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Successful Mentorships Require Security and Maturity

Mentorships can be exceptional experiences that provide mutual satisfaction and learning. Mentorships can either be formal onboarding relationships required by a new employee’s organization, where a new employee is assigned a mentor who has more work experience. That veteran employee can help a new hire circumvent rookie mistakes and accelerate a new person’s learning in a specific content area and, more generally, help someone navigate the unfamiliar culture of the organization. Or, a mentorship can be informal, where someone with less experience has an ongoing professional relationship with a veteran in the same or related field, who may or may not be a part of the same organization. Informal mentorships happen more organically, flowing from a mentor’s desire to nurture younger talent and return the help that he or she received from someone at an earlier professional stage, while a mentee has an intuitive feeling that this informal mentor has no agenda other than to be of professional support.

Mentorships are different from coaching relationships, where typically an external expert is hired for a limited engagement to help an individual deepen self-insight into characteristics and habits that get in the way of better performance, to help with a specific skill, or provide alternative ways of framing issues that yield ideas or solutions that a coaching client could not see before. Coaching relationships are designed to support an individual who seeks growth in embracing a new challenge and deeper insight into one’s professional persona – the one that a person has acquired, or a latent one that a person decides to develop – at any stage of life. One of the essential differences between a mentorship and a coaching relationship is that the latter has a clear contractual beginning, middle and end with measurable goals. Mentorships can become messy because they are much more fluid.

That’s why successful mentorships require security on the part of the mentor, and maturity on the part of the mentee because a mentoring relationship has a shelf life. A secure mentor knows when it’s time to gradually create some distance with a mentee, so that person can begin to acquire greater self-confidence, self-awareness, and expertise. Someone who is accustomed to being mentored may experience that distancing as an unexpected lack of caring when it is actually an act of deep professional concern for the well-being and growth of a younger colleague.

And some mentees are too eager to assert independence of personality. They unknowingly rupture a relationship with a mentor through indifference to how much he or she has benefited from the experiences and relationships cultivated through a mentor. These relationships become complicated when mentors are reluctant or unable to know when to intentionally decrease their influence so that the mentee can begin to increase her or his independence and develop an authentic persona. If a mentor lacks that self-awareness, the person being mentored may need to more abruptly end the relationship, creating an atmosphere of awkwardness and causing a mentor to feel underappreciated. But in the best of all worlds, a healthy mentoring relationship evolves and both parties begin to transition from a more hierarchical relationship to a peer-to-peer relationship.

I’ve been thinking about some of my own coaching and mentoring relationships, both as a receiver and as a giver, during this time in the cycle of Torah readings, when we’re reading about the Israelites’ journey from Egypt to the promised land. What might have been a relatively brief trip turned into a disastrous forty-year period of wandering. I wondered if the father-in-law of Moses, Jethro or Yitro in Hebrew, might have made a difference in the tumultuous relationship that Moses and the Jewish people experienced that turned their trip into a forty-year trek. Moses clearly respected his father-in-law’s wisdom and experience and takes his advice in establishing a court system that was not solely reliant upon Moses (see Exodus 18). Yet, it appears that despite Moses’s pleading to Yitro that he helps him navigate this desert terrain, Yitro declines (Numbers 9:29-32). I’d like to think that Yitro’s primary motivation for refusing to remain with Moses is that he doesn’t want to stunt his son-in-law’s potential that he (Moses) can’t yet see in himself. He knows that his son-in-law cannot actualize his own leadership potential if Moses remains in Yitro’s shadow.

A mentor can have a lifelong influence. Even after a mentor passes away, if you’ve had an especially fortunate experience with a mentor, you can still feel the presence and guidance of that person. You internalize aspects of someone’s exemplary character and wisdom and express them in your own unique way. But that only happens when a mentor practices tzimtzum or self-contraction, so that the mentee can develop into a full person in her or his own right.

 

Should Leaders be Held to a Higher Ethical Standard?

If individuals lead entities in the for-profit, nonprofit or governmental sectors, should they be held to a higher standard of ethical accountability? This perennial question is worth examining,  especially when they lead powerful or influential entities that can have a direct positive or negative impact on our lives. For me, the answer is a clear, “Yes!” and there are others who have studied dimensions of leadership in some of these sectors who agree.

 

Jim Collins, a highly-respected leadership expert, implies that great leaders have an ethical compass. He explains in his book, Good to Great that a common trait of the rare individual who achieves “Level V Leadership,” is the executive who blends personal humility with extreme professional focus on achieving a corporate vision. A Level V leader shares credit with others, accepts blame and responsibility for mistakes and surrounds himself or herself with people who are equally committed to making whatever they do better. But in that quest, they never lose sight of humility, which is another way of saying that their pursuit of excellence embraces the demand to treat team members with dignity.

 

 

Another leadership framework is “the triple bottom line” (TBL). The TBL, developed by business consultant Andrew W. Savitz, measures three dimensions of performance: people, planet and profits. In other words, unlike traditional reporting frameworks which focus only on profits and shareholder value, the TBL “captures the essence of sustainability by measuring the impact of an organization’s activities on the world… Including both its profitability and shareholder values and its social, human and environmental capital” (Savitz, The Triple Bottom Line). While there is disagreement on how to calculate the TBL, it clearly includes ethical dimensions, because it strives to account for the impact on the environment and on improving people’s lives through measures like job growth, personal income and the cost of underemployment in creating sustainable companies.

 

Leaders in government should also be expected to be ethical individuals. Yes, they must make complex choices in which moral values are sometimes in conflict with one another. For example, taking military action, which will cause the loss of life, but preserves the freedoms that we enjoy, or creating jobs that lift people out of poverty while also considering the potential impact of environmental destruction, can make the needle on one’s inner ethical compass spin around opposite poles. But, but having an ethical compass is a minimal requirement that we have the right to expect from officials whom we elect.

 

Whether in government, the for-profit and nonprofit sectors, and in the spiritual realm, leaders have flaws. They also have and need egos–that is what enables them to pursue greatness. But whether their egos are directed to their own aggrandizement or to grand ideas that benefit others is what distinguishes an unethical leader from an ethical leader. And amoral leaders, those who do not take ethical considerations into account, ultimately become immoral leaders because the benchmark of their success is concluding a deal at any and all costs.

 

Over the past couple of decades, we’ve seen some mutual convergence of ideas around leadership in the for-profit and nonprofit communities. One of those ideas is that morality matters both in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors. For-profit leaders are being held to a higher standard-just look at what is happening with startups like Uber, or established corporations like Wells Fargo, that are now under fire for highly unethical business practices. And it’s no accident that Facebook and other global social media giants and Apple, a company that dominates the smartphone and tablet industry, are facing criticism about their passive, hands-off approach to how people use their products.

 

Religious leaders rightfully come under fire for cloaking themselves with a mantle of morality while engaging in sexual and financial predatory practices. Simply because a person is a religious leader is no longer a guarantee that he or she possesses a moral compass. We feel a special outrage when individuals who are supposed to embody the highest ethical dimensions of human behavior fail themselves and hurt others.

 

And for those who are familiar with the Bible, Moses, one of the great spiritual leaders of all times, learns that there are no privileged moral dispensations—without exception. (Memo to religious leaders: don’t forget daily Bible study, preferably with someone who has internalized relevant ethical teachings.) Despite his bravery in challenging the status quo by confronting Pharaoh, an act that continues to inspire moral leadership today, and Moses’s 40 years of leadership in harsh desert conditions with a generation of unruly people, he is punished for disparagingly referring to them as a group of “rebels” (Numbers 20:10).

 

That punishment seems unduly harsh. Perhaps even more severe, his brother, Aaron, who at that moment is only standing silently by his side, is also disqualified as a leader. Though considered exceptionally humble, Moses’s singularly arrogant rebuke invalidates his leadership and it his successor, Joshua, who will lead the people into the promised land. Here is an exceptionally high standard of morality at work: great leaders cannot ridicule their communities. They may demonstrate contrition and make restitution where possible, but because they are expected to embody high ideals, once they behave unethically in such a public manner, their actions communicate that ethics don’t matter, a message that can potentially normalize unethical behavior throughout a community.

 

When you build yourself up by putting others down, you’ve lost your ability to lead. When you remain silent in the face of leaders who disparage others, you also forfeit the right to lead. And don’t give up in thinking that’s an impossible standard to which to hold leaders in any sector. Perfection from leaders? No– that’s an impossible standard. But we can and should expect them to struggle to be moral, compassionate and respectful of every person. Argue robustly over principles and beliefs, engage in debate about what is most beneficial to community and country, but set a tone that attacks the merits of ideas, and not the quality of the people who espouse different points of view.

 

 

 

De-Faced and Degraded: Hey Facebook, Are You Listening?

About a week ago, I was looking at some comments on a blog post that I had written. I noticed on my Facebook page that my “rating” had dropped from a 4.9 to a 4.4. Why did that happen?

As background, I want to share that I really hate this striving for ratings. Self-promotion violates a strong belief that I have about values of modesty and humility. For me, these aren’t only desirable attributes, but binding religious values. Humility doesn’t mean that I pretend to lack expertise or dismiss any that I have acquired that can be helpful to others. But it does mean being self-aware of the number of people who have helped me over a lifetime to develop my abilities, being grateful for having these people in my life and acknowledging my debt to them. And at this stage, it’s more satisfying to strive to help nurture the talents of those who are younger and collaborate with peers, then to put energy into striving for higher ratings. But I’m realistic and know that ratings can affect my reputation and limit potential future business opportunities, and this incident upset me.

 

 

So here’s what I think happened. Facebook allowed a not-so-thinly veiled anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim tirade related to my blog post to be mistakenly posted on my review page, and the reviewer gave me a rating of “1 star.“ That’s already two strikes against Facebook: first, allowing that rant to appear, and second, having it appear on my overall review page and not the blog post to which the reader had reacted. There may be a third strike: it also had a “fake” feel to it. The grammar, the awkwardness of style, the stilted language and the coded and explicit hateful language suggested that this was the work of a troll.

Facebook does not make it simple to contact them about such incidents, despite some recent improvements in providing feedback. And I made the mistake of not taking a screenshot of the individual’s name and his comments immediately. To Facebook‘s credit, they removed the comments very quickly after I contacted them. I’ve now written a total of three times to Facebook (that’s another story of how difficult it is to contact Facebook after a first effort) asking for an explanation of why they didn’t remove the rating if they saw fit to remove the comment.

Hey Facebook, are you listening?

I like to promote curiosity, exciting ideas, wisdom, collaboration, innovation -and yes, I don’t mind periodically sharing some of my accomplishments. When I write a blog or speak, I expect that people will differ with me, and I’m accustomed to some pretty harsh comments both from the political and religious right and left. If you’re going to be public about your ideas, personal attacks, as opposed to critiques of ideas, have become normative. But this particular issue has really lit a fire under me. And personal dislike about self-promotion aside, it’s wrong.

I’d like to know if you’ve had this experience before, either on Facebook or some other social media site, where you didn’t have the ability to fight back in an unfair fight. If you have some advice or have the experience to share in this kind of matter, please do so here. And thanks for listening to my struggle.

 

We Want it Brighter, We Light the Flame: Rekindling Hope

I just finished reading the autobiography of the late Shimon Peres, No Room for Small Dreams. Courage, Imagination and the Making of Modern Israel.

Peres, who spent a lifetime in public service to his country, was also a beloved, inspirational elder world statesman. He was esteemed by people of all faiths for his optimism, hope, and belief that the world could not only be better but that we can make it as great as our imaginations allow us. He wrote, “Throughout my life, I have been accused by many people…of being too optimistic – of having too rosy a view of the world and the people who inhabit it. I tell them that both optimists and pessimists die in the end, but the optimist leads a hopeful and happy existence, while the pessimist spends his days cynical and downtrodden” (p.79). And let’s remember, Peres, who received a Nobel Prize for peace-making, also knew the horrors of war and death throughout his long life (he died at the age of 93, on September 28, 2016). He didn’t write these words from a detached perch of one who had lived a carefree, luxurious life.

Peres then goes on to explain just how dangerous cynicism is not just for an individual, but for a nation -any nation. “First, it’s a powerful force with the ability to trample the aspirations of an entire people. Second, it is universal, fundamentally part of human nature, a disease that is ubiquitous and global. Third, it is the single greatest threat to the next generation of leadership. In a world of so many great challenges, what could be more dangerous than discouraging ideas and ambition” (p.79)?

 

Shimon Peres

 

The Jewish festival of Hanukkah, which concludes on December 20, is a holiday that celebrates hope and optimism over cynicism and despair. We have what are likely accurate historical records of internal debates within the Jewish community of that time between those who were cynical about the possibility of overcoming the seductive Greek culture and mighty army of the Syrian Empire, and those who maintained their optimism against all odds. And the pessimists had a pretty good argument: how could a ragtag, untrained and hastily created a fighting force of Maccabees defeat one of the world’s great powers and reclaim its right to live authentically according to its way of life, making contemporary adaptations on its terms? It turns out that the optimists were right, and we’re still celebrating Hanukkah by kindling lights that inspire us to banish cynicism and replace it with light, joy, and hope. And despite its different origins, the celebration of Christmas, that often coincides with the days of Hanukkah, only reinforces the universal need for more dreamers of hope to nullify cynics who seek to corrode the human spirit.

The refrain of one of the last songs of a great poet and songwriter, Leonard Cohen, was, “You (God) want it darker, We kill the flame.” (LYRICS) Cohen was giving voice to the cynicism about the possibility to restore justice, dignity, and opportunity to the many who are still deprived of these basic rights. What’s worse is that this cynicism is often espoused by political leaders, who should be inspiring people’s imaginations with positive possibilities. If Peres, a modern-day Maccabee, had rewritten those lyrics, they would more likely be, “You want it brighter, we light the flame.”

Simply kindling a light won’t make the brightness of hope last for very long. But reflecting on the power of a flame challenges us with a choice: do we want to watch the cynics burn out our latent possibilities for greatness, or inspire us with acts of kindness and imagination to dream about just how beautiful and good the world can be? I’m going with the optimists, not because I’m naïve, but because they actually have a better track record!

 

A Search for a Definition Can Motivate A Search for Meaning

A couple days ago, dictionary.com selected “Complicit” as its 2017 Word of the Year. Dictionary.com defines complicit as, ‘choosing to be involved in an illegal or questionable act, especially with others; having partnership or involvement in wrongdoing.’ Or, put simply, it means being, at some level, responsible for something . . . even if indirectly.”

You can click here to read about the logic behind dictionary.com’s choice, and the graph below shows those times during the year when there were spikes in the number of searches for the definition of complicit:

 

 

You might also be interested in knowing what other words trended highly this year on Dictionary.com’s site:

  • Climate change
  • Global warming
  • Carbon dioxide
  • White supremacist
  • Nazi
  • Neo-Nazi
  • Anti-fascist
  • Antifa

It also appears that the words “power” and the phrase “sexual assault” were frequently searched.

Dictionary.com isn’t the only dictionary that selects a word of the year. Another dictionary, Collins, selected “fake news” as its 2017 first choice, with “gig economy” as a close second. Other dictionaries will wait for several weeks to announce their winning words, but let’s not confuse a search for definition with an inquiry for understanding. While these dictionaries compete for our attention with gimmicks like “the word of the year,” probe beneath the number of searches for a word’s definition, and you’ll find that it speaks to our yearning to understand the world about us. Looking up the definition of a word won’t change the world. But in the case of “complicit,” knowing what it means can motivate us to fix what we don’t like.

There is a wise insight found in the Jewish tradition about the power of words and their ability to create worlds (see Pirkei Avot 5:1) This insight is based on the Genesis creation story (Chapter 1), in which God’s words literally give birth to the world and its creations, a world that, when completed, is described as “very good.” Words, then, can create worlds of meaning and purpose, or become weapons to distort truth and poison relationships.

As we ready to close the secular new year, it’s worth quoting the last paragraph of the article by dictionary.com explaining its choice of “complicit” as the 2017 Word of the Year:

Our choice for Word of the Year is as much about what is visible as it is about what is not. It’s a word that reminds us that even inaction is a type of action. The silent acceptance of wrongdoing is how we’ve gotten to this point we must not let this continue to be the norm. If we do, then we are all complicit The good news: we have over a full year to work toward a more optimistic finalist for the 2018 Word of the Year. What would you like it to be, and what work are you willing to do so that the number of people who search for it in 2018 will reach a record-breaking high? Let me hear your suggestions below and thanks!

 

Impact One Year Later

Impact One Year Later: A Conversation between Authors and Editor about Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World: Platforms, People, and Purpose

 

Sarah Stanton, Senior Acquisitions Editor at Rowman and Littlefield for Religion, asked us to reflect on the impact of our book, Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World: Platforms, People, and Purpose on its one-year anniversary. We invite you into this conversation by leaving your comments on our respective blogsites (Hayim –facebook.com/rabbihayimherring and www.hayimherring.com and Terri – https://terrielton.com), and by purchasing copies for you and your leadership at a generous discount of 40% (available only on Rowman and Littlefield’s website when you click on the book link.

 

Hayim Herring - Book

 

Sarah: How has the book been received over the past year?

Terri and Hayim: As co-authors, we naturally want to say, “the reception has been fantastic,” and we think that’s accurate. We had hoped that clergy, professional and volunteer leaders of congregations and nonprofits would purchase the book and invite us to present our insights. But what we didn’t expect is volunteer leaders whose day jobs are running a business wanting to purchase copies of the book for their businesses. We realized through them that some aspects of our book, which is about 21st century leadership, had broader application. We’ve also heard clergy from both of our respective faith traditions say the blend of theory, story about churches, synagogues and nonprofits, and practical tools and resources enabled them to turn concepts into actionable steps for their organizations. Thankfully, our presentation schedules have been quite full, and we’re gratified that we can support clergy, professional and volunteer leaders who are facing some unprecedented challenges around transparency, engagement with the broader world and innovation–all while trying to deepen involvement of existing constituents.

 

Sarah: What is the question you wish more people would ask about the book?

Hayim and Terri: One of our key findings was that both established and startup organizational leaders lacked any kind of formal process for planning beyond a year at a time. They all engaged in planning, ranging from what we might call “adhocracy” – planning when needed – to strategic planning on a regular cycle. However, we would like to hear much more interest from them in using existing tools that that they can adapt for congregations and nonprofits to distinguish “the trendy” from trends that they can anticipate and shape to further the impact of their work. Even agility isn’t enough because that still implies a mindset of reactivity albeit at a quicker rate. Learning to anticipate trends is not a luxury but a necessity because of the velocity of relentless change that we’re experiencing.

 

Sarah: What is the question you’re most frequently ask about the book?

Terri and Hayim: Not surprisingly, questions about membership and dues or finances frequently arise in discussions. However, we try to reframe that question to one of openness and engagement, that is, how open is your congregation or nonprofit to the world, and how does your mission engage people’s hearts and souls with a diverse but like-minded group of individuals? We don’t dismiss the real financial concerns that congregations have, but if that’s their first question, they have already indicated that they are thinking as an Organization 2.0, from the top down, about institutional survival, instead of what we describe as Organization 3.0, which is structured as a mission-focused platform where people can pursue and express purpose and communal meaning.

 

Sarah: What part of the book have readers reacted to most strongly?

Terri and Hayim: Innovation and entrepreneurship resonate with leaders right away. We believe that is because today’s organizations know they need to grow these capacities and the four pathways to innovation that we identified helps leaders find their way through innovation and entrepreneurship in tangible ways. The concept that surprised us the most was engagement. Often invited to help organizations think differently about “growing membership,” our work reframes questions about membership into questions of engagement and we think innovation and engagement work together. Engaging the talents and gifts of individuals within congregations and nonprofits is a great strategy for innovation, as it creates shared ownership and produces better results. Using the resources and worksheets in the book, leaders can practice some of the ideas during presentations and bring them home to use with their staff, board, or constituents.

 

Sarah: Have any questions surprised you over the past year?

Hayim and Terri: Just last week, when presenting a to group of ministers, a participant asked if there was an innovation and entrepreneurship self-assessment tool for congregational and nonprofit leaders. The two academics who invited us to teach were also present, and are very knowledgeable about innovation. But none of us were able to immediately think of a tool that was specifically targeted toward those issues. Certainly, there are some excellent tools that assess personality types and attributes that relate to innovation and entrepreneurship, and corporations and international consulting companies have developed their own instruments, but we invite those reading this blog to let us know if they’re aware of one that would fit a nonprofit or congregational context.

 

Sarah: Is there something you had to leave out of the book you wish you’d been able to include?

Terri and Hayim: What we couldn’t include in the book were the stories of individual members and constituents of participating nonprofit and congregations. Our groundbreaking research methodology invited members and participants of organizations in our study to directly contribute their insights. A central theme of the book was about engagement, and we realized that we had to engage directly with members and constituents of organizations participating in our research. And we credit the nonprofit leaders for enabling us to find ways to do so. However, we promised confidentiality, so we can only generally say that the work of the congregations and nonprofits in our study is filling those who are involved in their communities with deep purpose.

 

Sarah: How has the book’s message informed your own work?

Terri: I am different today because of this work. Learning from and with the congregations and nonprofits we studied has convicted me to boldly lean into this new paradigm in my own leadership. One year later the path forward is not clear, but the rewards along the way have been rich. In the past year I have named and reflected on the assumptions I bring into leadership and opened myself to other possibilities. Teaching future congregational and nonprofits leaders I am introducing new ideas and experimenting with new teaching methods and assignments, and these efforts are making a difference in the church. Most importantly, I am widening my circle of learning partners. As Hayim states below, working on this project he and I developed an unlikely friendship. Today we have expanded our relationship by introducing each other to colleagues and friends, all during a time when society was becoming more wary of “the other.” I am convinced that a core capacity of future leadership is the ability to leave one’s comfort zone and create spaces for genuinely encountering strangers. While that work was not the central message of this book, it is trajectory of it. If leaders of congregations and nonprofits live out these principles, that is where they will find themselves. And for that, I am grateful.

 

Hayim: Before we started researching and writing, Dr. Terri Elton was a complete stranger to me. But we went from potential co-authors, to colleagues and now to family friends. Why? Call it serendipity or providence, but my original co-author realized that he was unable to work on the book, so I decided to look across the Mississippi, to scholars at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, instead of reaching out to familiar colleagues. Our book was published immediately before the 2016 presidential election, when we were already feeling the toxic effects of political messages that warned us of the dangers of trusting “the other” (and I heard these messages from the extremes in both parties). By refusing to believe those messages, our reciprocity of trust in an “other” not only helped to better inform the congregational and nonprofit world about leadership, but transformed me personally. And, thanks to the encouragement of some great professionals at Rowman and Littlefield, I’m well into researching and writing a book on an issue that will be relevant to congregations and nonprofits, but transcends those sectors and reach into our broader communities. That’s part of my ongoing transformational journey that began with Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World: Platforms, People, and Purpose.

 

Casual Remarks Can Cause Consequential Casualties

 

For the foreseeable future, Harvey Weinstein will be in the news. But even when he’s not today’s headline, the many, many women whom he abused continue to suffer every day (as of now, according to the Los Angeles Times, “more than half a dozen women who have accused Weinstein of sexual assault or rape and among more than 50 women who have publicly detailed a range of inappropriate behavior”).

 

Reflect with me on an incident that occurred thousands of years ago between a husband and wife and the potential consequences of their behavior for other women in their family. Today, we would consider this a clear case of a husband abusing his wife abuse. But historically, although patriarchy was the norm then (and it’s important to put stories in their historical context), it still illustrates how a casual remark by a man could cause family casualties for women.

 

Harvey Weinstein

 

About 4000 years ago, a husband, wife and extended family members and slaves left their home, settled in a new land, and encountered a famine. To survive, they had to relocate to another country which had food, but as they approached the border, the husband realized that his life might be in jeopardy because the inhabitants of this country might kill him and claim his wife and clan as their prize. “For the sake of the family,” and to save his life, he asked his wife to lie to his hosts about their relationship, and lie that they were brother and sister and not husband and wife. The host discovered the lie, castigated the husband for his behavior, and expelled him and his family from his country. Far from being a barbarian, this host displayed noble behavior and brought into relief how appalling the husband’s ruse was for his wife.

 

That is essentially what we read about in this week‘s Torah reading when we see that Abraham and Sarah and their extended the clan had to temporarily relocate to Egypt (Genesis Chapter 12). They were forced to travel there as food was available so that they would not die of starvation in Canaan. Abraham, as head of the clan, was desperate to ensure the survival of his family, and a revolutionary way of relating to God, and for those reasons, asked the impossible of his wife (“Please say that you are my sister so that it will go well with me because of you…” – Genesis 12:13), who really had no choice but to comply, set aside her dignity and put her own life in jeopardy.

 

Fast forward now to Genesis 19, when by now, Abraham and his nephew, Lot, have parted ways over a land dispute. Lot lives in Sodom, pretty fertile territory for his flocks, but rough terrain for his family. When two strangers visit Lot, all of Sodom’s residents converge on his home, clamor at his door and demand that he turns the strangers over to the mob that is clearly intent on gang rape. (It turns out that the “strangers” were God’s messengers in disguise, and from a Biblical perspective “the house eventually wins” when humans act immorally). Lot refuses to turn them over, and when his neighbors threaten him with physical violence, he makes a second attempt to pacify them by offering his two daughters instead. He says, “Please, I beg you, take my two daughters who haven’t been sexually intimate with any man, they’re yours to do whatever you wish…” (Genesis 19:8). At that point, these strangers can’t abide that idea, and they smite the clamoring mob with blindness.

 

You have to wonder if that punishment of blindness isn’t more than just physical retribution, but also holds symbolic meaning for us as the readers. How could Lot be blind to the fate that he was so quick to assign to his daughters? Could Lot’s callous disregard for his own daughters be traced back to what he saw when his uncle, Abraham, confronted stranger danger in Egypt? One can empathize with Abraham’s dilemma, and be aware that our social values and norms are different (or are at least supposed to be) from his, but it still leaves many of us with a feeling of revulsion in reading that he felt that he had to put his wife at risk in service of a greater mission or vision. In view of the mounting allegations of abusive behavior by Harvey Weinstein against women, it occurred to me for the first time, that how even a spontaneous, casual “suggestion” that Abraham made to Sarah out of fear and desperation, might have had an impact on his nephew, Lot, who was knowingly prepared to have his daughters abused by a mob. I don’t know….but now I wonder.

 

In Western countries today, we live in very different times than those of Abraham and Sarah. But in some ways, for example, when it comes to men in positions of power perpetrating abuse against women for decades, and knowing that those who can stop them turn a blind eye, maybe things haven’t changed that much. This old story about Abraham and Sarah is a headline-worthy reminder that moral blindness has consequences and turns innocent people into casualties. That’s worth more than remembering; it’s a call especially to men to speak out against any kind of abusive behavior against women. It’s gotta stop already.

 

Rabbis Who Declined Call with President Trump Were Faithful to their Calling

Unlike the leaders of the Orthodox Union, Agudath Israel of America and the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, the rabbinical heads of the Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform Movements declined to participate in a pre-Rosh Hashanah conference call with President Trump this morning (JTA, Ron Kampeas, September 14). Clearly, this is a controversial decision, and there are good arguments to be made on both sides for reaching opposite conclusions. But here is why I believe that the movement leaders who decided not to participate acted faithfully.

 

Politically, we shouldn’t take for granted the exceptional relations that we have had with the White House in recent decades. After all, how frequently in Jewish history have we enjoyed such an embrace from the White House, and how different might modern Jewish history be had we possessed those relationships with European leaders before the outbreak of World War II?

 

But history has also shown that we ultimately gain the respect of powerful people when we maintain self-respect. In this case, I believe that means distancing ourselves for now from a President who has relentlessly demeaned and dehumanized a rather diverse group of people through reckless speech—one of those sins for which we ask God’s forgiveness on Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur. (And you have to admit that insulting such a broad array of individuals, from Senator John McCain to Khizir Kahn, a member of an American “Gold Star” family, whose son died in Iraq, while serving as a captain in the American military, indicates that many have been targets of President Trump’s acts of verbal shaming and insults.) We know from history, too, that verbal abuse sets the stage for physical violence. And we can reach far back into Biblical times for precedents of religious leaders confronting political power (for example, the Biblical prophet, Natan, confronting King David). Religious leaders can cause significant damage when they are seduced by proximity to political power. It can warp the very values that are supposed to guide their moral leadership, and that’s good reason to opt out of this presidential call.

 

In an earlier editorial, in The New York Jewish Week, Gary Rosenblatt, publisher, wrote that “Rabbis Should Confront Trump Head-On Over Charlottesville. Apply the lessons of Elul and Don’t Hang Up on the President”. He argued that rabbis who declined the call with President Trump were not applying one of the fundamental lessons of these holy days, namely, reproving someone who acts immorally (Leviticus 19:17). The question of when reproof is religiously mandated is complicated for several reasons. First, the general attitude in America about “judging” another is often, “if your behavior personally doesn’t hurt me, even if it offends others, I won’t bother you.” But that is not a Jewish value, and while Jewish textual sources on how and when the commandment to “reprove one’s neighbor” are varied and sometimes contradictory, one can legitimately read Jewish laws of rebuke as relating to situations in which the person at the receiving end is potentially amenable to change.

 

We can never know with certainty if even someone whose personality seems destined to provoke havoc won’t eventually change. But what we can expect is some consistency of steps toward honest efforts of change. When we see consistent, unambiguous efforts toward change, even though they will be imperfect, then we can consider whether a person is really open to engage in difficult dialogue. I won’t psychoanalyze President Trump, but I can ask for consistent indications in changed behavior that reflect modest insight into the hurt that he continues to inflict, even if those attempted changes are imperfect. Instead, what I have observed in the past few weeks is a continuing pattern of President Trump using his “bully pulpit” to verbally bully and shame others.

 

While there is time on these White House calls for some “limited engagement” with the president, this pre-High Holy Day call is designed to use rabbis as channels to communicate presidential good wishes locally before and during the holy days. At its best, it is a heartfelt gesture of good wishes from the president to the Jewish community. At its worst, this call can become a headline that will later be used as a reminder by the president of his support for the American Jewish community at a time when it’s convenient for him to do so.

 

Also, understand that there is disagreement within these movements about any public policy or symbolic statement that their leaders make, and that is true of this decision. A national rabbinic organization resembles a congregation in some ways, where members have different opinions about the wisdom of a decision of its leaders. But that’s what leaders, and especially rabbinic leaders, are called to do: use their best judgment of the facts at hand, distilled through their understanding of Jewish tradition, to make hard decisions.

 

I was not involved in the decision-making processes of those who refused the call, and I’m not acting on anyone’s behalf to defend it. But I do want to thank those rabbis who decided against participating in it. If the president is serious about deeper engagement with rabbis, there will be many opportunities for it in the coming months, and I know that my colleagues will actively seek them out and take the first steps to meet him more than halfway.

 

Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D., is an author, presenter and organizational futurist, and C.E.O. of HayimHerring.com which “prepares today’s leaders for tomorrow’s organizations.” ™  His latest book, Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World, co-authored with Dr. Terri Elton, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2016.

lished by Rowman & Littlefield in 2016.

 

An Addenda to Yehuda Kurtzer’s “Minding the Gap: A Primer for Jewish Professionals and Philanthropy”

Originally published in eJewish Philanthropy by Rabbi Hayim Herring

A few observations on Yehuda Kurtzer’s fresh rethinking of how to build a more mature 21st Century relationship between American and Israeli Jewry:

1. On the gap in understanding one another’s realities: ask Israelis living in Israel of a certain age (40-something’s and older) if they recognize their country today as the one in which they grew up or to which they emigrated, and ask American Jews in the same demographics if they recognize the America of today as the one in which they were raised. You’ll likely receive the same response: “No!” Internally, across our respective political spectra, we have experienced significant social, religious, economic, educational, racial and political upheavals that are difficult to absorb. If each of our respective communities are having difficulties in understanding shifts in our own primary environments, how can we possibly understand the other’s culture, even if we are frequent and fluent visitors in the other’s community?

 

This point can provide some restraint in immediate and deserved anger of American Jews toward the current and future Israeli governments, and help us think more strategically about how to advance remaining shared interests – of which there are still many. For example, I think that Israeli Knesset Members who support Prime Minister Netanyahu’s broken promises that affect American Jews should be invited to Jewish federations. Let them experience first-hand the anger and pain that they have caused, see the full diversity of the American Jewish community and understand that we are not stereotypes, to be used as pretty props when it’s convenient, and objects of ridicule when it’s not.

2. It’s useful to delineate distinct categories of “boundary-crossers” and “boundary-dwellers,” that is, individuals who spend most of their time in one location (America or Israel) but spend or have spent considerable time in the other. Some examples, and they are not intended as a comprehensive list, include:

  • “Jewish professionals” and “professional Jewish volunteers;” that is, paid professionals and volunteers who work in Jewish institutions that are focused on Israel
  • Philanthropists
  • Israeli journalists who cover American Jewry and American journalists who cover Israeli Jewry both in the Jewish and secular press
  • Individuals with close family and friendship ties in our respective communities, who visit one another frequently, and remain in touch digitally on a regular basis between visits
  • Jewish think tanks (and there are very few)
  • Alumni of grassroots communities, like ROI Community, an initiative of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation

The value in distinguishing categories of boundary-spanners is that if we want them to become more valuable assets in broadening our understanding of differing cultural realities and identifying shared work, we first must respect their diversity. Top-down, hierarchical meetings are appropriate in some cases, in many more, cultivating networks will be more successful, and sometimes, a hybrid model of hierarchy and network is needed.

3. While we don’t have to “privilege” a “failed” metaphor as American and Israeli Jews as “family,” we can explore other approaches in testing its value before completely discarding it. For example, “family” signified one tightly-defined, exclusive structure through the better part of the 20th Century, but today, “family” is a much more expansive and inclusive concept. Why hasn’t the concept of “family” vanished? Because many people still feel an emotional pull to be a part of a family, with all its complexities.

Families, in their varied, contemporary iterations, are still crucibles in which powerful bonds of love, empathy, embrace of difference and responsibility can sometimes be forged. Families have a cast of characters. Some generously take upon themselves the roles of “connectors,” and never forget a birthday, convene a family reunion and update “the family” with an annual newsletter; others move in and out of their roles as “family member” unpredictably; and still others never miss an occasion to snub “the family.” Some family members remain distant from one another for years but ultimately reconcile. Even if they have little time left to reset their relationships, they positively change the trajectory of the next generation of family relationships. But when family ties are permanently severed, and sometimes that is necessary, there can be deep wounds with unforeseen consequences that are transmitted across generations.

Kurtzer is correct – manufactured nostalgia for American and Israeli Jews as “family” won’t help strengthen the kinds of relationships that we need today and can even be alienating because people know a charade when they see it. But rethinking the metaphor of family more expansively and realistically on the collective level is a valuable endeavor worth the struggle. It’s another way of opening our eyes more widely to the massive transformations that we’re experiencing, identifying barriers that we might chose to live with for the time being for the sake of “family,” and distinguishing between the truly unbridgeable differences in our respective communities, and the ones that initially present themselves as unbridgeable divides but are only differing manifestations of shared essential changes on deeper reflection.

Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D., is an author, consultant and nonprofit organizational futurist who holds a doctorate in Organization and Management. A “C-suite” leader, Hayim has worked with hundreds of congregations and nonprofits on issues including leadership, organizational foresight and entrepreneurship. His most recent publications are Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World: Platforms, People, and Purpose, with Dr. Terri Elton (2016) and, Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today. Creating Vibrant Centers of Jewish (2012).

 

Being in Israel on July 4th… Speechless but not Wordless

America and Israel are two separate countries. Jews in America and Jews in Israel are two separate peoples. In fact, we are incredibly diverse people’s within our own respective countries, each in the midst of transformational self-perceptions of what it means to be Jewish and how we understand the concept of “Jewish community.” Many Americans no longer recognize the America in which they grew up, just as many Israelis no longer recognize the Israel in which they grew up or to which they made aliyah (emigrated).

 

 

In any family, there are disagreeable people and often a few long-standing family disagreements. Like any family member, I know which people in my family I especially enjoy seeing and those with whom I don’t mind seeing only occasionally. I know when it’s okay to raise an issue that is provocative with someone, and when it’s better to ignore it because discussion is pointless. (Note to family: please read on before I get into more trouble.) But—regardless of the quality and intensity of relationships, as the saying goes, “family is family,” and no one in my family is of lesser or greater inherent values. We inherited one another either because we have a shared past, or an acquired relationship through someone’s marriage or partnership.

 

I’ve made my share of mistakes with family members, which I regret. But I try to speak responsibly and behave more wisely as I’ve grown older. Why? Because I don’t want to risk losing a family relationship. I’ve made my comprises for the sake of family, just as I know other family members have made theirs for me. We’ve watched other families make different choices about family, and without discussion, somewhere along the way, most of us concluded that we don’t want to sever relationships to the point of no return, an act that often creates a cascade of tragic, irreparable consequences.

 

I was boarding my flight to Israel on the day that the Israeli Prime Minister, Bibi, broke a promise to the global Jewish family about the compromise over the Kotel (Western Wall and expansion of the Southern Wall). Bibi—you have damaged my worldwide Jewish family. (It is debatable whether the introduction of a new conversion bill is the same or different in terms of its consequences on the global Jewish family, but you’ve got to give Bibi credit for his persistent pattern of bad timing and poor optics-or maybe it’s smart local politics and stupid international politics). I think that was the same day that Donald Trump made some exceptionally vicious and demeaning comment about a news anchor—even by his standards—and his tweets don’t just target individuals, they’re aimed at damaging groups of people.

 

Right now, it feels like we are one small but very angry family, living worlds apart in very different cultures, speaking different languages. Many of us no longer understand the realities of our own respective countries. So how can we really expect to understand the internal dynamics of disruption happening in another country? Since I’ve arrived, I’ve heard some esteemed Israeli and American colleagues, who are generally thoughtful and exceptionally dedicated when it comes to matters of global Jewish peoplehood, make some damaging remarks that further fray the fabric of our small family. At times, this visit has felt to me like a kind of rending of the garments before a funeral for a family member, only this time, the wounds of mourning feel amplified because they are occurring over the death of trust between parts of the American and Israeli Jewish family.

 

At the same time, this visit has been like any other one. I get to enjoy family and friends, hear amazing lectures, interwoven with ancient text set to contemporary music and art, visit new sites and eat delicious food. I renew relationships with old friends, and make new ones. Generally, in my family and social circles in Israel, I can be at a Shabbat table where people hold very different political and ideological views from one another on an array of issues. But we still share a Shabbat meal together and we know generally when to have weighty discussions, and when to give ourselves a break from them so that we can continue to Shabbat meals together.

 

I’ve barely posted any comments about this low mark in relationships between the Israeli and American Jewish community “elites” because it’s painful and difficult to find the words that won’t deepen the wounds. While we are far from the lowest point in Jewish history, this is the lowest moment that I can recall in the relationship between the American and Israeli Jewish communities. Speaking metaphorically, if you know who the family villain is, why trust that person? Why do you need their approval to validate your authenticity? Do you really think that you’ll effect change with another discussion? You won’t because you know that individual’s true colors. So find ways to support other healthy members of the family, without adopting dangerous tactics that can backfire by also unintentionally alienating those within our family whom we really love.  

 

What kind of Jewish future do you want? I want a Jewish future in which there is mutual family respect between the American and Israeli Jewish communities. And I think that those who also want that future are smart and creative enough to work to create without inflicting intentional pain that may unintentionally harm the people that we care most about today, and who we want to be with tomorrow.

 

If you’re prepared to totally give up on your family and formally sever times, that’s your choice. But please don’t act surprised when more American and Israeli Jews become disenchanted with Judaism and their local Jewish communities, and with one another. And don’t be taken aback when someone who isn’t Jewish asks, “If Jewish people can treat one another in the way that they do, how should we expect them to treat those who are “outside of their family?” In the meantime, I’m not giving up on America, I’m not giving up on the American Jewish community, and I’m not giving up on Israel. They are home and family – something that I especially want to remember on this Fourth of July.

 

 
 
 
 

©2018 Hayim Herring
 
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