Sign of the Times for the Jewish Community, Too: Alban Institute to Close

 

The Alban Institute announced yesterday that it is closing. Until not long ago, Alban was the premiere publishing house and consulting firm for churches. Even before it began a concerted effort to work with synagogues, I knew many rabbis who drew heavily upon its abundant resources. What made Alban unique was its ability to apply serious research to real-world issues of congregations: leadership, conflict, clergy personality types, congregational culture, finances—and pretty much every pertinent issue for congregations. When it opened 40 years ago in 1974, it was far ahead of its time. Now, like so many religious endeavors, it seems that time has passed it by.

 

Alban-Institute-Closing

So what can the Jewish community learn from this significant event?

 

• Organizations have lifecycles. There is wisdom in knowing when it’s time to turn off the lights.

 

• If you are personally involved in one of these situations it can be incredibly painful and stressful.

 

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Lay People Welcome: Share Your Thoughts on 21st Century Rabbinical Education!

 

 

As my co-editor, Ellie Roscher and I, are receiving essays for our latest research project and book, Keeping the Faith in Rabbinical Education, we’re already beginning to hear an unprecedented, multi-vocal conversation. Our goal is to understand from rabbis in the field and educators of rabbis how rabbinical education needs to grow and shift to be relevant in the 21st century. But – several weeks ago I realized that I only had two of the three sets voices needed for this book project. Your voice – those of you who have ongoing interactions with rabbis, or who had them in the past, need to be represented in this book. Why?

 

Generally, with the exception of much of the Orthodox world, the goal of rabbinical school is not to become a rabbi. Rather, it is to serve Jewish people as a camp or school educator, congregational rabbi, chaplain, Hillel director or in some other way. So, how could I not invite those of you who are not rabbis to add an essay to this volume?! After all, you are the intended beneficiaries of rabbinical education.

 

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Rabbi’s Role: Speaking Out Or Maintaining Community?

 
Frequently, I hear congregants complain that their rabbis are not inspiring or that they never take clear stands on issues of importance. That’s why the ongoing discussion about rabbinic independence that has erupted again at B’nai Jeshurun, covered very fairly by The Jewish Week (“B’nai Jeshurun Defections Fuel Debate,” Feb. 28), transcends any single congregation and any one subject. It is a contemporary case study about two issues facing the congregational world:

 

  • the intersection of a rabbi’s obligation to speak his or her mind truthfully and the members of a congregation’s right to feel that their voices are also heard and,

 

  • the ability to maintain a community in which individuals have shared depth of passion about an issue, while holding divergent views on tactics.

 

That is why respectful coverage of issues like these are important and healthy, because they test the ability of congregations to not become monolithic echo chambers, where two factions shout at one another and victory goes to the most shrill side. We can’t let synagogues go down that path.

 

A primary role of the rabbi is to build community infused with purpose. If a rabbi’s goal is only to create relationships and build community, I actually don’t understand what that means: relationships and community toward what end? Yes—we desperately need places like congregations that can be microcosms of kindness, civility, decency and meaningful, multi-generational interaction. But even more, we need communities to help us be and do more than we can alone. Purposeful, intentional communities that transform the lives of individuals and positively impact the broader community develop over time with the help of rabbis who are possessed with a vision of a grander tomorrow. If good and warm and nice are your essential goals, then you can expect rabbis who will be sweet but relatively bland, lest they offend someone. Congregations will have spiritual caretakers but not spiritual leaders. Rabbi Israel Salanter, founder of the Musar Movement, expressed this idea best when he said, “A rabbi whose community does not disagree with him is no rabbi. A rabbi who fears his community is no man.”

 

However, rabbi and senior volunteer leaders need to reach agreement first about the vision they strive to fulfill together. The operative word in this sentence is “together. ” Neither rabbi nor congregational leaders unilaterally declare the vision. Rather, rabbis and senior volunteer leaders develop a shared vision. In that process, a rabbi has considerable opportunity to bring an integrated understanding and approach of the “what” and “why” of being Jewish. Then, over a period of years, rabbi and senior volunteers work together on achieving just a little bit more perfection in their corner of the world—their congregational community. This is not a linear process and it’s messy and open at times. But when rabbis and volunteers learn how to keep their eyes on the ball over a long time horizon, they create a kind of alchemy that can turn moral blight into moral majesty.

 

Rabbis can’t be expected to separate their “political beliefs” from their Jewish values either. The idea of partitioning personal beliefs from public persona is authentically Protestant but antithetically Jewish. Politics are intertwined with policy and the allocation of resources that touch deeply on Jewish values, so rabbis are authentic when they refract these issues through their reading of the Jewish tradition. But a rabbi must also be sensitive to where the congregation is at a given moment in time, assess how far he or she can try to move it and also know when the congregation must pause to gain strength for the next step, be it inward or outward. Especially in our trigger-finger social-media environment, rabbis owe their leaders advanced notice of how they intend to address controversial issues, but should not be censured for doing so.

 

Ultimately, when rabbis and volunteer leaders can’t agree upon a shared vision, it’s time to examine the sustainability of the relationship. But remember: when rabbis and volunteers have worked hard together over a long period, the option for parting ways should be treated like radical surgery—the only possible last resort that might save a life. And even if that life is saved, it is never the same again. That’s why where there is a commitment to a shared vision and transparent communications, and a rabbi speaks from the heart about that vision but congregational leaders buckle under pressure, they have failed their rabbi and their community. That results not just in the loss of good rabbis but also in the loss of communities of purpose—communities that have the ability to change lives and change worlds.

 

And now to the current challenge. In full disclosure, Rabbi Matalon and I were close classmates in rabbinical school. I’m grateful that we’ve maintained our friendship over the years and, not surprisingly, the last time we met together in person was at a café in Yerushalayim. My respect for him and for his colleagues has grown over the years and his love for Israel doesn’t need my verbal defense. His work on Israel advocacy within his congregation and beyond speaks for itself. But I am compelled to speak out for two reasons. First, I believe that it’s still possible for individuals with shared values but disparate strategies to remain friends and be in dialogue. Second, because as I wrote earlier, the Jewish community deserves rabbis who speak about issues that are not theoretical, but ultimate and real.

 

The hatred toward Israel in parts of Europe has been gathering steam for years and similar feelings have already seeped into influential institutions here. The policies of the current Israeli government often offend my Jewish sense of justice, just as my colleagues on the right do when they seek to justify that which is plainly and morally wrong. But, given a globally networked effort to undermine the legal legitimacy of a Jewish state (forces which the current Israeli government often feeds), I won’t be silent when my rabbinic colleagues publicly blast Jewish organizations that advocate for Israel, even when I don’t agree with all of their tactics. Why? Because I know from personal experience that my words will be used as precious gifts to organizations and individuals who have dedicated their lives to the denial of Israel’s existence.

 

While I am appalled by right-wing national and religious extremism, I will find other ways than expressing my views in public pronouncements that have the potential to strengthen those who are irreconcilably hostile to the existence of a Jewish state. While I respect those who disagree with me, I’m casting my choice with the first century Jewish sage, Shimon ben Shetach, who said: “be deliberate in your choice of words, lest others abuse them to testify falsely (Pirkei Avot 1:9).”

 

 

 

Rough Realities of the Rabbinate

 

 

“There’s something happening here, But what it is ain’t exactly clear…”
Why Keeping the Faith in Rabbinical Education

 

Someone asked me, “Why are you working on Keeping the Faith in Rabbinical Education (KTF Rabbinical), a book about 21st Century rabbinical education?”

 

As I take a call from another rabbi in crisis, hear another lament about a rabbi from a congregant, read an additional mean-spirited attack in the Jewish Daily Forward against a denomination and generally observe congregations around the country, I keep thinking of the refrain from a song titled “For What It’s Worth,” popularly known as “Stop Children What’s that Sound.” (Trivia buffs: according to Wikipedia, Stephen Stills wrote this song in November 1966, and the band that he was then a part of, Buffalo Springfield, recorded it a few weeks later.)

 

There’s something happening here
But what it is ain’t exactly clear…

It’s time we stop
Hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look – what’s going down?

 

People kvetching about rabbis in whatever capacity they work, and rabbis complaining about their constituents is an old story. But the rate at which I’ve seen some really outstanding rabbis lose their jobs for no good reason, or the depth of dissatisfaction that lay people have with some rabbis for good reason, seems to be more pervasive than only a couple of decades ago.

 

“There’s something happening here
But what it is ain’t exactly clear…”

 

Is it that:
• As American Jews, we are very far removed from the time where the rabbi was the most educated person in the community, and therefore the rabbi is not respected automatically?

 

• Clergy scandals tainted the expectations that lay leaders have of rabbis as exemplars of morality?

 

• The “What have you done for me lately mentality?” that has eroded longstanding business relationships, has crept into relationships with rabbis?

 

• The culture of disdain for authority figures has expanded to include rabbis?

 

• The extent to which social media’s ability to dispense global gossip on momentary notice fueled tensions between volunteers and rabbis?

 

• Rabbis rightfully expect to be treated as professionals, but we did not understand that meant evaluations, performance reviews and measurable outcomes: a skill set that most rabbis don’t have, and a mindset that often recoils from this kind of orientation toward the sacred.

 

• The consumerist mentality of shopping, combined with the Internet and the mainstreaming of Jewish culture, means that shopping for rabbis, Jewish education, Jewish ritual is an “anyone, anytime, anywhere” option?

 

I’m working on Keeping the Faith in Rabbinical Education because I want to help rabbis and their respective constituents grow together at a time when they seem to be growing further apart. Nothing less than the quality of Jewish life in the United States is at stake. And by exploring the education and continuing education of rabbis, I believe that we’ll gain clarity on which of the above dynamics are immutable and which are amenable to positive change. If you know a rabbi, are a rabbi or educator of rabbis, click here to learn more about submitting an essay for consideration to this volume. And volunteer leaders who care about high-quality rabbinical education—stay tuned, you’ll soon be receiving an invitation, too.

 

 

KTF team: Rabbi Hayim Herring, Andrew Barron, owner/publisher Avenida Books, co-editor, Ellie Roscher.

KTF team: Rabbi Hayim Herring, Andrew Barron, owner/publisher Avenida Books, co-editor, Ellie Roscher.

 

 

I Never Knew I Had it Within Me – Do You?

 

I never had aspirations to write an article or book and have it published. I couldn’t even see it on my long-term horizon. But at a rabbis’ retreat in the 1990’s, in a session where we were asked to explore our dreams, I wrote the words, “I want to write a book.”

 

To this day, it’s still a mystery where this urge emanated from, but subsequently I slowly began to own the possibility of authoring a book. I guess that was a shorthand way of intuiting that I had something within me to say that I needed to see in writing, although I was skeptical that anyone else would really care. While years passed before I published my first article, that session catapulted my unconscious thoughts into concrete realities.

 

Today, the tools of publishing have been democratized and are easily accessible to just about anyone who wants to be an author. But making the leap from teacher and preacher, to writer with a permanent record, can still be emotionally daunting. I asked my friend and co-editor of Keeping the Faith in Rabbinical Education, Ellie Roscher, to share her thoughts on making that transition. We’re doing so with the hope that rabbis who have a story to tell about their rabbinical education will feel empowered to finally liberate that story within them for our forthcoming publication or, for that matter, to share their wisdom and spirit with the world in a way that suits them.

 

(For Ellie’s advice continue reading below the image)

keeping the faith

 

And Ellie’s Advice….

 

“Let me live, love, and say it well in good sentences.” ~ Sylvia Plath

 

I have always loved writing. I was surprised, then, when it was time to publish my first blog post. My palms got sweaty. My heart started to race. I learned in that moment that writing to publish is vastly different than writing to write. It is shockingly vulnerable to send your work, what feels like your life out into the unknown abyss. There is no controlling who will read it and what they will think. But when my thoughts and stories inspire something completely unexpected in a stranger, something new is born. The text comes alive. And all the work– the notes, the word choice, the deleting, the doubt and research is all worth it. Here are a few simple tips to get you started:

 

1) Don’t try too hard to create a style. Your style is simply what you notice about the world. Pay attention and then write what you see and think about. Your style will emerge effortlessly from that.

 

2) Never sit down to a blank screen without an idea. Talk to friends about your idea until you can articulate it verbally with ease. Write sentences in your head while you are driving or walking. People tend to be braver about deleting bad sentences in their head than once they are typed out. If you have a few ideas and sentences in your head when you sit down to type, you may be more playful, and less nervous about writer’s block.

 

3) When output feels hard, change your input to output ratio. Read great books, listen to stimulating podcasts, take in nature, put on fantastic music, sip your favorite wine. Take in a ton of beauty and then try again.

 

4) Read your work aloud when you think it is finished. If a sentence sounds forced coming out of your mouth, it may read forced as well. If you can read your writing aloud without strain, that means it is clear,conversational, effective communication that is distinctly “you.” Great way to find typos and listen for rhythm that feels natural.

 

Writing is hard work, but it’s good work. Write to find out what you really think about something, to deepen your own self-reflection. Be unabashedly selfish in writing for your own self-improvement and for fun. Find the beauty of your story. Send it to one person you trust when you think it is ready. Listen to how the sentences feel in your mouth. Send it out into the world and see where it chooses to live. Let yourself be surprised and deeply proud of your courage.

 

 

 

Mission, Marketing and Media—Inseparable, Invaluable (Part 3)

 

Welcome to the third in a series of guest bloggers from my friends and colleagues — all experts in their respective fields. As I wrote last week, these three words — mission, marketing and media — can begin to sound like empty buzzwords unless they are clearly defined and then made actionable for congregations. The content of what they mean is easy. The key is in understanding the context. Rounding out the series, I’m delighted that my friend and colleague Rabbi Jason Miller, President of Access Computer Technology and all-around rabbinic entrepreneur, is this week’s guest blogger. He provides real-world examples of what happens when the bricks and mortar of a congregation meet the bytes and clicks of the digital age, and why social media channels for engaging people are not optional, but integral to congregational work.

 

“The Social Networking Synagogue of the 21st Century”
Rabbi Jason Miller – Access Computer Technology

 

Rabbi Jason Miller of Detroit, MichiganAsk a typical Jewish man or woman if they belong to a synagogue and you’re likely to hear, “Yes, but we only attend on the High Holidays.” Nothing new there. We all know the twice-a-year Jews who only show up in the pews on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, just as we all know Christians who only appear in church on Christmas and Easter. However, something has changed as of late.

 

That same individual who once described their synagogue attendance in such sporadic terms might now explain that she is an active member of the congregation. Has she all of a sudden begun attending the bricks and mortar synagogue building any more than she did in the past? No. So what has changed that her answer is so vastly different? She now finds herself engaging with her congregational community in Cyberspace. She is a fan of the congregation’s Facebook page and while she was able to ignore those monthly event flyers that arrived in her mailbox on various colors of copy paper, she now sees each program the congregation offers in her Facebook feed (which she spends an hour a day on average reading!). As she’s following the lives of her friends and family, she’s also tracking the weekly happenings at the synagogue. She can see which friends are attending classes, she is learning from the rabbi who posts some thoughts on the weekly Torah portion, and she closely scrutinizes the photos that were uploaded from the last Sisterhood function (which she didn’t attend in real time, but she now feels as if she was there).

 

That same individual who felt so out of touch with his congregation because he only engaged the services of the rabbi a few times in the month leading up to his daughter’s bat mitzvah is now subscribed to the congregation’s weekly Constant Contact newsletter. He knows which congregants passed away, whose children became engaged, and who just became grandparents for the first time. He can now keep up with what his children are learning in the religious school because he follows the education director’s tweets during the school hours (wow, he thinks, this is way more interesting than my Hebrew School experience!). He learned from uploaded photos on Instagram that there is a monthly study session just for men at the local pub led by the rabbi and he already added the next month’s session to his calendar.

 

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Mission, Marketing and Media—Inseparable, Invaluable (Part 2)

 

Welcome to the second in a series of guest bloggers from my friends and colleagues—all experts in their respective fields. As I wrote last week, these three topics are integral to today’s successful synagogues. Yet, contextualizing them for congregations is not always so easy. But this week’s guest blogger, Rose McKinney, founder and C.E.O. of Pineapple Reputation Management, provides a congregational-friendly framework for thinking about marketing (hint: think “story telling”).

 

Have Faith in the Merits of Marketing
Rose McKinney, Pineapple RM

Rose-Mckinney_profile

Mention marketing within a corporate setting and heads nod excitedly and knowingly as executives with MBAs toss about buzz words like metric dashboards, sales funnel and lead conversion.  Mention marketing during a non-profit board meeting and committee people get giddy with possibilities for fundraising and membership drives.  Mention marketing within faith communities and wrinkles appear on peoples’ brows and then the comments of indignation:  “Oh, no, we don’t believe in selling.”

 

That’s when I know there is a disconnect.  Marketing and sales are often lumped together because good marketing creates an environment in which sales can take place, but make no mistake – marketing is about relationships and storytelling, it’s about community, and sales is about monetary transaction.

 

No worries, faith communities are not alone in confusing the merits of marketing.  If you’re leery as to where this is going, let me mention a few familiar types of groups that now market themselves yet previously were diametrically opposed to such a notion.

 

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Mission, Marketing and Media—Inseparable, Invaluable

 

 

Like many of you, I work with some really smart people, who love what they do, strive to learn from others and passionately share their knowledge in return. The next three posts will be from experts who exemplify these qualities, and I’ve invited them to write about the integral relationship between mission, marketing and media. Our first guest is Daniel Chiat, of Measuring Success, whose organization has rich, unique data on why mission matters. Hope you enjoy these posts!

Rabbi Hayim Herring

 

Got Mission? It Matters—and Here Are the Data To Prove It!

ChiatDaniel Chiat, Measuring Success

 

What characteristics of synagogue life predispose members to feel satisfied and to feel that they have personally grown as a Jew? There are certainly many worthy answers, but the two most important aspects both come down to vision.

 

We’re not guessing at this conclusion; it’s grounded in the analysis of thousands of synagogue members across North America. Over the last five years, we’ve assisted nearly 40 synagogues in using data to create strategic plans and build relationships. We’ve asked over 15,000 congregants to answer questions about their priorities and satisfaction levels. The results indicate that the top drivers of synagogue satisfaction and personal growth are high scores on the following two questions:

 

  • Do the vision and values of the synagogue resonate with you?
  • Do the vision and values of the clergy resonate with you?

 

Hayim Herring Blog

We know that high scores on these vision questions are the best predictors of satisfaction and personal growth regardless of a synagogue’s location, membership size, or denomination. This is because our database includes synagogues from across the spectrum and everything in between. The data suggests that synagogue leaders should invest energy on vision and values in order to have significant impact on outcomes like member satisfaction, retention, and personal growth.

 

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Some Things are Meant to Be—and Maybe Now is Your Time….

 

Last April, I read an Alban weekly newsletter about a collection of essays on Protestant seminary education, called Keeping the Faith in Seminary Education. This volume was edited Ellie Roscher, a Protestant, female millennial with personal seminary experience. Having worked for many years on rabbinical and continuing Rabbinical education, I was naturally intrigued by the topic. And I also know that Protestants and Jews have some of the same struggles in creating vibrant religious communities, so a collaboration on this kind of project would likely generate some new ideas. I didn’t know Ellie, but thought that there was no downside to tracking her down and learning more about her project. Yes – I admit that I was already thinking then about perhaps editing a book with her on rabbinical education.

Hayim Herring-WordCloud

Coincidentally or providentially, it turned out that she was moving back to her hometown in Minneapolis. Shortly after she arrived, we met in person. I can’t say that I expected that she would agree at our very first meeting to be involved in co-editing and writing a part of a book. But I guess that some things are meant to be, and not only Ellie, but her publisher, Andrew Barron of Avenida Books, also quickly came on board.

 

So here is your chance: especially in light of the Pew Study, if you are a rabbinical student, rabbi, or educator of rabbinical students or rabbis, we want to hear your unmediated voice on the nature of rabbinical education. Please click here to find out how you can potentially contribute an essay to a volume that needs to be written—I hope that I’ll catch you at one of those moments of interest, just like Ellie’s volume found me. And if you have any questions, please feel free to contact me directly.

 

Thank you, Rabbi Hayim Herring

 

P.S.-for Ellie’s version of the story on our collaboration, visit her blog. And—first we wrote our own recollections of our meeting and only then did we read one another’s posts. Uncanny how similar and still distinctive they are!

 

 

 

Be Entrepreneurial, Not Innovative

 

 

“Drop the quest for innovation and adopt the mentality of entrepreneurship.” That was my essential message to of a wonderful group of rabbis from the Philadelphia Metro Area a few days ago. With the support of the Philadelphia Board of Rabbis, I had the pleasure of facilitating a highly interactive workshop with about 40 colleagues on Rabbinic entrepreneurship. What’s the difference between being innovative and being entrepreneurial? In my workbook (click, complete form and download) on Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today. Creating Vibrant Centers of Jewish Life, I wrote,

 

“Innovation” is a catchphrase everywhere we look, and it is often used as a substitute for entrepreneurship, but there is a difference between them:

  • Innovation requires creativity but, unlike entrepreneurship, does not address issues like tolerance for risk, organizational agility, improvisational ability, and speed.
  • Innovation often comes in bursts after focusing on discrete ideas and issues, while entrepreneurship requires cultivating a certain kind of culture, defined by a set of practices and attitudes that are infused throughout an organization

 

Innovative Rabbis The rabbis completed a diagnostic assessment of readiness for moving to an entrepreneurial culture (p.19 in the workbook). Then, they divided into small groups to explore how to apply ten entrepreneurial practices to an idea about which they were passionate and bring to life in their communities. This group of rabbis was very diverse. But their passion for wanting to adopt a more entrepreneurial mindset was a feeling they shared—and they inspired me.

 

Rabbis are too often an unfair and handy target for undeserved criticism about the state of Jewish affairs. No doubt, we’ve earned some of the criticism. On the other hand, it’s also clear to me that many rabbis are ready to turn the dial on maintenance down and turn up the dial on entrepreneurship. The dynamic of public punishment of rabbis who take risks, and their reactive tendency to then play it safe, is one that each side should acknowledge and change. And when that happens, congregants, rabbis and the broader Jewish community will begin to enjoy both the rootedness of a community and the excitement of an incubator for fresh Jewish life.

 

If you’re interested in learning more about how your leadership can become more entrepreneurial, please contact me and let’s start the discussion! I’ve heard many of your ideas and it’s time for you to turn them into realities.

 

 

 

Call me Edgar

 

It was with those words and an extended hand that I first met Edgar M. Bronfman, of blessed memory, about a decade ago. I had recently been hired as Executive Director of STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal), one of the initiatives that he was funding. And over the course of that decade, I was incredibly fortunate to spend time with Edgar M. Bronfman, a contemporary hero of the Jewish people. (I use those words genuinely—my professional relationship with The Samuel Bronfman Foundation ended when STAR disbanded in 2010.) Anyone of a certain age involved in Jewish communal life knew the name, Edgar M. Bronfman, and for good reason. As a small tribute to Edgar, I’d like to frame several personal reflections in a way that he would appreciate: with brevity and with Torah.

 

This week’s parasha, Vaera, opens on a depressing note. We left off last week with Pharaoh further demoralizing the Jewish people. What is his response to Moshe’s demand to liberate them? He responds by obligating the Jewish people to gather the raw materials for brick baking, something that he had provided them with, and still produce the same quota of bricks. Moshe’s chutzpah in confronting Pharaoh is repaid with more back-breaking work, not more freedom! And how do the Jewish people respond when Moshe tries to encourage the people to believe in a better, achievable, not-to-distant future? “And the people did not believe him because their spirits were crushed and the labor was hard” (Exodus 6:9). After all those years of oppression and humiliation, can you blame them for giving up easily after their initial hopes were shattered?

Edgar Bronfman
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Jewish Cultural Affirmation: Great Intent, Misguided Action

 

 

First, thank you to Steven M. Cohen and Kerry Olitzky once again for opening up a wide space for conversation about the future of the American Jewish community. These two prominent observers and activists of Jewish life continue to challenge us with unconventional thinking. With regard to their idea of Jewish Cultural Affirmation as a new option for formal identification with the Jewish people, great intent, but misguided action. Here’s why:

 

The Jewish people worldwide as an entity is already fractured by competing definitions of Jewish status. Why compound the confusion?

 

Seriously—how possible will it be to gain agreement by a group of scholars upon the canon of knowledge and experiences required for Jewish Culture Affirmation? A definition by one group will spawn a number of alternative and likely contradictory ones, creating disputes among self-appointed Cultural Certifiers, and casting doubts on the bona fides of graduates of these self-guided programs.

 

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Pew-ish and Religiously Jewish

 

Pew’s Portrait of American Jews and Ritual: A Troubling Landscape

 

One of Dr. Arnie Eisen’s first big ideas as Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary was “The Mitzvah Initiative.” The most recent Statement of Principles of the Reform Movement encourages individuals to reexamine the role of mitzvah (“sacred obligations”). And, who knows how much Chabad has invested over the decades trying to persuade people to add just “one more mitzvah” to their lives. But the vast majority of American Jews have rejected some core mitzvot/rituals that have defined the Jewish people throughout the ages (like keeping kosher, praying regularly in synagogue and observing a day of Shabbat—to name a few).

 

The most recent Pew Report reaffirms this reality (see especially chapters 3 and 4 of the report). This isn’t new, but it is a persistent puzzle despite the efforts of every religious stream, and especially the monumental efforts of Chabad. And here’s why we should be concerned about the lack of a wider adoption of consistent ritual practice and what the absence of it might mean for the long-term future of American Jewry.

 

Pew-Study-Hayim-Herring

According to the Pew study, when asked whether being Jewish is mainly a matter of religion, ancestry or culture, six-in-ten cite either ancestry or culture (or a combination of the two).

 

But first, a couple of pre-emptive clarifications. This post is not about whether someone who performs mitzvot is a “better Jew” than someone who doesn’t. That’s a pointless and insulting debate because we’ve all met ritually observant scoundrels and ethical people who don’t care much for core Jewish rituals.

 

Second—this post is not another call to “adopt a mitzvah” or make “halakha” (Jewish law) relevant. Rather, it’s a challenge that I’m putting forth to those who value ritual to speak more broadly and openly about the nexus between personal ritual practice and ethical behavior, and to help others hear the music underneath the ritual that moves us to do more and be more than we think we’re capable of.

 

As noted in the Pew Report, the majority of American Jews hold that belief in God, being ethical and moral people and working for social justice are essential attributes of being Jewish—something rightfully to feel quite proud about! So why be concerned about the lack of a greater widespread adoption of a rich, ritual life? Because without it, we risk losing the very values that make us proud of who we are.

 

So here’s how I understand ritual….Ritual is an imperfect, evolving yet organized system that helps me develop into a more decent human being. With ongoing practice, ritual reminds me to become a more empathetic, thoughtful and generous human being. If I value social justice in my heart, then my ritual reflex must be to pay employees a decent wage and give them a day of rest. If I know that I should be grateful for the many blessings in my life that I didn’t work for, then prayer, with its many expressions of gratitude, helps me remember to express appreciation to others. Ideally, ritual transforms what are often ephemeral moral feelings into immediate ethical actions.

 

And ritual has other relevance today. We live in a hyper-changing present, saturated with expanding choices that clamor for immediate attention. Personally, Jewish ritual has increasingly felt like the rest notes in a score of music that help me pause, and then regain perspective on which relationships and activities are ultimately important and which only feel so at the moment. And when I’m a part of a community that practices some of the same rituals that I do, I gain the strength that I need to keep practicing, which isn’t always easy.

 

And that’s what leads me to my concern—for how long will Jews continue to be passionate about social justice, morality and ethics without the reinforcement of ritual? For how long can a set of today’s values be transmitted to future generations without the language of ritual? So far, so good—many American Jews are living exemplary moral lives without the fuel that ritual can provide. But let’s affirm what we know from experience: today’s “givens” can become tomorrow’s “goners” and we know that just because something is, it’s no guarantee that it always will be.

 

So a call to action to professional and volunteer religious leaders of all stripes: let’s make a stronger case by living example about how ritual and values are inextricably linked. Let’s make the values that underlie our personal religious practice explicit, not in order to guilt or coerce others to behave a certain way, but to stimulate conversation and inspire change. Why? Because we have no examples of sustainable secular or cultural Jewish communities. (Historians, please correct me if I am wrong. But, before you point to yesterday’s Bund or even better, today’s secular Zionism, take a look at how a reclamation project of religious texts, tunes and traditions is occurring among “secular” Israelis today.) And a call to funders: even if you personally don’t like the ritual side of Judaism, understand that it has contributed to your values and priorities, that it has a role to play in perpetuating them and that initiatives that foster practice and appreciation of ritual are worthy of your support.

 

 

 

New Findings About Pew Study

Simplification, Complification or Obfuscation

 
 

As an experiment, this morning I searched the terms, “Pew Jewish demographic study 2013 failure” and “Pew Jewish demographic study 2013 success” on a variety of online sites. Numbers in red reflect a larger number of results.

 

Hayim Hayim on Pew Study

What are my conclusions from this matrix?

 

  • A survey finding is an objective snapshot of a moment in time. (Let’s ignore methodological issues that any survey generates.) It may reflect the beginning, middle or end of the movie, but it’s still just one moment of a subject frozen in the moment.
  • To continue the analogy of survey finding as “snapshot,” you may rejoice or recoil at a picture. Your reaction to it depends upon your beliefs, knowledge, values and experience and says as much about you as it does the picture. Your reaction is immediate and subconscious and you’re not likely to analyze your feelings and thoughts unless you’re in a museum, a setting that invites quiet, thoughtful reflection.
  • Reports as significant as A Portrait of Jewish Americans generate narratives within and outside of the Jewish community. We may have a preference of one narrative for Jewish consumption and another for more public consumption, because stories serve political interests.
  • In a related vein, coverage (or relative lack thereof) of this report within the American Jewish press and the Israeli Jewish press have several subtexts, a significant one being the viability and vibrancy of Jewish life outside of Israel.

 

So I’m taking my time digesting the implications of the findings from the Pew Report, A Portrait of Jewish Americans. We’re going to feel the impact of this report for a long time. While the some of the findings are unambiguous and elicit a strong emotional reaction, those reactions don’t always make for thoughtful policy debates and decisions.

 

Another reason for a little more time—sometimes, demographics and trends are destiny, and other times we can’t extrapolate the future from the present. A well-known example: if Jews in the year 1900 in America or Europe had been surveyed by a highly-respected research organization about the likelihood of creating an independent Jewish state, how many would have responded that there was a high likelihood anytime soon? Yet, here’s what Theodor Herzl wrote in his diary after the first Zionist Congress in 1897: “If I had to sum up the Basel Congress in one word—which I shall not do openly—it would be this: At Basel I founded the Jewish state. If I were to say this today, I would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years, perhaps, and certainly in 50, everyone will see it.”

 

Survey findings in the Jewish community are notorious for generating anxiety without clear direction (more about that in a later post….). Careful sociologists, historians and demographers are incredibly valuable in providing us with information about the present and they can extrapolate possibilities about the future. We need to pay attention to them—in many cases, if we had, we might not be dealing with some tough issues in the Jewish community today. Yet, sometimes against the logic of the data, we have to strive mightily to create the future that we want because that’s what leaders do. So unlike what happened for a variety of reasons with the 1990 NJPS and the problematic NJPS 2000-2001, a little more time for analysis, interpretation and action will serve us better as a Jewish community.

 
 

 

Collaborate, Communicate, Connect

 

New, Free, Hands-on Workbook for Synagogues

 

I’ve generally heard agreement among synagogue and federation leaders that congregational collaboration is a valuable endeavor. Collaboration can lead to elimination of redundant services, cost savings, better programs, etc. So, who would argue against it? If you’ve actually planned, implemented and helped sustain collaborative synagogue efforts, you know how beneficial they are—and also how much effort you have to invest and maintain in them order to make them work!

 

synergy - UJA Federation - Hayim HerringThat’s why I’m happy to introduce you to another resource that provides you with concrete, practical tools to support your efforts around collaboration, and strategies to increase communications, connections and meaning in your congregation. This free, download is titled, Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today: A Guide for Study and Action, and it’s a seven step implementation guide to some of the key ideas in my book, Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today. Creating Vibrant Centers of Jewish Life. In addition to collaboration, you’ll find six additional units, on topics ranging from becoming an entrepreneurial congregation to preparing for the future by better anticipating trends that may have an impact on your congregation.

 

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From Network Judaism to Platform Judaism

 

 

In 2000, I wrote a paper called Network Judaism, later published in 2001. MySpace was launched in August 2003 and Facebook in February 2004. While not long ago at all, it’s hard to recall that social media platforms didn’t exist. But if you were tracking possible significant trends carefully, you could anticipate the potential emergence of the networked organization. What no one was able to grasp was how social media sites would be enable societal changes of major magnitude.

 

Today, here are a few stats on some popular social media platforms:

Facebook-1.15 billion registered users

Flickr -87 million users, 8 billion photos

Pandora – 200 million registered users

Twitter – 500 million registered

Word Press – 66 million blogs

Angie’s list – 2 million users

Yelp – 12 million users per day

YouTube-500 million visits per day

 

The numbers tell a story of how rapidly socially media sites have been adopted and how embedded they are in our lives. Yet, synagogues, federations and other historic organizations have not shifted their structures to enable themselves to become platforms for people to connect socially, spiritually, philanthropically and educationally.

 

As we are now in the networked era, Jewish organizations need to shift their paradigms to a platform model. Otherwise, the great the work that many are doing around making Judaism more relevant, inspirational, meaning-saturated and beautiful will be inhibited or fail. Unlike many Jewish start up organizations that have blossomed over the last ten years, established Jewish organizations need Platform Judaism, or more accurately, platform Jewish structures.

 

What is an organizational platform (and I can highlight only a few dimensions in this space)? A platform is an enabling space for people to interact and act upon issues. An organization that becomes a platform enables individuals to self direct their Jewish choices and express their Jewish values within the organization’s mission. That is a radical shift from organizational leaders directing people how, when, where, why and with whom to be Jewish- in other words, the dominant paradigm of more established Jewish organizations and synagogues!

 

Becoming a platform is also a mindset. It means embracing the desire of individuals to co-create their experiences, opt in and opt out of Jewish life, do new things and old things in new ways-of course, within the organization’s mission. This mindset operates within the building, outside of the building, on the website, and anywhere else. It also requires a much more creative and intentional use of technologies to tell individual stories and organizational stories and a redefinition of professional and volunteer leaders’ roles, new governance models and even new professional and volunteer positions.

 

Most critically, restructuring as a platform requires a relentless focus on a compelling mission and purpose. When organizations can clearly define their purpose, they have the opportunity to help individuals activate their latent hunger for community, experientially educate them about the difference between a discrete cause and an enduring commitment and provide opportunities for deeper relationships that transcend Facebook-type “connections.”

 

Talking about organizational structure isn’t sexy. But the payoff for paying attention to it is potentially huge, enabling:

  • deeper and broader connections
  • deeper and broader meaning
  • deeper and broader impact.

 

In part, I wrote my book, Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today. Creating Vibrant Centers of Jewish Life, to stimulate thinking around the urgency for organizations to move to a platform model. Within about two weeks, UJA-Federation of New York’s Synergy Department and the Alban Institute will be releasing a study and action guide to help synagogues and organizations practically apply the concepts of Platform Judaism, one of the central concept in Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today, to their real world settings. Then, several weeks later, the Alban Institute will be publishing a companion volume to Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today, with a deeper discussion of some of the core concepts of the book and even more practical resources. If you’ve registered for ongoing information, you’ll learn how you can access these new resources-one of which will be downloadable for free. If you haven’t, you can sign up here.

 

And in October, I’ll be presenting and facilitating number of sessions in Baltimore at United Synagogue’s Centennial; in Westchester, Manhattan and Long Island through UJA-Federation of New York; and the Rockland County Federation’s Rockland Jewish (Synagogue) Initiative. You can click here for more details on these presentations and if they’re in your area and open to the public, I hope that you’ll participate. Looking forward to working together with you!

 

Crossed posted on eJewishphilanthropy in a modified form.

 

 

 

Beware as The Spin Begins: Early Headlines on the Pew American Jewish Population Study

 

 

On Monday, the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University released a report entitled American Jewish Population Estimates 2012 and yesterday, the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project released a report entitled A Portrait of Jewish Americans. The last national study of American Jews was released in 2001 by the UJC (United Jewish Communities), now the JFNA (Jewish Federations of North America), and had some significant methodological flaws. The Jewish establishment has been relying on partially unreliable data collected in 2000 for planning purposes, so rightfully these studies will garner significant media attention. In this post, I’ve culled headlines from as of 7pm Central Time yesterday from a variety of publications and organizations in the United States and Israel. My headline to the headlines: Beware as the Spin Begins!

 

American Jewish Press

JTA: Pew Survey of US Jews: Soaring Intermarriage, Assimilation Rates

Jewish Daily Forward: Jews Bound by Shared Beliefs Even as Markers of Faith Fade, Pew Study Shows

New York Jewish Week: Fast-Growing “Nones” Seen Reshaping Jewish Community

Los Angeles Jewish Journal: Pew Releases Landmark Survey on U.S. Jewry

New Jersey Jewish News: Surveys: More Jews, But Fewer Connections

 

American General Press

Wall Street Journal: Increasing Number of U.S. Jews Are Not Religious

New York Times: Poll Shows Major Shift in Identity of U.S. Jews

Huffington Post: What Defines an American Jew? Study Reveals Divides on Identity, Religion and Views on Israel

Associated Press: For Many American Jews, Religion Separate From Belief in God, Pew Survey Finds

 

Religion News Service

Being Jewish Means Being Funny, and That’s No Joke

Who’s a Jew? Few American Jews Say it’s A Matter of Belief

 

Israeli Press

Haaretz: Top 10 Takeaways From Pew Survey on U.S. Jews

eJewishphilanthropy: Pew Survey Examines Changing American Jewish Identity

Ynet News: U.S. Jews Losing Their Religion, Survey Finds

Jerusalem Post: Survey: 1 in 5 Jews Say They Have No Religion, Orthodox Share Grows

Times of Israel: Pew Survey: 6.8 Million US Jews, But Majority Intermarry

 

(Oh…and no coverage on the Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Reform national congregational and rabbinical websites, and websites of Chabad and the Jewish Federations of North America. Pretty hard to understand why they weren’t ready with press releases and interviews, as they all knew about the impending release of the Pew study.)

 

It’s more than just “interesting” to read the initial responses (or note the lack thereof) to these studies, and track how the headlines evolve as leaders of all stripes digest the data. For data are merely points of information. What make them significant is how different individuals and organizations use them to tell a compelling story about the Jewish past, present and future, with the hope of swaying Jewish influentials to support their competing narratives with resources.

 

That’s why it’s important to read the original studies first without the spin, reach some of your own preliminary conclusions and then listen to what other people are saying. There are significant decisions riding on the stories that leaders craft from the data, and we need to hold them and ourselves accountable for accuracy in distinguishing between fact, opinion and prognostication. As you do so, please let me know what issues you think are the most essential over the next decade for leaders to be focusing on- which are the most amenable to influence, which should we invest in moderately and which we need to abandon. I’ll be weighing in as well after I do my “homework.” Thanks and I hope to hear from you!

 

 

What Life Holds in Store for Us

 

Have you ever have one of those, “Something must be in the water moments” – you know, those times when independently, a group of people seem to be talking about the same thing? That’s what happened to me right before Rosh Hashanah. I went to see a good friend and colleague of mine, Rabbi Norman Cohen, to wish him a shana tova. Naturally, I asked him what he was planning to speak about on the holidays. Norman said that he was speaking about a line from the liturgy, “Do not cast us out in our old age, at the time when our strength fails us, do not abandon us.”

 

I was astonished because a few days before, I had lunch with my mentor and rabbi, Kass Abelson. He is Rabbi Emeritus of Beth El Congregation in Minneapolis, where I served with him for ten years. He still gives a sermon on Rosh Hashanah (he estimated that he has been doing so for 60 years give or take – certainly an accomplishment that should be in the Guinness Book of Records). He also was speaking on the same line! That’s when I had my first surprise, because I was in the middle of writing a blog post titled, “Don’t confuse old with obsolete,” based on that very prayer!

 

Fast-forward now to my meeting with Rabbi Cohen…That was when I had that, “There must be something in the water that we’re drinking” moment. All three of us, at different ages and stages of life, decided to write about the experience of the increasing number of elderly people in our society, and the difficulties, challenges and blessings of this reality. And that same text informed our thoughts on how we relate both to the relatively well elderly and the more frail elderly.

 

With their permission, I have included Rabbi Abelson’s and Rabbi Cohen’s sermons and my most recent post in one PDF, which is available for you to download. I know that if the three of us are have been thinking about these issues it’s likely that many more people must be as well. You can use these resources:

 

  • If you’re a Boomer with an older parent
  • If you’re an elder trying to navigate life at this stage
  • If you’re a grandchild who has older grandparents (and yes-you should call them more often!)
  • If you’re a professional who works with or has regular contact with elders
  • If you’re curious about what life may hold in store for you…

 

Make all of us be sealed in the book of life and good health in this new year.

 

 

Don’t Mistake Old for Obsolete

 

 

Certain words can evoke powerful emotionally biased images, but our mental perceptions of these words are often far from their realities. For example, not long ago, we thought of people with special needs as “disabled,” thereby justifying how we maintained barriers that distanced ourselves from them. Labeling people as “disabled” masked their abilities, but today because of greater inclusion and a change in language to special needs, we’re all the much richer as a community.

 

Here’s another word than can evoke the kind of dread that often makes us erect emotional walls around people: cancer. Talk with people who have been diagnosed with cancer or some other life threatening disease, and you’ll often hear how their friends cease connecting with them. It’s as if the word “cancer” still conjures up a picture of an imminently terminally ill person lying in a hospital bed, even though that person may live a meaningful life for months and years. Our images of words lag behind their realities because of major changes in technology, medicine and societal values. And that’s equally true of the world “old.”

 

“Old”-frail, chronically ill, forgetful, dependent, disoriented and declining… sadly, that is experience of some of our elderly population. A line in a prominent prayer recited on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur addresses this portion of the elderly population: “(God), do not cast us out when we are old, do not abandon us when our strength fails.” When you’ve lived a long life, it’s cruel to be metaphorically placed on a shelf and only dusted off from time to time like some museum relic.

 

מפני שיבה תקום

A sign in Israel quoting Leviticus 19:32 stating that one should give up their seat for the elderly.

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The Trial of Abraham on YouTube

 

I’ve enjoyed working with Beth El Congregation in Akron, Ohio as they face some exciting, unprecedented opportunities. They’re worth paying attention to because some very wise leaders in the congregation and at the Federation (Jewish Community Board of Akron) worked to relocate the congregation inside of the JCC. I don’t mean on the campus of the JCC, but literally inside of the JCC –but that’s a story for another day.

 

Today, I highlight Beth El for its creative use of YouTube to build congregational participation on the second day of Rosh ha-Shanah. And if you’ve been in any Conservative synagogue on the second day of Rosh ha-Shanah, you know that you can usually find a choice seat! The reality is that many American Jews outside of the Orthodox community don’t feel the need for a second day of experiencing what they already did the day before.

Beth-El-Synagogue Akron Ohio

Beth El Congregation in Akron

 

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