When I try to explain what senior placement was like at HUC-JIR, it goes something like this:
“So, they pick a location, and all of the students meet there, and congregations send representatives, and over three days you meet with 12 different places. Then two days later someone calls and lets you know if they want to see you again.”
The response is typically, “So it’s like speed-dating?”
And I say, “Yeah, pretty much!”
This time of year, I’m thinking of our sisters in their last year of rabbinical school, getting ready for senior placement.
As someone who has been in placement a few times in the last six years, and been on that other market the whole time as well, I can’t help noticing some similarities between the processes. I’m in no position to dispense advice–I’ve had just as much failure as success on both fronts–but I have gleaned a few things along the way that have helped me in my search(es).
1) Presentation Matters: This is true of our resumes and portfolios, but also ourselves. We don’t want looks to be important when we’re looking for someone to love us for our mind and soul, but sometimes we have to make a good first impression to get our foot in the door. Our clothes, hairstyle and makeup should make us look good and feel good, whatever our age or body type (Visit Beauty Tips for Ministers for more on this topic). Also, Rabbi Rachel Greengrass taught me to wear clear nailpolish. It looks neat, it’s always in style, and it doesn’t show chips.
2) Be Open, but Know Your Dealbreakers: In my first search, I was willing to go anywhere in the country for the right position, until I got stuck in the Atlanta airport for four hours each way while interviewing in Mississippi. I realized that I needed to live someplace that was a direct flight to where my parents live, and that this would only get more important as time passed. But I have learned not to limit my search to a particular type of work. I had only looked at pulpit jobs until I “clicked” with a Jewish day school. Sometimes great opportunities arise where we least expect them.
3) Know that they are putting their Best Foot Forward: I wish I could remember who said, “And if it’s not good, they don’t have another foot.” I went on a great interview a few years ago at an amazing congregation. As I was preparing to return to the hotel, I heard the head of the search committee on the phone with the car service, chewing out the dispatcher for not making the driver wait when the interview ran late. It was eye-opening to know how people in the community behaved when they didn’t get what they want. On a related note…
4) Pay Attention to Small Kindnesses: I was told, after the fact, that I was an early favorite for my last job in part because I wrote a handwritten thank you note after the interview. At the same synagogue, the head of the search committee managed to find my favorite cookies and bring them to the hotel for me. I’m sure we might have made a match regardless, but being thoughtful, polite and attentive never hurts. Especially when it involves cookies.
5) “Good on Paper” Doesn’t Always Mean a Good Match: In senior placement, there was one job that almost everyone in my class wanted. I went into the interview hoping to rock it–and it went as well as it possibly could have–but I left the room knowing it wasn’t the right place for me. That wasn’t the only congregation that, when I heard who they hired, I said, “Yeah, that’s who I would have placed there, too.”
6) It’s Not About Perfect. It’s About Perfect for You: The best advice I ever got for my other search was, “Don’t pretend to be someone else. You’ll just end up stuck with someone who doesn’t like the real you.” For placement, I shortened this to, “I can only be me.” There were certainly times that I knew I might be more appealing if I answered a question in another way or if I put on a different kind of show. And while it’s important to reexamine our beliefs and our behavior on a regular basis, changing them just to land a job (or a partner) is a recipe for disaster.
7) You Never Know When It’s Going to Happen: Placement can be a multi-year game, especially when you want something really specific. I went through an intense search two years ago and found nothing worth making the leap. Then last year, I interviewed for exactly one job on a whim and ended up taking it three weeks later. My head is still spinning.
8) This Is Not (Just) a Job Interview: This is the beginning of a relationship. This may not be a forever thing (and everyone makes mistakes sometimes) but if all goes well, you will be spending every day for the duration of this relationship figuring out ways to bring these people joy, learning how to comfort them when they’re upset, and nudging them, ever so gently, towards living a better life. And, if you’re lucky (and I certainly have been), they’ll be doing the same for you.
Sending prayers for strength, wisdom and patience to everyone currently in placement. I’ll close by asking our esteemed colleagues: what advice would you give women rabbis searching for a new position?
Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz is on the faculty of Gann Academy, a pluralistic Jewish high school in Waltham, Ma. She blogs at thisiswhatarabbilookslike.wordpress.com.