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From Desperation to Inspiration: Don’t Dare to Stop Dreaming that You Can Change the World

 

With the permission of my colleague, Rabbi Sarah Bassin, Associate Rabbi of Temple Emanuel on Beverly Hills, CA, I’m sharing a good news story about the Syrian refugee crisis and the recent chemical attacks on innocent civilians. She explains how two of her congregants were able to mobilize faith communities to act in ways that made a real difference in a moment of crisis. She also describes her own learning and leadership throughout this process of providing support in a moment of deep crisis, and efforts to sustain that support. Often, religion gets a bad rap and you’re not likely to see this story of strangers helping strangers on so many levels, in another place far away that still strike home to some. I share it with you with the prayer that you or those in your communities will be inspired to provide help to those in need and not abandon hope when that’s the seemingly logical thing to do. It’s precisely in those moments when only a few people who say, “I refuse to accept this reality” that change happens.

 

Rabbi Sarah BassinI have no idea how to fix Syria.  Most Middle East experts admit they don’t either.  It’s complicated.  The Middle East is littered with the failed good intentions of our political interventions.

 

Now when we face the complicated in that region, we conclude that the best response must be no response.  My own disbelief at the bombings and the gas attacks morphed into heartbreak and outrage but quickly fizzled into paralysis.  No action of mine could advance a political solution to end the suffering.

 

I accepted my powerlessness along with the rest of the onlooking world.  I tried to ignore the implication that such acceptance came in the form of thousands of civilian casualties.  They were the collateral damage of the complicated.

 

But my logic was flawed.  We don’t refuse to feed one hungry person because we cannot alleviate the hunger of them all.  So why refrain from aiding some civilians in a war zone even though we cannot stop the war?  The enemy of the good is the perfect.

 

Two Jews from Los Angeles – Tamar and Phil Koosed refused to relinquish the possibility for the good.  They created Save the Syrian Children and used their business savvy to find shipping routes into areas under siege.  They inspired my congregation to break out of our paralysis.  And we rallied others.

 

With the help of 12 Jewish and interfaith organizations, we collected 5,000 pounds of clothes, an entire shipping container of unused medical supplies donated by hospitals and raised thousands of dollars to purchase more supplies.  Countless people donated.  Over 100 volunteers ages 8 to 80 showed up to sort, inventory and ship all of this stuff.  An entire community refused to succumb to inaction, as you can see from this local news story that covered our community’s efforts to help.

 

Of the more than 85,000 pounds of supplies that Save the Syrian Children has shipped in recent months, everything was accounted for through a double-blind inventory to ensure that materials get to where they need to go.  A mere 500 pounds of these supplies were lost when their warehouse was partially bombed.  Thank God Save the Syrian Children refused to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  And you can see the actual delivery of supplies by clicking here.

 

I should note that our synagogue intentionally carried out this effort on the heels of Passover.  But the analogy of modern-day Syria to the Jewish story of liberation falls short.  We did not and we will not deliver anything close to freedom — the Syrian civilians living under siege have no exodus.  Our efforts to alleviate their suffering were much more modest.  Modest – but not inconsequential.  Perhaps, the better parallel of the exodus story is not between the Syrians and the Israelites, but between us and Pharaoh.  Our hearts were in danger of hardening to ignore the cries of those who suffer.  I’m grateful to Save the Syrian Children for pulling me and my community back from that fate – for helping us retain our humanity.

 

 

Joining “Never Again” with “Never Give Up” – in Praise of Yesterday’s Student Protesters

 

The phrase “Never Again” is generally associated with the Holocaust, the Nazi German state’s planned and executed genocide against the Jewish people. The aim of Nazi Germany in World War II was simple and horrific – eradicating Jews from the human race. That meant obliterating their past history, their then-current existence, and future continuity. The origin of “Never Again” and its connection to the Holocaust is historically unclear. But Cameron Kasky, a junior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who is Jewish, is credited with adopting #NeverAgainMSD (Marjory Stoneman Douglas) as the hashtag that helped to mobilize student protests for sensible gun reform, which we saw again yesterday. Kasky, and several other student leaders have been relentless in their commitment to change. Their goal is also simple: they want to know that they and other school students in the U.S. can walk into their classrooms without having to fear that they might be the next victims of a mass shooting.

 

Does it matter that a specific phrase, applied to a certain people, at a certain time, has taken on renewed and reinterpreted meaning? I think that it’s not only a powerful and brilliant adaptation of the phrase but one that none other than Elie Wiesel, the late Nobel Peace Prize winner, who was often associated with this phrase, would approve of. While Elie Wiesel was the chronicler par excellence of the Holocaust and gave personal and collective voice to its Jewish victims unlike any other literary figure of the last Century, he also spoke out against genocide in countries like Sudan and spoke for victims of violence throughout the world. His personal experience compelled him to speak on behalf of those who could not, regardless of their background.

Some may remember the moment when Wiesel’s unshakable belief in the preciousness of all human life made a tangible difference. On April 22, 1993, Elie Wiesel was fittingly invited to be a speaker at the opening of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. He was sharing the stage with President Bill Clinton but had to improvise this most critical speech, because the rain had turned the words of his text into runny ink marks. And, as reported by the Washington Post this is what he said, as he faced the audience, and then turned to President Clinton:

“Forgive me. I’m just back from Sarajevo,” he said, pushing the papers aside. He told the audience about the devastating effects of the Bosnian conflict — the mass killings, the destruction of Muslim sacred sites, the cold-blooded murder of thousands of children. “I cannot put that place out of my mind. It has robbed me of my sleep.” He turned to Bill Clinton, seated on the dais behind him. “Mr. President. You must do something.” It was too much for Wiesel to stand at the opening of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, that embodied the promise “Never Again,” while the scenes of the mass killings that he had just seen again were haunting him. And those words made a difference. Eventually, President Clinton led the effort to involve NATO in ending the deliberate bombing of innocent civilians during the Kosovo War.

The mass protests of high school students around the country, who have adopted the slogan, neveragainMSD, honor the phrase, “Never Again,” by expanding its meaning in a way that seems consistent with Wiesel’s approach. While it is historically inaccurate to compare gun violence in the US, perpetrated by individuals or groups representing an ideology, to state- sponsored genocide, its use is a legitimate reminder that the preventable loss of innocent lives should do more than alarm us, more than cause us to pray together and hold vigils and protests, but to work collectively to restore the value of human life, and answer our school children’s basic human question: “Can’t we go to school without worrying about being shot?” with a swift, affirmative, “Yes!”

And for those who are cynical about the possibility of reform, it seems fitting to remember the words of another Nobel prize winner, this time in physics, Stephen Hawking’s, who died yesterday. He once said, “Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at.
It matters that you don’t just give up.”

NeveragainMSD, Never Again anywhere, is a reminder to politicians that these students, and many adults, are not giving up this time.

 

A Confession: What I Learned at a Shooting Range

 

I grew up in a white, middle-class urban Philadelphia neighborhood in the 1970’s, where the only gun culture in our neighborhood was supported by Mattel, a toy manufacturer that sold “cap guns.” Cap guns imitated the sound of gunfire and emitted a puff of smoke from the slight amount of explosive contained in the caps (and for those who don’t know what a cap gun is, here’s a photo of one model). It was common from the 1950’s through the 1970’s for boys to own these kinds of toy guns, imitating the behavior of their favorite T.V. Western star. I still somehow managed to injure myself with this toy when a cap misfired, causing a slight flesh burn. That ended my interest in toy guns that had anything resembling explosives-or at least I don’t remember receiving any more toys guns from my parents after that little incident. So why did I decide to spend three hours learning how to shoot a pistol and a rifle in 2013?

In June 2013, there had been another lethal shooting on a college campus in Santa Monica, California. The shooter had legally purchased components of an AR-15-type semi-automatic rifle, which he then modified and assembled before he went on his shooting rampage. There had already been several mass shootings at high schools and universities, and by the end of 2013, the last year in which the Centers for Disease Control was able to collect data on firearms, well over 11,000 people were killed intentionally by someone with a gun and a staggering 21,175 committed suicide using a firearm.

 

Facts and figures were one way of understanding the realities of the lax gun laws that we have in comparison with other Western countries. But I needed to see if the experience of firing a pistol and a rifle would give me better insights into what it was about Americans and their relationship to guns. Having made Minnesota my home, I had also gotten to know gun owners who grew up in rural areas where owning a gun was a part of the community culture, and they are as kind, caring and generous as you could hope for in a human being. Guns are not my thing, but I don’t automatically assume that just because someone owns a gun that person has an inferior moral compass. In fact, some of these gun owners are also city and state prosecutors who have seen the horrifying effects of gun violence in domestic abuse cases.

So here’s what I experienced, and learned in a way that I couldn’t have without having fired a shot. For about the first two hours of this training, I was drilled about the critical need for extensive annual training, gun safety – especially locking guns securely away from other family members – and how easy it is to miscalculate using a weapon and unintentionally injure innocent people or yourself. Only then were we permitted to practice, under very close supervision. And I will confess openly I felt an adrenaline rush when I fired a pistol and then hit the inside ring of a target six out of seven times with a rifle. The experience of that feeling helped me to understand why responsible gun owners take pride in their training and proficiency and gave me a glimpse into why they enjoyed hunting during our annual hunting season, even though I have no interest in ever touching a gun again.

But I also learned how easy it is to maim or kill somebody unintentionally unless. As one of my gun owner friends said to me, “if you’re serious about owning a gun, then be prepared to live with it more than with your family.” In the United States, toddlers accidentally shoot someone every week. Please reread this sentence-I am not talking about toddlers who are shot, but toddlers who get their hands on guns and wound or kill siblings, parents, or themselves. I remembered reading about a couple whose granddaughter had recently moved from another state to Minnesota to live with them. Because there had been some neighborhood burglaries, the husband legally purchased a pistol, and he and his wife had a plan in place if an intruder tried to enter their home. Despite that plan, when he fired off two rounds at someone he thought had come to burglarize his home, it turned out to be his 16-year-old granddaughter, who fortunately survived her wounds. Some years ago, during synagogue services on the high holy days, an older retired law enforcement officer accidentally dropped his loaded handgun, striking his 42-year-old daughter in the foot, and causing some minor injuries to two other people in the congregation.

Mental background checks, ongoing training and recertification, mandatory waiting periods before purchasing a handgun, making it illegal to purchase a gun at a gun show or from a friend, limiting the amount of ammunition that a person can purchase and permitting only those during active military service to carry and use assault weapons are some measures that individuals of any political party should be free to have a debate about.

So to those students who are leading the charge to have an open debate about safe and responsible ownership of guns, don’t quit. Open debate of ideas is your right as citizens of a democracy. The hateful tweets about you hurt but don’t be discouraged, because when you “put yourself out there,” it’s something you have to expect. Let it hurt and then wear the insults as badges of honor because it means that you are shaking a status quo that has far too long been complacent with inaction around the preventable loss of life.

You grew up with technologies that enable you to do things which those of us who are Baby Boomers can’t always imagine, so keep using your skills to track and publicize information about how much money is spent on lobbying for guns versus lobbying for education, how much money elected officials receive from the NRA on the city, state and federal levels and create your own “report cards” on politicians based on your values. Encourage your peers who are eligible to vote to do so and remind those who are already eligible voters to vote in elections. Look for groups with whom you can form strategic alliances to multiply your influence. Profile and praise individuals who have expressed their views with courage and eloquence through videos and also continue to speak respectfully of those who legally and responsibly own and use guns, and like you are deeply troubled by the pervasive availability of guns and assault weapons. Continue to forge a “third way” that breaks the gridlock that prevents action and do not despair. Many more faith leaders will be with you, praying the words of the ancient prophet Isaiah, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning knives (2:4),” and we will protest and march with you.

So yes, I learned how to shoot a pistol and a rifle, and it strengthened my resolve to stand up to those who invoke “rights” yet won’t discuss revoking laws and loopholes that can save lives. Being number one in owning more guns per capita than any other country in the world is a record we need to change. Now.

 

 

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.

 
 
 
 

©2018 Hayim Herring
 
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