Overcoming Imposter Syndrome as a Rabbi

Rabbi Dahlia Bernstein

By Rabbi Dahlia Bernstein

I am late to Yom Kippur – which isn’t a problem except I’m leading services. My flight to Rochester was canceled, and my father, who is also a rabbi, is now standing in for me until I arrive. I get to the building, and services have started when I peer into the sanctuary, and I see my father killing it from the bimah.

My heart sinks, and I almost don’t go in. Imagine Rabbi Bernstein Sr. — suit, salt-and-pepper beard and a James Earl Jones baritone voice. Then there is me — an ill-fitting suit, mezzo-soprano voice and racking insecurities.
Whether it is rational or not, I feel like an impostor and know they will see right through me.

I spent many years working through the feeling that I would never be enough. I both fiercely defended my right to be a rabbi and also secretly felt fearful that I wasn’t the expert that they needed me to be. To some degree, everyone feels that way when they enter a new position, yet for some, that feeling lingers. One fear is that the quirk we think is so unprofessional may undermine our leadership, and the “impostor” within it wants to run and hide.

One issue I have with using the phrase “imposter syndrome” is that people often just stop there. We sit in the uncomfortable space of not feeling like we are enough, and because this space feels so familiar, we accept that feeling like an impostor will just have to be the cost of being a leader. We get stuck looking at those who seem so confident and think, “If only I could be more like them.”

So we contort and spend our energy trying to be something we are not. It’s a cycle, and it has to end for you to feel the freedom and power you are looking for. Before his death, Rabbi Zusya said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?”’

Mic drop.

Martin Buber shared Rabbi Zusya’s gut-punching message long before anyone was talking about “impostor syndrome.” Despite powerful teachings like this, we still fear leading the Jewish community we love so much. When questions that might change the way “things were done” come our way, even if we have innovative ideas, many of us hear this subversive voice that screams, “You’re going to mess it up” or “They won’t respect you if … ”

That voice is a nasty gremlin planted in our minds many years ago to protect us and keep us small, yet it rears its ugly head when the moment calls us to lead in a big way. Interestingly, the fear is twofold: both that we are too weak to make a difference and that we are so powerful that we can corrupt this vast and long-lasting tradition with just one decision.

It is a communal imperative to lead as ourselves. If we want our institutions and this beautiful tradition to flourish, then leaders and communities need to be courageous enough to embody today’s diverse voices. I guarantee you that if it is your truth, it is someone else’s truth, too.

And we cannot risk losing any member of our precious tribe because of our insecurities.

After all, the amount of energy it takes to try to be someone we are not can be spent in more productive ways. We are leaking energy that could be better used in the service of our greater values and our institution’s missions. So what if I told you that not only could you be yourself, but you could be precisely what your boss, your co-workers and the Jewish people need? It’s real, and it’s simple, and the first step is to accept that you don’t need all of the answers right now to be powerful.

Your intuition — combined with logic and emotional awareness — will help you locate the resources you need. Accepting yourself is not the same thing as “letting yourself off the hook.” Self-acceptance is the key to leadership.

Consider what Rabbi Nahman of Bretslov said: “When you were born, the Universe decided it could not live without you.”

You are — and always have been — enough. l

Dahlia Bernstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Ohr in Bellmore, New York. This piece was first published by eJewishPhilanthropy.


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