Talkin’ About My Generation

Talkin’ About My Generation

(With thanks to my cousin Jody Wentico who convinced me to watch the Super Bowl this year)

I really didn’t have any “skin” in the game when it came to Super Bowl 50. I have friends in Denver, Colorado and in Charlotte, North Carolina so either way someone was going to be happy. Still, in the fourth quarter, I found myself rooting for the Broncos, or rather for Payton Manning.

As I watched the game, I realized that the Panther’s quarterback, Cam Newton, was really struggling. He was angry, frustrated and not playing up to his potential. As the television cameras focused on his face, I began to see something I have seen many times before, the look of a young, smart and talented person who was suffering from a lack of experience. Faced with a defense that just kept coming at him, his composure was cracking under the strain of what he knew would be the harsh judgment of him after the game if he lost; and clearly he was losing.

After the game, I found myself thinking about an article I read on EJewishPhilantropy, “Raw Talent vs. Experience: What Are You Really Looking For?” The author, Elliot Cowan, coming from the design world, speaks about how talent is worth more than experience. He makes the point that he would rather work with someone with a great deal of talent and give him more experience than work with someone experienced but without any real talent. Mr. Cowan writes, “But if we look through history it wasn’t the people with only experience that propelled us forward, and even if you would like to suggest an example of this in the comments below, the chances are that it was their talent that ultimately made the difference, not their experience. They all gained experience and knowledge as they got older and they would not have been the successes they were without it, but it was the talent that got them there in the first place.

Talent got Cam Newton into the Super Bowl but it was talent and experience that made Payton Manning the winner.

I am not a football player. I am a Rabbi. Part of what I do is act as a lawyer for Jewish Law. Part of what I do is advise lay leadership as they steer a course for a synagogue and part of what I do is try and help those in my community find their way when they are lost and feeling alone. In this last role, I have been blessed with an opportunity to really make a difference in people’s lives. I can give hope and encouragement in some people’s most desperate times.

When I was a young Rabbi, people came to me for advice and I found often that they were teaching me more than I was teaching them. My senior Rabbi at the time worked with me patiently so I could learn to see what he could see and hear in the voices what he could hear. I would see and hear exactly the same things as he did, but his experience gave him, and ultimately me, a greater depth of understanding.

I now find myself in a generation locked in a battle between talent and experience. Experienced Baby Boomers (full disclosure, I am of this generation) are not yet ready to retire and let a younger generation take over. Millennials with great talent and energy are struggling to find a place in leadership because the Boomers won’t let go. We live in a culture that values youth and talent. Ageism is rampant in the world of job searches and employment. Advertising reaches out to the younger generations, leaving the 55 and older generation to contemplate retirement accounts and Medicare Supplement Plans. Even among Rabbis searching for new positions, it seems as if everyone is looking for a 35 year old Rabbi with 40 years of experience. Search committees don’t speak this out loud but silently they opine; “Only a young rabbi will do since he or she will speak to the new generation to get them involved. The future of the synagogue is in how we attract younger Jews.”

But talent and creativity is not the sole domain of the young. Talent and creativity do not discriminate between the old and the young. There is a Talmudic story of four Rabbis who attempted to enter paradise. Usually this is interpreted to mean they delved into esoteric and mystical texts. One of the four died, another went insane, one became an apostate, only Rabbi Akiva entered and departed unharmed. What enabled Rabbi Akiva to avoid the dangers of ancient mysticism? Perhaps it was because he had started his studies twenty years later than his colleagues and was near 50 when he was ordained. All four Sages were talented, but only one had the experience to emerge unscathed.

At a recent board meeting at my synagogue, one of the youngest members of my board, a woman with young children, stood up and said, “I don’t want a young rabbi with young children advising me; I want one that has experience, who has raised his [or her] children and can teach me and show me how to be a better parent.” Why do we so often turn to our parents for advice and guidance? I think it is because they have years of experience in living that we just can’t find anywhere else.

Not everyone who is older is wiser. Not everyone who is young is talented. Some people never learn from their mistakes. Some people never realize their talents. Some people are wise beyond their years and others never really grow up at all. This is why discrimination by age, or any discrimination for that matter, is bad policy. No good will come if we refuse to find wisdom wherever it may be found.

The talent vs. experience debate, the young vs. old debate is a false choice. What we should be looking for is wisdom, that elusive blend of both talent and experience that can come at any age and at any stage of a person’s life. We like to think the world is changing rapidly, and in many ways it is changing faster than ever before. But in many ways the world has not changed at all. The workplace is still filled with stress and pressure. Children still do crazy things that endanger their life and limb. Women are still trying to figure out how to balance raising children and career. Young couples still are trying to provide for their families in the face of great debt and financial insecurity. We all still fear illness and accidents, and we all wonder what the future will bring. Wisdom is what we need to navigate all these struggles without letting ourselves slide into despair, depression or insecurity. But wisdom can’t be bought nor does it come in pill form. It only is acquired by time and patience. It comes from sitting and learning from someone older and wiser. Wisdom is not about working faster; it is about working smarter.

Different generations have different things to teach each other. The best course is to combine talent with experience, wisdom with understanding, and gumption with patience.

I wouldn’t want to be the young quarterback next year who has to face an experienced Cam Newton.

Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow

Yesterday, I signed a contract and rejoined the American Workforce. It was the end of a two year search. In some ways my search was not typical, I am a Rabbi and one does not search for a congregation the same way a salesman or a clerk searches for a company.  I was searching in the world of non-profit organizations, not the fast paced world of for-profit companies. In other ways my search was typical. I sent out more resumes than I can remember and got very few job prospects in return. It has not been a pretty picture the past two years, but as I regain my footing in the world of the gainfully employed, I find I have advice to share with those who are still struggling.

I began my search for a new job while I was still working for my old “boss”. My congregation notified me in June of 2011, that my contract, which expired in June of 2012, would not be renewed  as the synagogue was no longer financially viable, and I immediately notified the Placement Service that I would be looking. The director of Placement was kind but firm. This was not a good time to be looking for a position and there were a number of things that would be working against me. The biggest was my age. In my middle 50’s was considered “too old” by many employers. In addition, I was in Florida, not in the urban centers where most of the non-profit jobs could be found, and I did not have extensive experience in non-profit work, my background being almost exclusively in the world of synagogues.

I attended a seminar for rabbis over 50 and looking for a job. I met a number of friends there and realized that after years of friendship, we were now competitors. I was not happy about that. The leaders of the seminars told us that we did have some things going for us: That we had a great deal of experience and lots of contacts in the real world to help us in our search. We learned about the latest in writing resumes and social media.  Unlike many of my colleagues, I already had a presence in social media and I had a professional website. I had “analytics” on my site so I could see where my visitors were coming from, how they found my website, what pages they visited on my website and how long they stayed on a page.   A number of books were recommended and I read them all. I can tell you, the best of them was “What Color Is Your Parachute (2012 edition)”  by Bolles.

Bolles and the Seminar taught me more than just the nuts and bolts of a job search. They demanded that I be clear about what I wanted to do and what I did not want to do. The point of a job search is to find work you can enjoy and not work in which you will be miserable. I know people who applied to any job that came their way.  This annoyed me because it clogged up the system.  Employers got dozens of resumes and had to find a way to quickly winnow it down to a manageable size. It made life harder for an older rabbi to get noticed.  Over the two years I was job searching, I updated my resumes at least four times. I had three different resumes going at the same time; one for synagogues, one for religious non-profits and one for the secular non-profits. My daughter helped me get the first series put together and then, a year later, insisted that I update them again for my third revision. She helped me craft some of the many cover letters I wrote, an original letter for every resume sent out.

Another lesson from Bolles was to keep applying for jobs you want no matter what the status of any of them might be. Don’t stop applying while you wait for someone to notice what you sent out last week. I tried to average three resumes a week. This meant that I had to read some eight job boards each week and find something that interested me enough to want to apply. I found some really wonderful jobs on those lists, and I can tell you that I have been rejected by some incredible organizations. Some notified me that I did not meet their qualifications; some never contacted me at all. I would soon discover that there is a great prejudice out there against applicants over 50. Many non-profits would not hire rabbis lest they somehow make the organization “too religious”.  In spite of my training and experience, some were looking for even more experience in fundraising and in administration. Most of the time you never know why you did not make the first cut, or why you were cut on the second or third rounds, A couple of times I was a finalist for a job and it went to a younger applicant.  To be  honest, some who were advertising nationally for a position, really only interviewed local talent. They didn’t want to (or didn’t need to) bring in anyone from far away.

In the absence of a reason, you learn to make up your own reasons. You change wording on the resume, you make changes in the website (eventually I would do a whole upgrade on the website, bringing in a paid advisor),  you get advice from your family and you read every tip on Linkedin.

After a while, you discover this black hole that is following you around, all day every day. As the days go by,  and the rejections pile up and the whole process gets tiresome, you begin to think that crawling into that hole might be a good idea. You don’t have to worry anymore about wording, or cover letters , you don’t have to worry about anything, you can just sink into sweet depression. Every day I looked at that hole and made a decision that I was not going to go there today. It was not easy.

When I got a rejection, I would “let” myself feel bad for an hour or so, and then send out another resume. I figured that feeling bad would not get me a job.  Some jobs would be a stretch for me but I kept applying. You never know. Meditation helped keep me focused on the present and kept me from worrying too much about the future. (Worry is a waste of good imagination.)

In the end, I insisted that three places that had rejected me, and had still not filled the position, needed to give me a personal interview to really see what they were missing. To one I sent a copy of my references and challenged them to call and see just how good a Rabbi I was.  They called, and heard some of my success stories.  They thanked me for my persistence. They invited me for an interview.

From the moment I touched the ground I attended meeting after meeting with officers, staff and members of the search committee. I told them that they had brought me in to work, and, like a consultant, I was at their call. I conducted services, and gave a major sermon.  I came home.

Within a few days they offered me a fair and balanced contract and with just a few minor wording changes, I signed.

My children say that I am a different person now that I am back on the pulpit. That my old self is back and they can see how happy I am.

I am thankful for all those who gave me a kick in the pants when I needed it.

I am thankful for those who spoke up on my behalf when my being disqualified made no sense

I am thankful for a placement service that kept me going, believed in me, trained me in how to job search better and for making sure that I always knew that my plight was not mine alone. They were there for me.  It made a difference.

I am thankful for the good people of Birmingham, Alabama who took a chance on the persistent rabbi  and were able to see clearly how we belonged together.

I am thankful for my family and the encouragement and support they gave me during my search.

I am thankful for my wife who always believed that I would get the job I wanted.

I am thankful to God for keeping me alive, supporting me and bringing me to this happy conclusion.