What is the best way to manage change?
A little over two years ago, I went from being the principal of a high school to a leader of a digital educational media company. At the high school, my days were spent surrounded by the energy of 250 unbelievable students.
In my new role, I was still working as an educator. But instead of being in the classroom, Beit Midrash, gym and hallways of school with my students, I was sitting at a desk in my office behind my computer screen.
In the first month of my then-new job, I tried to replicate parts of my life as a principal. Instead of embracing my new environment, I tried to create the same energetic culture with my new colleagues thousands of miles away. I suggested multiple big events we should do as an organization, as we might have done for the school.
After sharing these ideas with one of my closest friends and thought partners, Noey Jacobson, he said to me, “Noam, running a school and leading a digital educational company are different. You have to accept this.”
I understood that psychologically, I had not yet let go of my former life as a principal.
Noey suggested I read “Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change” by William Bridges. Bridges makes a simple — yet startling — observation that I never considered: it’s possible to make a change without ever going through a transition.
He explains: “Change is situational.” It is moving to a new place, changing jobs, getting married, becoming a parent, or experiencing a global pandemic. “Transition, on the other hand, is psychological.” It is the process of internalizing and coming to terms with change.
If we undertake situational change without the necessary psychological transition, he warns us that real change will not actually occur. Rather, “it is just a rearrangement of the chairs.” Things may appear to have changed, but nothing is really different.
If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that we must all learn how to manage transition. We are all experiencing unprecedented change. But have we gone through the psychological transition as well?
Because teshuva (the Jewish concept of repentance or return) is one of the most powerful tools our tradition offers for bringing about transition and growth, the Yamim Noraim are the perfect time to work on this.
For all of the practical changes we are all experiencing, how do we ensure we also go through the transition that is necessary in order for these changes to actually work?
How do we become the person we want to become instead of feeling stuck in old patterns? As a people, how do we become the people we want to become? Speaking to Jewish educators, what kind of educators do we want to be?
Our tradition is a great starting point for understanding how to make the most of change.
In the second chapter of Rambam’s Laws of Repentance, the first two halakhot focus on behavioral change, but not change at a deeper level of identity. For example, when a person who used to engage in promiscuous behavior does not repeat that behavior, he or she has engaged in an important part of the teshuva process.
But teshuva is not complete. It is in Rambam’s third law where he says something I find earth-shattering: “Anyone who verbalizes his confession without resolving in his heart to abandon [sin] can be compared to [a person] who immerses himself [in a mikvah] while [holding the carcass of] a lizard in his hand.”
This is someone who might show a change, but has not gone through a psychological transition.
In the fourth law, Rambam describes teshuva that results in the transformation of a person’s identity. It is as if this person says: “I am a different person and not the same one who sinned.” That’s because true teshuva involves holistic change.
How do we go through this transition? Bridges suggests a critical three-step process:
- Let go of old ways. This phase is “the time when you need to help people to deal with their losses.” Allow yourself to grieve for the past. Too often, this loss is not dealt with appropriately, and this is the biggest difficulty for people as they experience a transition.
- Embrace the “neutral zone”: This is the in-between phase when the “old” is in the past and the “new” has not yet happened. “Critical psychological realignments and repatternings take place” during this time. It can be the most daunting time period, but it is also when we have the “best chance to be creative.”
- Launch a new beginning. Finally, the third phase is the transition. Following the wisdom of hazal, yes, “kol hatchalot kashot,” all beginnings are difficult. But it is not just difficult; it is also energizing. According to Bridges, this is when people “develop the new identity, experience the new energy, and discover the sense of purpose that makes the change begin to work.”
When changes happen in business, Bridges explains that “leaders forget endings and neutral zones; they try to start with the final stage of transition.” Even the best initiatives can fall flat if leaders do not guide their teams through all three phases.
This applies to our personal lives as well. Rabbi Alan Lew, author of “This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared,” articulates something that I believe many of us struggle with:
“How many of us are holding on very hard to some piece of personal history that is preventing us from moving on with our lives, and keeping us from those we love?… How many of us stand paralyzed between the moon and the sun; frozen, unable to act in the moment because of our terror of the past and because of the intractability of the present circumstances that the past has wrought?”
To make any kind of change work, we need to learn how to manage transitions. Letting go of our old reality can be painful and even traumatic. But by allowing ourselves to grieve, we can leave our past in the past and move forward.
While this is true on the individual level, it is certainly applicable to the educational and Jewish world as well. Of course, although some students are saying virtual learning is the best thing that happened to them, it cannot, in most instances, replace the in-person experience. Still, let’s stop trying to replicate the past and embrace the future.
Here are four specific ways that Jewish educators can embrace the neutral zone and construct a better future.
- Acknowledge that virtual learning is here to stay. Of course it is easy for me to say as a leader of a Jewish educational media company, but it’s time we acknowledge that virtual learning is here to stay. Even when in-person learning is once again safe, it will not be the same. We have to accept this reality and adapt. This includes grieving for the loss of what our classrooms looked like before the pandemic.
- Look for the benefits of virtual learning that we want to retain after the pandemic. This is ultimately a learning opportunity. When we enter the next normal, let’s bring what worked in our virtual classrooms into our physical classrooms. Videos, podcasts, and other digital media should continue to be part of our toolbox.
- Build bridges and enhance collaboration across the Jewish world. We can no longer afford for the different components of the Jewish ecosystem to work in silos. Jewish camps, schools, synagogues, digital media companies, youth groups, Israel trips and other organizations need to work together on joint initiatives to reach a broader audience and increase their impact.
- Make nimbleness a priority skill set. The Jewish and educational world, like every area, is moving and changing quickly. To navigate this phase effectively, we must be able to create plans and strategies, and then quickly pivot and adapt to new circumstances.
Letting go of your old identity does not mean forgetting memories that you cherish. When I was a high school principal, I used to ask my students, “What is the ultimate sign of maturity?” They would respond in unison, “Transition!”
I wanted to make sure they understood that transition is how we meet challenges, evolve and grow. If we allow ourselves to grieve for our losses, embrace the neutral zone, and reimagine our work together, we will be well positioned to create a bright future for ourselves individually and Jewish education collectively.