During this holiday season, you may be thinking of gift ideas for your brother and sister-in-law, putting together gift baskets for your neighbors, or donating towards group gifts for your children’s teachers; but there are some people you might not consider, but shouldn’t forget—support staff. Those who sit behind the desks, or make repairs, or help keep offices running are always important and often overlooked.
Chanukah celebrates the Maccabees’ triumph over those would have forced assimilation. Judah Maccabee had to fight to reclaim what was ours. The Maccabees took the Temple back by force from non-Jews who wanted it destroyed. Today, in our synagogues, we have non-Jews working to help us keep those sanctuaries running so that we can practice our Judaism.
The work done by the support staff at Jewish organizations is often above and beyond what is done elsewhere. Many non-Jewish people work within Jewish organizations. So they may have to learn whole new religious ideas, practice, and even languages. In one of the synagogues where we were members, the Presbyterian caretaker became an expert on recognizing which heshers (letters and symbols denoting something is kosher and which organization certified it) were allowed in the synagogue’s kosher kitchen. I’ve heard synagogue secretaries greet Hebrew school children by name–names pronounced correctly—often names in Hebrew or Yiddish which are incredibly difficult to master. While planning our daughters’ b’not mitzvah, the Christian synagogue caretaker helped us come up with a menu by offering recipes ideas. Shabbat and Yom Tov restrictions mean there are many things Jews aren’t allowed to do on Shabbat and certain holidays. Non-Jewish synagogue staff typically know these restrictions and prepare ahead of time and do the necessary things that we can’t do on those days. A caretaker turns on lights before and during Shabbat when members aren’t allowed to use or adjust electricity. An office manager, aware of a family’s financial issues can help recommend cost-saving ideas for a bar mitzvah. The secretary has to be aware of a whole separate list of dates from a completely foreign calendar. When does Chanukah start this year? Your average Jew may not know without having to look it up, but you can bet the synagogue secretary knows.
Synagogue staff need to not only be aware of how to run the office and some specifics of religious observance, but also security protocols. Most Jewish organizations have locked doors that require video surveillance. No one can allow in anyone they don’t recognize. There are protocols for when to open the doors and when to press panic buttons. There are lock-down drills to practice. Often there are guards to hire, greet, and employ. There are so many security concerns for them to know and take into account.
In my experience, I find staff in any business or organization is often over-looked. I’ve been asked to donate money towards teacher gifts, but none of that money goes to the staff. I absolutely appreciate everything teachers do. I fully believe they deserve gifts—useful gifts, not yet another mug. I also appreciate the secretaries, the caretakers, the housekeepers, the administrators, the office managers, and all those whose work may not be in the spotlight. I could write a whole collection of articles about the multitude of ways synagogue staff has helped just our family. And ours is just one of hundreds of families in any Jewish organization. The staff is important and deserves recognition.
If you have the funds, consider buying them gifts. If you don’t, consider making them gifts or writing them cards or letters. Reflection, gratitude, and sharing are great ways to celebrate the holidays. These people often work behind the scenes. They often aren’t seen and much of what they do goes unrecognized. They are there at all hours. They do the work you see and so much more. Their jobs are so complicated. Tell them you see them and that you appreciate them. Another way to do that is to offer to help. Just because the caretaker is folding up chairs doesn’t mean he’s the only one who can do it. Offer to help. The secretary can bring those supplies upstairs, but so too can you. Clear away your tables and/or your neighbor’s table after events. Arrive early to help set up and/or stay late to help clean up. Say, “Thank you,” after every event. Teach your children to do the same. The Maccabees did not retake the Temple so you could ignore the synagogue secretary.
The holiday season is a time of miracles. It’s such a great time for focusing on what we’re grateful for and sharing that gratitude with others. We can be grateful for the miracle of oil burning for eight days and the miracle of a synagogue where we can celebrate, share, learn, and daven 365 days a year (or 353-385 days a year on the Hebrew calendar).
Dorothy-Ann Parent (better known as Hyphen) is a writer, a traditional Jew, a seeker of justice, a lover of stories and someone who’s best not left unattended in a bookshop or animal shelter.