken Gordon, the Social Media Manager for PEJE (Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education) writes that the money does make a difference, but we also could learn a lesson from MIT Media Lab’s approach to work by directly enlisting the passions of our workers and creating an environment in which it’s safe for employees to demonstrate ideas, get feedback, and constantly improve. In other words, to make the Jewish communal world an 'employer of choice,' we must rethink the way we do business.

Yes to all of the above, answers Liz Fisher, the Managing Director at NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation in her blog, The Business of Meaning –and there’s more. Liz writes, “Of course we need to continue to professionalize our organizations, and to think about standards, accountability and efficiency. Of course we should aspire to provide increased compensation where it’s deserved, access to mentors, a creative workplace environment and professional development opportunities. But we also need to put the Jewish back into Jewish communal work….We are here because we believe, deep down, that we have the opportunity to change our world.”

While this engaging interchange has heated up in the past few weeks, this conversation isn’t new at all. In the early 1970s, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Studs Terkel told us how people felt about their jobs and why so many of us want more from work. In his book Working, which is based on interviews with workers in a wide variety of jobs, Terkel captured their feelings about the daily grind. “Work,” he said, “is about daily meaning as well as daily bread. For recognition as well as cash; for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying…We have a right to ask of work that it include meaning, recognition, astonishment, and life.” 

So the question remains, is it too much to ask for?

Here’s my two cents: We can ask for more from our jobs, in any sector. We should. But in the same way that we can’t expect our spouse or partner to fulfill 100% of our needs (unless we crave constant, continuous frustration), we can’t expect our jobs to fulfill 100 percent of our needs, either. What we can do is get clear with ourselves first about what we need to feel satisfied, advocate to get those needs met, and express appreciation when our managers and organizations do provide what we need. For managers, we need to be clear about what our direct reports need to feel satisfied, help them think creatively about how to get those needs met, and also help them to see when they may not be able to get certain needs met right here or right now.  And every single one of us, regardless of role or sector, reserves the right to vote with our feet and step away if we can’t get at least some of what we really, truly need to feel satisfied.

Each personal combination of motivating and satisfying factors will be just that—deeply personal. Aviel Barclay, the first soferet (female Jewish ritual scribe), told Moment magazine, “One of the things that has kept my inspiration for the service of God and the Jewish people has been what Rabbi Jacob Isaac Horowitz, said: ‘One cannot tell another which way to follow…. Each one must see to which way he is attracted, and in this way he is to serve with all his strength.’ That and the knowledge deep in the core of my soul that I am supposed to do this.”

So what are we really talking about? Here’s a list of 12 drivers of work satisfaction to get the conversation with yourself or your staff started:

1. Money
2. Stability
3. Advancement
4. Recognition
5. Impact
6. Being in Flow
7. Learning and Mastery
8. Autonomy
9. Self-Expression
10. Physical Environment
11. Relationships
12. Work-Life Integration


Last Update:

05/29/2013 - 19:14
Deborah Grayson Riegel, lifestyle advice, Liz Fisher, PEJE, Studs Turkel

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.


Beautifully written and thought provoking.

Bringing Studs Turkel from the mid-1970s reminded me of Martin Buber who wrote about the Prejudice of Youth. In an evocative essay by the same name (in his collection "Israel and the World: Essays in a Time of Crisis"), Buber writes:

"[E]very new generation is a link in the great chain, and every new ring must be white-hot in the passion of its new existence before it can welded to the chain as a new link. But both: the passion for a new beginning and the ability to join as a link in the chain must go together. Youth must have the essential knowledge that generations which produced them are within them, and that whatever new thing they accomplish draws its real significance from that fact."

Thank you for honoring our prejudices by acknowledging that our passions and dilemmas are not new and that we might learn from those who came before us.

Thank you, Deborah, for hitting the nail right on the head.
It's good to be reminded that it isn't just me!
I just left a Jewish communal position after many months of soul searching because too many critical needs (perhaps as many as 8 of the 12 you listed!) weren't being met.
My deep commitment to the mission motivated me for more than a decade. I hoped I was having an impact, making a difference; I enjoyed the collegiality and the experience of work-life integration. (It is good not to have to explain why you need days off for Sukkot or Shavuot!)
But eventually I was overcome with dissatisfaction because of the lack of opportunity for advancement; the lack of meaningful recognition; the limited autonomy and self-expression afforded mid-level professionals within the lay-driven, top-down federated system; the inadequate compensation; and unfortunately the list goes on.
I was stagnating; I was outgrowing an institution that had failed to grow with me.
I took the leap and people asked if I felt guilty for leaving. Did I miss my job?
The answer is I feel better than I have in years. The feelings of stress, constriction and disappointment are gone.
As for the organization I left and the hundreds just like it? Organizational change is necessarily slow. It's a little like turning an ocean liner. If those at the helm lack foresight, we know how badly it can go.

It is one thing to ask for extra money - it is another thing for organizations' salary offers that put the families of Jewish professionals into income categories that are so low that they qualify for government assistance with health care and housing.

Jewish educators in many places are making so little as to qualify for federal assistance because they only make between 200% and 400% of the federal poverty level. It is disingenuous to discuss how to professionalize Jewish institutions, or even how to make the work more meaningful, when so many Jewish educators (a) are barely paid a wage that allows them to live with the communities they serve and (b) are told, when asking for more, that the institution they work for cannot afford them when the same institutions often pay their top executives salaries that place them in the top 5% and 10% of earners in the United States.

Our Newsletters, Your Inbox