Being Vulnerable

By: Jane Taubenfeld Cohen, Executive Director

Today, I write as a former head of a Jewish day school, as someone who works as the senior mentor for DSLTI, as a mentor in YULead, as a leadership coach for many, and as the Executive Director of the YU School Partnership. I am looking at the Imposter Syndrome, a big part of my life and that of many whom I coach. I am going to be very open and vulnerable in hope that it helps you think deeply.

I was 23 years old and a preschool teacher. I worked in a supplementary education program in the afternoon. A woman from the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) approached me: You should be a leader. You are a leader. I want you to come to a leadership course at the BJE” And thus it started. I was hired as the principal of a supplementary school soon afterwards. 24 years old. Out of graduate school for 2 years. I followed a master leader with immense experience. Who was I to be the leader? I mean that–I am not asking you as much as I was asking myself. Every day. It does not mean I was not successful. It was just that each day I kind of looked over my shoulder to see if someone was watching me and would tell me I really had no idea what I was doing.

Fast forward 9 years. My husband and I were amongst the founders of a day school and the person we hired to lead the school was not going to succeed. It was November of the first year. I was asked to temporarily take over. The school was only K-2 in those days. Here is the thing-I did not go to day school. I had never worked in a day school. My degrees were in Jewish education but I honestly could not imagine myself doing it. I had a parent in the school with extensive background in elementary education and I literally called her every night for 2 hours. I was an imposter. I felt it deep in my heart.

Some people say, fake it until you make it, but that is the thing about me.Even when I was successful, loved within my community and gaining a national reputation, I still felt less than competent. There were always people better than I was for the school and I was doing a good job fooling everyone.

Wait, it continues. I was asked to be a mentor at DSLTI. Fran Urman, the director, will tell you that I was more than nervous. I was absolutely convinced that no one would want me as his/her mentor. That was not only true for the first cohort, but for every cohort I was in. It did not matter that people requested me. I thought they just did not know the other mentors…

And, perhaps the most shameful story is one that I have just started to tell a few people recently. I was honored to win the Covenant Award, a prestigious award in Jewish education. That part is public. Here is the private part: I went to Harlene, the executive director of the Covenant Foundation, and said, “I think I won because the people who nominated me were great writers.” I took the entire prize, a significant amount of money, and donated it to my school. I told my husband, “I cannot take that money. I don’t deserve it.”

Here is what I can tell you. I have had a very successful career in Jewish education. I have a good reputation. I have people who want to work with me. I coach a lot of people and, I think, I am pretty good at it. That is all coming from my brain. I am getting better but it does not mean that that all speaks to my heart. I still, have what Brene Brown calls in Daring Greatly, a sense of scarcity.

I wrote a blog post recently for yueducate. This is what I said about the book Daring Greatly:

“This is a hard book to read. Really hard.” I did not mean that I didn’t understand it, I meant that I did understand it—deeply—in my heart and soul. As I continued to read, I realized something that I did not know was true before—other people feel the way I do. This was particularly true around the idea of “scarcity”— the sense that I am not ____enough (smart, frum, social…. my list of what I am “not enough of” is huge). And so it went. I began to recommend the book to the people that I coach. I began to talk to my friends about it. I immediately told my colleagues at work about it. And, with the encouragement of Ray Levi, I went public— I posted a thread about it on JEDLAB (a Facebook group of passionate Jewish educators). That thread has close to 200 comments at this moment and more are added all the time. And here is what you cannot tell by reading the post: many (I mean more than 10) people have contacted me privately to say, “I am reading the book and I am crying.” Or, “I cannot post this, but I think this book might change my life. I used to feel so alone.”

This is all about how so many of us feel not enough—how so many of us look over our shoulders at someone else who is more that we are, or at least is in our minds. My sister gave me a book about the Imposter Syndrome over 20 years ago. I cried through the book Daring Greatly.

We have work to do. We have to acknowledge how we feel and build our own resistance to the feelings that get in the way. I think it is kind of funny that I have been so successful. I did not expect it. I did not expect to have so many opportunities in Jewish education. And I know that I made those opportunities happen. I also know that I have work to do to help others know they are worth it—that they have so much to give the field. It is hard, hard work to be a leader in a Jewish school. If everyone who had doubts about themselves decided not to be a leader, our schools would suffer and our children would not have leaders who are transparent about their vulnerabilities and open and honest about their own challenges.

So my questions for the field are: how much of a role do those doubts play in your life as a leader? and, what helps?