When I graduated college I really wasn't ready for what would come next.
I entered the University of Missouri in 2005 eager to be certified as a professional writer by the best journalism school in the country; I left Mizzou in 2009 with as much a sense of direction as the struggling field I was newly qualified to work in and hoping to find a job just months into the worst economic downturn since an era I had to read about in history textbooks because my grandparents were barely old enough to remember it.
I had also made entering the prospective working world as challenging as possible. I didn't have a clear idea of what I wanted to do or where I wanted to work. I was neither picky about the details nor certain of them. I saw myself happy in a lot of different jobs and my experience reflected someone with diverse interests but no clear focal point.
Covering collegiate women's tennis, criminal justice reporting, my movie blog - I enjoyed all of it. But in a job market that demanded a concerted effort and one's best foot forward, being happy to wander in any direction wasn't going to get me anywhere.
Why? Because this is what I saw on job postings:
"The ideal candidate has 2-4 years experience working in [insert niche field]"
"3-5 years [insert niche field] experience preferred."
"Knowledge of [insert software or specialty skill]."
And these were listed as "entry level jobs," which I soon realized were creatures of 20th Century working world mythology; if they appeared or were reported to exist, I never saw the evidence. In an industry with way more writers than writing jobs, employers had a range of experience to choose from. When I applied for these jobs anyway, namely when I had connections on the inside, I found myself turned away each time because someone else always had that niche experience.
I was left in a desperate state. I had gotten some freelance work, which would keep me writing and my portfolio fresh, but would not allow me to save up. So I looked to my other niche experience and turned where I had always turned when I needed work: the Jewish world.
The first job I ever had was as a machonik (teaching assistant) for my congregation's Hebrew school. In college, I went back to my Jewish overnight camp to be a counselor and train as a song leader. I then took those skills back to school during the year and began working as a Hebrew school teacher and song leader at the local synagogue.
My degree may have read "Bachelors in Journalism," but I left school equally qualified to be a Jewish professional without having any intention of doing so.
It turned out there was a need for young Jewish professionals in the Chicago suburbs. I found part time work as a religious school song leader, youth group advisor for pre-teens and conversational Hebrew teacher - at three different synagogues. As each year went by, I moved up and on: high school youth advisor, b'nai mitzvah tutor, song leader-for-hire at several more synagogues and early childhood music specialist at the JCC. The more I took on and the longer I stayed with it, the more opportunities that came along.
There are lots of words and phrases we use to describe our Jewish communities. Caring. Giving. Loving. Welcoming. A kehilah kedoshah (holy community). Mine was a metaphor, a safety net. I jumped into the working world, and though I fell, the hands of rabbis, educators, cantors, lay leaders, children - they kept me upright.
As grateful as I was for these opportunities, however, I had to recognize where the credit belonged. My Jewish upbringing, Jewish learning experiences, Jewish curiosities and the Jewish people who encouraged me along the way were all responsible. I never went to religious school and camp with the intention of acquiring a skill set that I could use in my professional career. Almost no one does. Developing those skills was the fortunate byproduct of a life full of positive Jewish experiences and a commitment to Jewish values.
So it surprised no one that my first full-time writing-based position - though nearly four years later and after falling short once before - came from the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. Although it calls upon my journalism and communications skills, my 3-5 years as a Jewish professional in Chicago became my niche experience, experience that didn't matter as much to other employers - except for this one.
Our lives are often said to be the accumulation of our experiences, and mine has to this point been filled with a great deal of Jewish ones. I never once thought aloud that I should pursue any given experience because it was Jewish. My previous Jewish experiences just naturally pointed me to my future ones - every time. And it will continue that way, because that's what I've chosen for myself.
Although I have taken an important and positive step with JUF, I can't guarantee that my professional and Jewish paths will remain converged throughout my lifetime; one step does not constitute a commitment in direction. But what I do know is that if I continue to let my Jewish experiences and values guide me, I'll never have to be concerned with where I fall.