Call me Edgar

 

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

 

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

Edgar Bronfman
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Jewish Cultural Affirmation: Great Intent, Misguided Action

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Pew-ish and Religiously Jewish

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Pew-Study-Hayim-Herring

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

New Findings About Pew Study

Simplification, Complification or Obfuscation

 
 

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

 

Hayim Hayim on Pew Study

What are my conclusions from this matrix?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 
 

 

Collaborate, Communicate, Connect

 

New, Free, Hands-on Workbook for Synagogues

 

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

 

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

 

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From Network Judaism to Platform Judaism

 

 

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

 

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

Facebook-1.15 billion registered users

Flickr -87 million users, 8 billion photos

Pandora – 200 million registered users

Twitter – 500 million registered

Word Press – 66 million blogs

Angie’s list – 2 million users

Yelp – 12 million users per day

YouTube-500 million visits per day

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Crossed posted on eJewishphilanthropy in a modified form.

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

American Jewish Press

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

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

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

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

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

 

American General Press

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

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

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

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

 

Religion News Service

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

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

 

Israeli Press

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

eJewishphilanthropy: Pew Survey Examines Changing American Jewish Identity

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

What Life Holds in Store for Us

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Don’t Mistake Old for Obsolete

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

מפני שיבה תקום

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

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The Trial of Abraham on YouTube

 

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

 

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

Beth-El-Synagogue Akron Ohio

Beth El Congregation in Akron

 

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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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