The Bookends of the Collaboration Continuum: Independence and Integration

 

Cross-posted to eJewishPhilanthropy

 

by Rabbi Hayim Herring and Debra Brosan

 

Synagogues and Jewish organizations always have choices about their destiny – to be proactive or reactive, to be strategic or let environmental factors take over. This applies equally to the collaboration continuum, the range of options that congregations have to remain vibrant by creating partners with other synagogues or organizations, or even ultimately merging or being absorbed into another congregation.

 

In our last post, we identified some emotional factors that inhibit collaborations that seem logical but never materialize. In this post, we want to define more specifically the options that congregations have along this continuum, so that leaders can recognize that they have options for remaining vital and impactful.

 

First, a synagogue must explore its risk level associated with independence and integration, the collaboration continuum’s bookends. Most collaborations fall within an organization’s administrative, operational and programmatic function, as well as the possibility of sharing space.

 

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The Collaboration Continuum: Re-Igniting the Conversation for Congregations

 

Cross-posted to eJewish Philanthropy

by Debra Brosan and Rabbi Hayim Herring

 

Recently, we conducted thirteen informal phone interviews with federation directors, rabbis and lay leaders from around the country to learn first hand about the landscape of synagogue collaborations and potential mergers.

 

We spoke with leaders primarily along the East Coast and in the Midwest. Some had experienced population decline by snowbirds who had permanently moved to warmer parts of the country or had lost a significant percentage of the Jewish population because of the economic recession. We also spoke with a few other community leaders in areas that we suspected were potentially ripe for collaboration because it’s just good business to partner, collaborate and consolidate.

 

We weren’t interested in conducting a rigorous scientific study, but simply wanted to gain an impressionistic view of the level of discussion and activity around collaboration. We had read several recent stories in the Jewish press about creative congregational collaborations and were also aware of consolidations happening in the broader nonprofit community. Collaboration is one of our deep interests, and we have helped shepherd a number of congregations, Jewish organizations and nonprofit organizations through fruitful partnerships. We know that there is ample room for more collaboration, but we wanted to conduct some due diligence before drawing conclusions.

 

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A Leadership Challenge: Locating the “You Inside of You”

 

 

I recently heard an advertisement for a genetic testing company that promises to reveal “the you inside of you.” This company implies that by gaining knowledge of your genetic composition, you can enhance your life. I’m all for couples considering having children, and individuals with a history of inherited diseases that can be mitigated or cured, to undergo genetic screening.  While the value of this kind of genetic knowledge is morally dubious, at best, I was taken by the phrase, “the you inside of you.”

Parrot Looking at Reflection of Eagle in Mirror

 

The bottom line: no matter how good genotyping becomes, you will not find “the you inside of you.”  As genotyping improves, you will learn more about the genes inside of you, but they should not be mistaken for “the you inside of you.” The “you inside of you” is the person who you would like to become. You achieve that state when you align your deepest core self with the work that you’re doing and the quality of the relationships you have.

 

As counterintuitive as it sounds, it can be quite a challenge to align our values, passions and most fundamental purpose for being with how we live our lives.  But that’s what authentic leaders do-they find practices and people to help hold themselves accountable.

 

For many of us, things tend to slow down in the summertime. I know that I’ll be spending time contemplating this question. And I invite you to reflect on who the real you inside of you is as well.

 

 

 

Got Shabbat? Share Your Story!

 

Got Shabbat? Share Your Story!

 

I’ve always felt that Shabbat enabled me to take a vacation every week without ever having to pack. True, I have to make the bed and there’s no room service (but thanks to my wife, the food is superior to anything that I can find elsewhere!). But on Shabbat, I have a chance to mentally decompress from work, socially reconnect with friends and spiritually recharge through study and prayer.

 

Over the years, the most challenging part of Shabbat for me has been finding a consistently meaningful prayer community. Part of the reason has to do with my own relationship to prayer, while part of it has to do with the reality that services often don’t catalyze that feeling of transcendence that I seek. And I know that I’m not alone in having this reaction.

 

But the good news is that things have changed and are continuing to evolve! The variety of spiritually rich Shabbat communities in reinvented established synagogues, start up minyanim and newly formed congregations have blossomed. New kinds of liturgy, fresh music, meditation, soulful chanting and greater participation are helping to reawaken Shabbat services in some locations.

 

I’m writing an article for Contact Magazine about the creative landscape of Shabbat celebration. So please let me know how Shabbat is celebrated in your congregation or minyan, or other community that you’ve been to and enjoyed. What contemporary approaches does your community bring to this age-old experience? How much instrumentation is in your services? Is there anything new that you’re doing liturgically? And what is it that you would like to experience on Shabbat that is currently missing?

 

Please share your experiences and forward this link to one other person, requesting that he or she responds. You have a chance to share, learn and maybe make a difference for your Shabbat. In addition to responses posted on my blog, I’ll let you know when my article appears. Thanks for your insights!

 

 

 

 

 

Resetting the Rabbinate

 

 

In the past few months, I’ve read at least six articles or blogs about rabbis and the contemporary rabbinate. (Just search sites like eJewishPhilanthropy, The Jewish Week, the JTA and the Jewish Daily Forward for a sampling of results.) Any rabbi will tell you that there’s structural change occurring and the media now seems to have picked up this story. Some of the stories suggest new roles that rabbis are fulfilling, others are about gender and the rabbinate, or prognostications about the future of the rabbinate and the rabbinical seminaries’ challenge in keeping up with what they perceive as new skills that rabbis require.

 

(Disclaimer: I’ve written about the rabbinate over the years as well in publications like Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today. Creating Vibrant Centers of Jewish Life and “The Rabbi as Moreh Derekh Chayim: Reconceptualizing Today’s Rabbinate”. But why so many articles in such a short time?

 

Rabbis are experiencing significant role ambiguity and the 20th Century paradigm of what defines a rabbi is clearly inadequate for this century. A few examples will suffice:

  • Many states no longer require ordained clergy to perform weddings. A family member or friend can get a permit for a day to perform a specific wedding, for a specific couple.
  • Also, non-ordained ritual emcees offer to guide individuals through other rites of passage, like bar and bat mitzvah.
  • Independent minyanim that do not have rabbis on their payroll have sprouted over the past decade and there are a small number of online synagogues-some completely digital, others as a complement to a bricks and mortar facility.
  • Jewish learning is available 24/7online, and in new physical settings like Limmud.

Rabbis used to have primary or heavy involvement in the examples above but now, much less so.

 

And it isn’t just that functions are changing. Relationships are changing as well. In speaking with colleagues, they sense that they are increasingly being treated more as employees and less as individuals with a sacred profession. As one colleague wryly commented, he felt that “evaluations” had become “devaluations.”

 

This lack of role clarity is a symptom of a paradigm change. As renowned futurist, Joel Barker, says: “When a paradigm shifts, everyone goes back to zero. Your past success guarantees nothing in your future.” And all of these conversations about rabbis’ roles certainly have the feel of “going back to zero,” that is, accepting that the assumptions that undergird last centuries’ rabbinate will not support today’s rabbinate.

 

I believe that rabbis have significant roles to play. Some will be the same as the last generation of rabbis, and others haven’t even yet been imagined. But I’d like to hear your thoughts about the unique roles that rabbis can play. By unique, I mean what is it by virtue of their training that they alone can do, or that they can do with greater ability than others with Judaic knowledge and experience? All are invited to respectfully weigh in and thanks!

 

 

 

How to Minimize the Risk of Network Unweaving

 
 

In continuing to think about conversations related to “network weaving” in organizations, I remembered Homer’s epic classic, The Odyssey. The heroine of the poem is Penelope, who has been separated from her husband, Odysseus for twenty years while he was away at war. Pursued by suitors, Penelope promises to remarry once she completes weaving a burial shroud for Odysseus’s elderly father. She weaves the shroud during the day, but as a stall tactic, every night for three years she undoes a part of her work until her deception is discovered. She’s a weaver by day and an un-weaver by night.

 

“Network weaving” is a term in vogue in Jewish organizations that refers to increasing the quantity and deepening the quality of social relationships. The emergence of this term reflects a paradigm inversion. Don’t expect community to grow top-down from activities, but out of organically fostered social ties. (You can learn more about network weaving by searching eJewishphilanthropy’s website.) But these efforts are likely to be threatened by two significant roadblocks: governance and mission. Why?

 

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“Never Again” Depends On How You Define “Never Again”

 
 

A few weeks ago, in Israel and other Jewish communities around the world, some Jews and a smaller number of Christians observed Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom Hashoah). For more than two years, we’ve been global witnesses to the Assad regime’s systematic killing of segments of its own population. Its most recent lethal weapon has almost certainly been verified as the chemical weapon, Sarin gas. In the shadow of the last survivor’s of the Holocaust, it’s difficult to take seriously the Holocaust-derived declaration against genocide, “Never Again,” that has become a universal rallying cry against all acts of genocide. Like “red lines” that can’t supposedly be crossed without consequences, it seems like genocide is negotiable and open to rationalization. (more…)

 

Do Synagogue Movements (Except for Chabad) Know What They Really Sell?

 
 

My friend and colleague, Dr. Jim Schreier, sent me a link to an article called, “The Only Thing Apple Really Sells,” that inspired the content of this post. The gist of the article is that Apple does not sell hardware, software or cloud-based solutions. Rather, Apple sells an ecosystem. Their products and services are, “one-way tickets to platform archipelagos, to fiercely guarded fiefdoms where everything works in harmony within walls that are high and strong. And the longer you’re inside, the harder it is to leave.” The author of the article goes on to say, “That’s (an ecosystem) the endgame. An ecosystem so interconnected, entwined so tightly, that you can’t leave even if you wanted to. It’s not hardware, or software. It’s a family of products, apps, services, and accessories with the gravitational pull of a black hole. And Apple, today, simply does it better than anybody else.”

 

Do denominational synagogue lay and professional leaders understand that they are really selling a Jewish ecosystem? Or, do they fall into the understandable default position of selling “membership” (a product). (more…)

 

Yesterday’s “Better Late Than Never” is Today’s “Better Late Makes You Never”

 

 

There’s a challenging teaching in the Mishnah, Judaism’s first Rabbinic systematic legal compilation. “Just as a person is required to bless God for good events, so must a person bless God for bad events! (Brachot 9:5)” Theologically, this assertion says, “Sure, it’s easy to be thankful for good things in our lives. But, can we have trust that God has our best interest in mind when we’re upended by difficulty and tragedy? We’ll leave it to theologians to help us with the God challenge (and I recommend Rabbi Harold Kusher’s recently published book, The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person, for that).

 

Leaving personal theology aside, I find organizational relevance in this teaching.

 

How many times in our role as leaders have we made decisions in our lives when they appeared wise, only to discover that we had not anticipated their long-term consequences? Conversely, how many times can we recount what seemed like a poor choice that yielded positive fruits? Let’s look at another common scenario: how often have we worried about an issue, only to find that it consumed unnecessary emotional energy and organizational resources because we overestimated its likelihood? When you’re standing alone at a crossroads, it’s hard to envision the many possible twists it might take down a chosen path.

 

Wheelorg-Banner (more…)

 

Relaunching Confidently Together Into the Future

I recently made a presentation to a group of synagogue leaders in St. Paul. A very bright volunteer who was familiar with Synaplex , an initiative that I developed, asked me, “Why are your ideas about the Jewish community different since you last presented to our congregation?” My ineloquent answer: “Umm…things have changed since we last worked together.” Not exactly a satisfying answer, but that was the best I could do given the time constraints.

 

Later that evening, I asked myself, “Okay, many things changed. But what are some of the most significant changes that have occurred within the past five years or so?” Not coincidentally, this was a question that I had been thinking about for sometime. I have been very concerned about how organizations are either in paralysis, denial or a state of confusion as they struggle to conduct business in post-economic bust that is stubbornly persistent. I’ve seen some organizations:

  • Doing less with less, more slowly
  • Others working harder at doing the same thing, wishing that things return to normal
  • And, a much smaller group searching for new ways of conducting business.

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A Question for Leaders: What’s Your Liberation Moment?

This year, my wife, Terri and I, were once again privileged to celebrate Pesach in Jerusalem. We had family and friends at our table who had made aliyah (moved to Israel) decades ago and relatively new olim (immigrants), friends from Minneapolis and St. Paul and some friends of friends in both categories. Our youngest guest was 16 months old; our oldest, about eighty!

"Exodus" by Grigory Mikheev (Wiki Commons)

“Exodus” by Grigory Mikheev (Wiki Commons)

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A Question for Leaders: What’s Your Liberation Moment?

This year, my wife, Terri and I, were once again privileged to celebrate Pesach in Jerusalem. We had family and friends at our table who had made aliyah (moved to Israel) decades ago and relatively new olim (immigrants), friends from Minneapolis and St. Paul and some friends of friends in both categories. Our youngest guest was 16 months old; our oldest, about eighty!

Grigory Mikheev. Exodus. acrylic, oil on canvas, 82?95, 2000.

"Exodus" by Grigory Mikheev (Wiki Commons)

Our eclectic group of strangers became an extended family by the end of the evening. Why? Aside from great food and a story about individual, communal and universal liberation that never gets old, I incorporated a suggestion from Ayeka. (Ayeka is an organization that understands that Torah study is not just about the acquisition of knowledge but the transformation of character.) The suggestion was to use a series of provocative questions to trigger personal discussion, and these are the four from Ayeka that I found, that deepened the conversation among our guests:

  • Have you ever had a ‘liberation’ moment of getting unstuck from something in your life?
  • Do you think that God helped you then?
    • Were you afraid?
    • What gave you the courage?

Terach, Abraham’s father was stuck-that’s why he only started his journey to Canaan but didn’t complete it. Abraham got unstuck and look what happened! Ruth, the Biblical character about whom we read on Shavuot, got unstuck and risked returning to Israel with her mother-in-law under difficult circumstances, while Orpah, her sister-in-law, got stuck and returned to her family. And, as I write this post from Israel, politically, the Israeli electorate got the system unstuck from politics-as-usual and elected two new leaders who seem to determined to make substantive social change.

The point: if you want to be a leader, you’ve got to recognize your “liberation moment” and then embrace it. It requires faith-if not in God, than at least in yourself. Leaders take action on their commitments and that can definitely be frightening. But by making this kind of total commitment, they get the status quo get unstuck. I’ll be sharing my “unstuck” moments in the next few weeks when I officially re-launch my business focus. And if you’re in a position of leadership, or aspire to be in one, I invite you to answer the question, “What will your liberation moment be post-Pesach?”

 

A Call to Action: Make Jewish Learning a Global Seder

One of the characteristics of free people is their ability to ask questions. The more free we feel, the bigger the questions we’re able to ask. In the spirit of Pesach, the quintessential celebration of freedom, here are a few big questions that seem appropriate for a holiday in which learning about our identity as a people is so central.

 

What would happen if we created a true revolution for adult learners who want to learn about the Jewish civilization – those who are Jewish and those who are not Jewish? What are the implications for the global Jewish community and for the world if we created universal access to Jewish learning? Theoretically, we actually have the technologies to do so. We can take the model of massive online open courses (MOOCs) to create a revolution in learning about Judaism, for anyone who is interested. Academics and qualified instructors who teach Judaics around the globe, from topics as varied as Jewish medieval history to Jewish mysticism, could be recruited into the ranks of MOOCs teachers. We know that there’s an interest in learning about things Jewish. Just look at the phenomenon of daf yomi (those who commit to studying a page of Talmud daily), or websites as diverse as MyJewishlearning.com to Jerusalem Online University. (more…)

 

A Call to Action: Make Jewish Learning a Global Seder

One of the characteristics of free people is their ability to ask questions. The more free we feel, the bigger the questions we’re able to ask. In the spirit of Pesach, the quintessential celebration of freedom, here are a few big questions that seem appropriate for a holiday in which learning about our identity as a people is so central.

What would happen if we created a true revolution for adult learners who want to learn about the Jewish civilization – those who are Jewish and those who are not Jewish? What are the implications for the global Jewish community and for the world if we created universal access to Jewish learning? Theoretically, we actually have the technologies to do so. We can take the model of massive online open courses (MOOCs) to create a revolution in learning about Judaism, for anyone who is interested. Academics and qualified instructors who teach Judaics around the globe, from topics as varied as Jewish medieval history to Jewish mysticism, could be recruited into the ranks of MOOCs teachers. We know that there’s an interest in learning about things Jewish. Just look at the phenomenon of daf yomi (those who commit to studying a page of Talmud daily), or websites as diverse as MyJewishlearning.com to Jerusalem Online University.

Yes, the MOOCs movement is in its early infancy. It reminds me of where online learning was in the early 90’s-a “fad” that many wise people predicted would disappear. While online learning still has problems and limitations, I know personally how it can open worlds and relationships previously unimaginable (I enrolled in my doctoral program in business in 1996 at Capella University, a leader in online graduate learning). And the MOOCs movement is likely to follow a similar trajectory-a little bumpy at the beginning with overall exponential benefits.

Clearly, MOOCs don’t provide intimacy of experience as a seder or a face-to-face class does and there’s a lot to be said for synagogue and JCC adult education experiences. But these kinds of classes typically attract small numbers and the topics are limited in range. How would the world be different if we intentionally opened up the treasure of knowledge that we possess and made it universally accessible? What would the impact be on non-Jews if they could learn about the richness of Jewish thought, of Jewish communities, of the interaction of Jews and their broader cultures throughout history, especially in countries where there aren’t a lot of Jews?

One of Shakespeare’s characters in As You Like It, said that, “All the world’s a stage.” Let’s dream that “All the world’s a Seder” or “All the World’s a Classroom!” We have the potential to achieve “Jewish literacy” for adults across every continent, whether or not they are Jewish! Philanthropists, in concert with Jewish federations and the Government of Israel, have the opportunity to create a true revolution in Jewish learning. With the same creativity and resources that they’ve brought to initiatives like Birthright Israel:Taglit and Limmud, they could ensure global access to high-quality learning about the Jewish civilization to Jews and non-Jews across the globe. Any philanthropists up for the challenge? Any reactions to this idea?

Chag sameach!

cross-posted to EJewishPhilanthropy

 

Incomprehensible: My Reaction to Cyd Weissman’s Blog Post

 

I read a blog post by a friend and very talented colleague of mine, Cyd Weissman, titled, “Surprisingly East to Quit My Synagogue” with disbelief. Perhaps I could have understood the response of her clergy if it was 2000 and not 2013. But while I try to be respectful of my fellow klei kodesh (clergy), their response to Cyd’s request is incomprehensible to me. And I say this as a former congregational rabbi who, already in the mid-1980s, was working in congregation that already had multiple happenings on Shabbat morning.

 

I’m only going to list three reasons why I find their response so baffling: (more…)

 

Incomprehensible: My Reaction to Cyd Weissman’s Blog Post

I read a blog post by a friend and very talented colleague of mine, Cyd Weissman, titled, “Surprisingly East to Quit My Synagogue” with disbelief. Perhaps I could have understood the response of her clergy if it was 2000 and not 2013. But while I try to be respectful of my fellow klei kodesh (clergy), their response to Cyd’s request is incomprehensible to me. And I say this as a former congregational rabbi who, already in the mid-1980s, was working in congregation that already had multiple happenings on Shabbat morning.

I’m only going to list three reasons why I find their response so baffling:

  • In 2002 – 2003, the organization that I led at the time, STAR (Synagogues Transformation and Renewal), launched its Synaplex™ Initiative, thanks to the generosity and support of the Schusterman, Steinhardt and Samuel Bronfman Foundations. One of the goals of Synaplex™ was to create multiple programmatic entry points within the mission of the congregation so that people could express and explore their Jewish selves on their terms. While STAR is no longer in existence, the Synaplex™ Initiative, which we estimate was adopted in some form by well over 200 congregations (perhaps it was closer to 250), continues to exist in various iterations. These congregations are characterized by multiple, concurrent and diverse Jewish experiences during Shabbat that speak with relevance to individual interests.
  • The clergy at Cyd’s congregation seem unconcerned about human development and growth. One of the ideas we stressed throughSynaplex™ was that regardless of where people are at a particular moment in time, they grow and develop from a psychosocial and spiritual perspective. If synagogues do not grow with their members, then their members will grow out of them, as Cyd’s situation makes clear.
  • Finally, if we take the notion of being created in God’s image seriously, then clergy should not try to remake people in their image, but facilitate the process of people becoming their own authentic Jewish selves. I am not implying that synagogues should be a place where “anything goes.” In fact, knowing your mission is essential so that doesn’t happen. But what I am suggesting is that individuals have the right to find their own Godly image, and not have it imposed by others, regardless of title and position.

I hope that the leadership of the congregation will reconsider its stance.  I am sure that their efforts where well intentioned, but their logic is flawed.

 

More Than Cosmetic Changes On the Way

More Than Cosmetic Changes On the Way

photo from: hayimherring.com

My father was recently hospitalized with a serious infection (and is thankfully much better). Ever the cheerful spirit, he told me the following joke (sorry, Dad – I’m taking a few liberties).

 

A man became very ill, very suddenly, and was rushed to the hospital. Tragically, the doctors were unable to save him and he died. His soul went to heaven, and pleaded before God that his time shouldn’t have come yet. He had too many things left to do. God listened to his arguments and said, “Okay – you’re going to live another 25 years and 8 months. Back to earth you go!”

 

The man recovered fully and when he left the hospital, decided that he was really going to live this time around! First, he went to a hair stylist and dyed his gray hair black. Then, he had Botox injections to remove the wrinkles from his forehead. Finally, he decided that he was going to have the nose job that he always wanted. As he was walking out of the plastic surgeon’s office, he stepped off the curb and was hit by a bus. He was killed immediately and his soul went back to heaven. The man was distraught, and demanded to know why God had ended his life after he was promised another 25 years and 8 months. God turned to the man and said, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t recognize you!”

 

When I started Herring Consulting Network several years ago, I had a general idea about what I hoped to be doing. Over the past couple of years, with new experiences and new training, I have a much more clear direction. During the next several months, in addition to completing a resource guide and toolkit for Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today, I will be devoting time to revamping my website to reflect a more focused, future-oriented approach that I’d like to bring to congregations and Jewish organizations. It’s time for us to get ahead of the curve instead of playing “catch up” to yesterday’s innovations.

 

Because of some time pressures, I’m going to take a break from blogging. When I return, you’ll still recognize Herring Consulting Network, but you’ll also see the fruits of my planning for how to continue to help synagogues, organizations and nonprofits provide greater relevance and impact into the future. Look for a new look-and a new direction!

 

Your Opportunity to Make Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today a Reality

Tomorrow Synagogue Today

Tomorrow Synagogue Today

 

With the support of The Alban Institute and UJA-Federation of New York, I am writing a resource guide for my most recent publication, Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today. Creating Vibrant Centers of Jewish Life. I wrote this book as a thought piece, but the statement of the classical Rabbis, “The purpose of learning is action”(Avot 1:17), motivates my writing. If you’ve found the book worthwhile, you’ll have the opportunity to apply some concrete tools and resources to its ideas with this resource guide. Several people have written to me privately about how they’ve use the book. For example, I’ve heard that a number of people are either discussing it at staff meetings or congregational board meetings.

In an effort to make this resource guide focused on real world application, I’d appreciate your answering the following questions:

  1. If you’ve used the book in a group setting, how have you done so?
  2. What are the kinds of practical resources that would help you bring some of these ideas into practice?

 

Even if you haven’t read the book, or have not used it for study, think back to other books on congregational life that you’ve used and respond to these questions.

 

Thank you for your help,

 

Rabbi Hayim Herring

 

A Preliminary Theology of Social Networks

One of my findings from  interviews with rabbis that I conducted for my book, Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today,was  their lack of specific, intentional connections between their personal theology and their congregation’s organizational structure. I asked them how their personal theology influenced their congregational governance, how they worked with volunteers and similar types of issues that are often labeled as the “business” or “administrative” side of congregational life. This lack of conscious connection really didn’t surprise me because structural issues and theology don’t naturally mix. They require a leader to constantly work at making those connections and creating patterns of organizational behaviors that are infused both with spirituality and effectiveness at getting work done.  And it’s difficult for rabbis who are juggling many balls to reflect on how their theology can amplify their work on the structural side of congregational or Jewish organizational life.

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A Preliminary Theology of Social Networks

A Preliminary Theology of Social Networks

photo from: Master isolated images, freedigitalphotos.net

One of my findings from  interviews with rabbis that I conducted for my book, Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today,was  their lack of specific, intentional connections between their personal theology and their congregation’s organizational structure. I asked them how their personal theology influenced their congregational governance, how they worked with volunteers and similar types of issues that are often labeled as the “business” or “administrative” side of congregational life. This lack of conscious connection really didn’t surprise me because structural issues and theology don’t naturally mix. They require a leader to constantly work at making those connections and creating patterns of organizational behaviors that are infused both with spirituality and effectiveness at getting work done.  And it’s difficult for rabbis who are juggling many balls to reflect on how their theology can amplify their work on the structural side of congregational or Jewish organizational life.

As people like Beth Kanter and Allison Fine made clear in their book, The Networked Nonprofit, networks are the new form of organizational structure in the 21st-century. (Actually, Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps predicted in 1994 in The Age of the Network that networks would be the signature form of organizations in this century and I wrote about network organizations for the Jewish community in 2001 in Network Judaism). The bedrock of social networking sites, the platforms that support network organizations, is relationships. Social networking sites enable many different levels and types of relationships. They allow people who know one another well to remain in closer touch, permit people who know one another casually to deepen relationships and facilitate brand new relationships. They encourage people who share common interests to collaborate in sharing resources and solving problems. Social networks are blind to issues of socioeconomic class, race, gender, sexual orientation, levels of education, professional titles – and the list goes on. In theory, social networks give individuals an equal voice regardless of difference and they enable people to transcend national boundaries.

Networks are really beginning to reach their potential to reshape organizations, so now is the time to ask, “What role can a theology of networks play in our awareness of synagogues and Jewish organizations?”

As I reread the first chapter of Rabbi Art Green’s most recent book, Radical Judaism, I began to glimpse what a Jewish theology of social networks could be like. Green, one of today’s most original contemporary theologians, describes himself as a neo-Hasidic Jew and a religious humanist.

On page 18 of his book, he writes:

My theological position is that of a mystical panentheist, one who believes that God is present throughout all of existence, that Being or Y-H-W-H underlies and unifies all that is…’Transcendence’… (in this context) means rather that God-or Being-is so fully present in the here and now of each moment that we could not possibly grasp the depth of the presence…There is no ultimately duality here, no “God and the world,” no “God, world, and self,” only one Being and its many faces…There is no end to its unimaginable depth, but so too there is no border, no limit, departing that unfathomable One from anything that is. Infinite Being in every instant flows through all finite beings…”

And again on p. 29, he writes,

Every creature and every life form is a garbing of divine presence. The way in which we treat them and relate to them is the ultimate testing ground of our own religious consciousness….The purpose of our growing awareness is to reach out and appreciate all things for what they really are. This is especially true with regard to our fellow humans.”

Without meaning to reduce Green’s deep theological thought, he makes the case that the same One underlying unity is within each of us. That awareness is precisely what social networking can reinforce within congregations because networks have the potential to span significant differences. I wonder what the experience of being a part of a congregation would be like if rabbis maintained a vigilant awareness that God’s presence was actually pulsing through all aspects of the congregation and that the current structures and organizational divisions that characterize congregations actually conceal their inter-connectedness and make the parts less than the sum of the whole. Social networking as an organizing concept can enable participants in a congregational community to connect with one another, to share, to learn, to solve complex problems and to see the possibility of each part of a system contributing to a transcendent whole. And if that is not a manifestation of the divine, I don’t know what is.

I understand that social networking has a very dark side to it as well. My point is not to argue the benefits and the detriments of this relatively new way of organizing. Rather, it’s to encourage rabbis and Jewish theologians to bring our theological beliefs to this new form of organizing. Compartmentalizing our beliefs from one aspect of organizational life diminishes the overall power of that organization to have a deeper impact. And that is especially true of congregations.

These are some preliminary thoughts about a Jewish theology of networking.I realize that they are a little amorphous and preliminary. So I’m asking you: what other theological stances do you bring or aspire to bring to congregational life so that belief can animate the structures of your congregation in a way that nourishes them?

cross-posted at ejewishphilanthropy.com