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We’re Brokenhearted but The Tree of Life is not Broken

Posted on: October 28th, 2018 by Hayim Herring No Comments

When I looked at my messages after this past Sabbath (I don’t use my phone on the Sabbath), the first several notes of support and condolences that I received were from my Christian clergy friends. In fact, two weeks ago, I was a guest teacher at a church in St. Paul. My friend and colleague, Reverend Blair Pogue, rector at Saint Matthew’s, had invited me to speak to a group of her congregants. I was grateful to receive and accept this invitation. Sure, I was busy with family and business travel. But when pausing to consider Jewish history, I thought about how amazing it is to live in a country where many church members and leaders know that having an open heart also means keeping an open mind.

Reverend Pogue had asked me to speak about the covenant or conditions that God stipulated with Abraham and Sarah, the first two individuals to adopt a revolutionary set of beliefs that evolved over centuries into what became Judaism. Her congregants were curious about the difference between that covenant or pact and how it was different from the one made with the Biblical Noah. I designed our study to be interactive but needed a few minutes to set the context about the interconnectedness of all human beings. So, my first question to this wonderful group of congregants was, “What religion did Adam and Eve, the first two human beings mentioned in the Biblical creation story, practice?” The answer: “None!” And that was meant as a reminder that every human being possesses equal inherent dignity. Religious or secular, atheist or agnostic – every person’s life is of immeasurable value.

True, the Jewish people were once divided into twelve tribes, named after one the sons of Jacob. But before then and continuing through today, we’ve also been a part of the much larger tribe of humanity. Having our roots in one particular tribe, that began with Abraham and Sarah, was never meant to suggest that our roots aren’t also intertwined with our larger human family.

There’s an ancient Jewish teaching that captures the pain that Jews across the United States and throughout the world are feeling now. In describing how the condition of one Jewish person affects the feelings of another, this teaching makes an analogy: “This (reality of mutual caring) may be compared to the case of passengers on a ship, one of whom took a drill and began boring beneath his own place. His travel mates said to him: ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ He answered, ‘Why is it your business? Aren’t I only drilling under my seat?’ They responded, “It matters because the water will enter through (underneath your seat) but submerge all of us.’” (Leviticus Rabbah 4:6).

The agony that American Jews are experiencing today isn’t imaginary. Less than two weeks ago, there were back-to-back attacks in Brooklyn against Orthodox Jewish men  From 2015 to 2016, the number of anti-Semitic acts in the United States increased from 942 to 1,266 (a 34% increase) and dramatically rose again in 2017 to 1,986 incidents (a 56% increase). The Anti-Defamation League, which works closely with law enforcement authorities in monitoring these incidents which include physical assaults, vandalism, and attacks against Jewish institutions, states that this is, “the largest single-year increase on record and the second highest number reported since ADL started tracking such data in 1979.” In this same report, it added that “The sharp rise was in part due to a significant increase in incidents in schools and on college campuses, which nearly doubled for the second year in a row.”

My parents, who are in there upper 80’s, told me stories of the routine anti-Semitism they experienced when they were children. Occasionally, I’ve received hate mail (now it’s digitally delivered) and looked someone in the eyes who uttered anti-Semitic slurs against me. But those occasions were so infrequent that I never feared for my safety because of my religion and I haven’t given a second thought to publicly wearing a kippah, a traditional Jewish head covering. Trying to hide who you are is generally a poor long-term strategy for safety. It only empowers and feeds the malicious intent that some people have against those who look or act differently from a majority.

But for the first time in several generations, Jewish school children and college students are becoming fearful about how public they can be about their Judaism. And while we don’t have a monopoly on feeling targeted by vicious people, we have a history of anti-Jewish hatred that extends for thousands of years that more recently includes a partially successful effort at Jewish genocide under the Nazi regime, which murdered one of every three European Jews, the rise of anti-Semitism in much of Europe again within the lifetime of remaining Holocaust survivors, and calls from Iranian clerics, and their terrorist proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas, to wipe Israel off the map. We have reasons to take anti-Semitic threats and acts of violence seriously.

At the same time, I’m still rooting for the many decent Americans I know who are disgusted with hate speech against immigrants, a disproportionate rate of incarcerations of people of color, mass shootings in schools and houses of worship, men who abuse their power against women and are paid to quietly go away, and discrimination against LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual) individuals. They know that we are all in the same boat.

I’m all for sermons, community vigils, and gatherings of good people to demonstrate against violent speech that always ends in violent actions. But we can do more:

1. When one house of worship is attacked, even more people from different faith communities need to support one another, as they have increasingly been doing. In fact, even if you practice no faith and are equally indifferent to all religions, it’s your time to show up at these gatherings because they’re an attack on your freedom to be an atheist.

2. I don’t own a gun, but I live in a state where owning a gun for sport is a way of life for some people. When I first moved to Minnesota in 1985 I didn’t get it but I do now. But responsible gun owners have a special obligation to speak out and work toward banning assault weapons and prohibiting those who are mentally ill from owning a gun. We need your credibility to educate others that owning a gun can be done responsibly.

3. First responders, police, emergency personnel—start thanking them if you haven’t, and keep thanking them if you do. I’m not dismissing racial inequality and police brutality against people of color. It exists, it’s unacceptable, and we desperately need reforms. But just because some clergy members unforgivably victimize others, not all members of the clergy are abusers. By analogy, because some police officers abuse their power, that doesn’t make all of them guilty. Nearly 130 law enforcement officers were killed while on duty in 2017. I honestly can’t imagine what it means to have a job where you’re required to train your subconscious to ignore the possibility that you may be injured or killed whenever you’re on the job.

4. Don’t diss the “mainstream” media. Their work strengthens democracy. You don’t have to love journalists, but they’re not the villains in the unraveling of our democracy.

5. Finally, it doesn’t take an act of Congress to reach out to a stranger in your neighborhood and introduce yourself. You have little to lose and much to gain. Change happens one person at a time, on the local level, and every individual can make a difference by turning an “other” into a sister or brother. It’s not complicated.

In some futile efforts to “harden our schools “and “houses of worship” I’m afraid we’re going to permanently harden our hearts. Making America great again begins with making America kind again. America has been feared for its military power but admired for its compassion and generosity. Kindness and empathy will make America great again and that’s something that we can control.

 

 

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

Posted on: January 3rd, 2018 by Hayim Herring No Comments

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

Posted on: December 19th, 2017 by Hayim Herring No Comments

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

Posted on: November 29th, 2017 by Hayim Herring No Comments

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:

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

Posted on: November 13th, 2017 by Hayim Herring No Comments

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

Posted on: October 26th, 2017 by Hayim Herring No Comments

 

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.

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

Posted on: July 4th, 2017 by Hayim Herring No Comments

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The Leading Congregations – An Exchange with Hayim Herring & Shmuel Rosner

Posted on: March 16th, 2017 by Hayim Herring No Comments

 

 

In 2017, Hayim Herring & Shmuel Rosner engaged in a three part exchange

 

The Leading Congregations exchange, part 1: The challenges facing 21st century Jewish communities

The following exchange will focus on Rabbi Herring’s new book, Leading Congregations in a Connected World: Platforms, People and Purposes (co-written with Dr. Teri Elton).

Dear Rabbi Herring,

Your new book is entitled Leading Congregations in a Connected World. Our introductory question: What type of congregation and organization leaders did you have in mind when writing this book, and what would you like them to learn from it?

Yours,

Shmuel

***

Dear Shmuel,

My co-author, Dr. Terri Elton, and I wrote Leading Congregations in a Connected World: Platforms, People and Purposes, for two broad audiences: professional and volunteer leaders of congregations and nonprofits, and teachers of current and future leaders. We defined two categories of congregations and nonprofit organizations. We studied both “established and adapting” organizations, namely, those with at least 25 years of history, were structured primarily as top-down hierarchies, but were trying to adapt to a more decentralized, socially networked world where people co-create their own personal meaning and community. We labeled the second category, “emerging and maturing,” that is, those congregations and nonprofits that were at least five years old, were reaching the age of early organizational maturity, and recognizing that the socially networked DNA that gave birth to them was not going to be sufficient to keep them growing and sustainable.

We realized that existing studies on congregations and nonprofits took an “either/or” approach. They looked at “the new kids on the block,” those newer congregations and nonprofits that garnered a lot of attention for their creativity and freshness. Those stories were usually about growth and flourishing. The other side of the narrative was one of decline and decay, and focused on legacy congregations and nonprofits that were losing members and lacking in vibrancy.

We thought that both sides of the equation needed to be studied. While it’s true that many legacy congregations and nonprofits are struggling, we also knew of some that had pivoted to a 21st Century social engagement way of working. (That doesn’t mean just having cool social media tools, but knowing how to use them strategically to deepen community.) Second, even though many established organizations are having difficulty making that pivot, they still command a lot of attention and resources. Was there a way to accelerate their likelihood of becoming more responsive?

Conversely, while many of the startups rightfully gained a lot of attention, we were hearing stories of some that were now between five and ten years old that were struggling. How could they maintain their unique, organic and socially networked attributes now that they had to worry about a larger budget, more staff, and perhaps even a building? They certainly didn’t want to become like the more rigid congregations or nonprofits against which they had rebelled, but they also needed to support a broader base of people who held a shared vision. We wanted to test the commonly held assumption that hierarchies are dead, and that social networks are the only future way forward of organizing spiritual and nonprofit communities. Indeed, we found that both elements of hierarchies and social networks existed within old and new organizations and both are needed.

What was especially appealing to me was to conduct research and write together with a Protestant colleague. Jews are part of a dynamic religious landscape in America that’s undergoing a revolution. So why not contextualize our changes into the broader context of which we are a part? Terri and I are both committed to blending academic theory and empirical research with practical tools and resources for immediate use.

Here are five key takeaways, although I still hope that you and your readers will read the book and call me with your responses!

1. Authenticity and innovation are compatible, although challenging to achieve. Congregations and nonprofits that thrive in the 21st-Century will go back to their core mission, but then pick one of four different pathways that we identify to practice innovation, and make innovation a part of their new organizational DNA.

2. The values of a socially networked world, that include enabling people to co-create their own experiences and have maximum self-choice, are here to stay. These values need to show up digitally, in the synagogue or nonprofit’s bricks and mortar space, and wherever people gather under their auspices. That means leaders must learn to relinquish some control, but in return, gain the joy of watching participants grow as they own their Jewish experiences and purpose. By letting go and enabling others to share and enact their Jewish dream, leaders also expand the influence and impact of their congregational or organizational mission.

3. Disruption doesn’t discriminate by age. Today’s disruptors will be tomorrow’s disrupted, and today’s disrupted can easily become tomorrow’s disruptors. So it’s a good idea to redefine leadership not as having the ability to respond quickly to trends, but to anticipate and favorably shape them.

4. Engagement isn’t a goal or a checklist. It’s an orientation for congregations and nonprofits. That means engaging individuals with a significant mission, and then putting them into community with those who share the same passion for mission, a mission that must connect to the broader world.

5. Community is fragile and trying to hold people with diverse views together is becoming increasingly challenging. Nonprofit CEO’s and clergy have the tremendous task of keeping people focused on mission and bringing people together in face-to-face contact where they can see that others who are not exactly like them are still partners for holy work.

6. Without dismissing the incredibly urgent work of social justice, congregations have another great, and I would say unique, opportunity. There are four generations and soon to be five generations of people alive in large numbers today. Where are the opportunities for people from so many different generations to develop sustained, meaningful, multi-generational relationships? Where are the opportunities where mutual mentoring can happen, if not at congregations? To the best of my knowledge, no other institution has potential access to so many generations over a lifetime. For congregations to claim that role, they’ll have to rethink congregational life, priorities, values, budgets, staffing – and I can’t think of anything more important today given the isolating challenges that each generation faces.

There’s more to say, and I look forward to the next parts of the exchange! Thank you for contributing to this conversation on the disruption and reconfiguration of our communities!


The Leading Congregations exchange, part 2: On Judaism, marketing and integrity

Dear Rabbi Herring,

In your first answer you stated that “authenticity and innovation are compatible, although challenging to achieve.” Generally, your answer, and your book, stress the importance of “innovation” and “engagement” – both very positive-sounding terms – for religious institutions.

But it seems there is a less positive way of describing what is being demanded of religious institutions today – one could say that in the age of Buzzfeed there is more and more pressure on community leaders to aggressively market their ‘product’ and to water-down religion in the attempt to compete with the never-ending stream of internet content. While authenticity and innovation might be compatible, what about holiness and Twitter, or marketing and religious depth?

My question: how can religious leaders maintain the integrity and uncompromising purity of the tradition when they constantly need to rebrand and woo the public to survive?

Yours,

Shmuel

***

Dear Shmuel,

You brought to light one of the core struggles of rabbis, clergy members of other faith traditions and nonprofit CEO’s. Almost all of the rabbis and nonprofit C.E.O.’s I know begin their service with a deep sense of calling and purpose. Some feel called by God, others by service to the Jewish people and still others to something transcendent that they may not be able to label. But they strive to live lives with religious integrity because they know that they are walking advertisements of the values of their traditions and organizations. Of course, we know that they’re also human and that they can fail big and fall hard like anyone else. Those who do, in my experience, are the exceptions and not the norms of legions of colleagues who take issues of honesty and authenticity seriously.

But that doesn’t diminish the serious implications of your question. Some colleagues burn out because they feel like they have to sell out their integrity in order to keep their congregants happy. And in trying to respond to “marketing” demands of members and donors, they may actually alienate them, because their members suddenly realize that they have higher expectations of their clergy leaders and nonprofit professionals. When rabbis or nonprofit C.E.O.’s experience that, it is an awful feeling, and this dynamic of maintaining integrity and authenticity, while trying to be responsive and relevant, is the basis for an urgent dialogue that needs to happen among rabbinic, seminary, denominational and volunteer leaders. That would take real national leadership and courage.

But I also think that you, like many in the congregational and nonprofit world, have a popular but mistaken understanding of marketing. Marketing is not selling, and it’s not advertising. Rather, marketing is building relationships based on an exchange of something of value. For example, a relationship that develops between a congregation and an individual through marketing would be when a congregation provides a volunteer opportunity to connect with elderly people, and a volunteer who seeks that opportunity now is able to develop a relationship with someone older under the auspices of the congregation or nonprofit. As you can see, marketing in this example is an exchange between a congregation that makes it easy for someone to do something good, and a person who wants to do something good. So marketing, when understood correctly as an exchange of value, has no effect on “watering down religion.”

One other clarification – you write that “innovation” and “engagement” are very positive-sounding terms, and they are greatly needed in congregations and nonprofits. However, we also emphasize the importance of mission in our book. Why? Because you want to have a marketing strategy that is built around mission, one in which belief in a shared mission becomes the social glue that makes people stick together in a community dedicated to the same kind of social, spiritual, or educational mission that can improve the world. Having a marketing strategy without a clear mission may get you some initial bump in program attendance. But honestly, people’s lives are so cluttered with excellent opportunities for programs, entertainment and socially valuable causes that unless a congregation or nonprofit has a mission that is so clear and so compelling that can cut through the clutter, marketing efforts are questionable.

Even with my clarifications, I want to acknowledge the tensions that you raise because they arise from real world pressures that colleagues face. Unfortunately, some of them are going to intensify, and some colleagues, with the best of intentions, will wind up selling themselves out and selling their congregations and nonprofits short.

Now a question for you – what do you mean when you ask, “…how can religious leaders maintain the integrity and uncompromising purity of the tradition when they constantly need to rebrand and woo the public to survive?” How are you defining “purity of religion?” Are you referring to Jewish Haredi sects whose male members held an anti-Internet rally at Citi Field in New York City in 2012, which was live streamed and where men took pictures on their cell phones and texted about it?

I’m curious to know what underlying mental picture you have of “uncompromising purity of the tradition ” and how rebranding risks tainting that assumed purity. After all, religious traditions like ours have always rebranded and, I would add, thank God we have had the wisdom to do so! We had to rebrand from a land-based, Temple-bound religion to a diaspora, prayer-focused community. We rebranded from Temple Judaism to Rabbinic Judaism. And we rebranded from a rationalistic, pilpulistic tradition to a mystical religion centered on developing personal virtue. And that’s before we begin exploring how the creation of the modern State of Israel has caused major rebrandings of Judaism both within and outside of Israel. I don’t think that trying to maintain a nostalgic memory of a static “purity of tradition” is accurate or helpful. In fact, rebranding can be holy work and hard work. And that’s one of the reasons that we’ve included several essays about finding God in social networks and in their sacred relational power.


The Leading Congregations exchange, part 3: ‘Today, a congregation with a bland mission is at risk of going out of business’

Dear Rabbi Herring,

Near the end of your last answer, you wanted some clarifications about what I meant when I asked you if thinking in marketing terms doesn’t hurt the purity of the tradition.

Now, of course I didn’t mean that all modern synagogues should strive to promote a “Haredi sect” vision of Judaism (if I believed that, I would never have hosted you and dozens of other progressive rabbis in my Torah talks)… What I was referring to is the idea that, for many people, the notion of treating faith and religion as a product, as something that needs to be “marketed” or “rebranded,” can be quite off-putting. I assume most people would like their shul to be a place free from everyday corporate lingo and wouldn’t like to imagine their Rabbi as having marketing in mind when he or she preaches from the pulpit, supports community members in times of need, or advances communal initiatives.

For my third-round question I’d like to ask you to elaborate some more on the idea of mission. In your previous answer you stated that: “people’s lives are so cluttered with excellent opportunities for programs, entertainment and socially valuable causes that unless a congregation or nonprofit has a mission that is so clear and so compelling that can cut through the clutter, marketing efforts are questionable.”

Now, your book tries to address issues facing both congregations and nonprofits. But while in the case of nonprofits the need to state a mission and set goals is understandable, what does having “a clear and compelling” mission mean in the context of a synagogue? What kind of missions can synagogues have besides just being a place of worship, Jewish learning, and community life (as in the days of yore)?

Thank you again for participating in this exchange.

Yours,

Shmuel

***

Dear Shmuel,

Thanks for pushing the discussion about congregations and nonprofits with increasingly difficult questions. Following up on our debate about “marketing,” you clarify: “I assume most people would like their shul to be a place free from everyday corporate lingo and wouldn’t like to imagine their Rabbi as having marketing in mind when he or she preaches from the pulpit, supports community members in times of need, or advances communal initiatives.”

True-and that’s a great segue into today’s question: “What does having a clear and compelling’ mission mean in the context of a synagogue? What kind of missions can synagogues have besides just being a place of worship, Jewish learning, and community life (as in the days of yore)?”

Spoiler alert: a congregation with a bland mission in today’s hyper-connected world of unlimited choice is at risk of going out of business. But congregations with differentiated, focused and compelling missions, that allow people to express and explore themselves Jewishly within those missions, have a better chance of thriving.

“Marketing” and “mission” are dual engines of congregational and nonprofit vibrancy. Marketing is about building relationships with people for whom you care based on causes which you share. That means that leaders of congregations and nonprofits have to define what their primary purposes are. As you suggest, the broad mission of every congregation is to engage its community in “Torah, Avodah and Gemilut Chasadim” (Torah study, prayer and acts of kindness expressed by and for members of the community). Not too long ago, most congregational mission statements were indistinguishable from one another. A typical mission statement might have read: Synagogue XXXX is a welcoming congregation devoted to creating a sacred community expressed through study of Torah, worship and acts of kindness.

That typical 20th Century mission above reflects hierarchical organizations. The missional proposition was, “join our community and here is what we, the more involved/elite group of insiders, pledge to provide to those of you who are not nearly as informed.” But when individuals sought deeper involvement, they often found a disconnect between what these standard missions professed and how they were actually expressed. There was Torah study – but it wasn’t not particularly challenging or inspiring. There was prayer – but the words of the book/siddur didn’t speak to their hearts. And these places that claimed to be “welcoming” didn’t always seem to behave that way. Congregations still work for some, but if you look at their increasing financial and membership pressures, they aren’t working for many.

Adapting the thinking of, Peter Drucker, a founder of modern nonprofit management, we suggest that the mission of a congregation or nonprofit is measured in:

– Changed Jewish lives.

– Changed Jewish communities.

– A changed world.

That’s why mission is critical and some congregations are really beginning to differentiate themselves with a focus on mission. These congregations and nonprofits are making hard choices. They have accepted the reality that trying to be all things to all people and do everything well guarantees mediocrity. Using their missions as filters, they decide where they want to focus their talent, time and funds to have the greatest likely impact on changing lives and communities, pursue those several goals with relentless excellence, and collaborate with other organizations in areas where they decide to place fewer resources so that members and potential joiners can have their other Jewish needs met through congregational partnerships.

A few examples of parts of contemporary mission statements (and I’m using both Jewish and Protestant examples from my book, as Protestants are also recognizing the need to focus less on programs, and more on purpose or mission):

Lab/Shul: Welcome to Lab/Shul, an artist-driven, everybody-friendly, God-optional, pop up, experimental community for sacred Jewish gatherings based in NYC and reaching the world.

Jacob’s Well Church (Minneapolis): If church is boring, something’s broken. Instead of being a once a week obligation, we want our time together to awaken who you are – you know, your real selves. Honest, thinking, relevant and casual gatherings impact the lives we live.

Romemu (New York City): Romemu seeks to integrate body, mind, and soul in Jewish practice. Unabashedly eclectic, we engage in body practices like yoga, infuse traditional liturgy with the energy of ecstatic chant, and ground our practice with meditation and contemplation. This is a Judaism that will ignite your Spirit…

GPS Faith Community (Machesney Park, IL): (Our mission is) Finding direction by loving God and serving others. We do this by joining together for worship and fellowship and then going out into our lives and into the community to love and serve others.

These mission statements:

– Invite an individual’s involvement on personal and not institutional terms, and also make their institutional parameters and expectations clear.

– Point individuals toward becoming part of a community of greater impact.

– Assume that most of a person’s time is spent outside of the walls or websites of the congregations, and that one must live out the mission even when not in services.

A Talmudic legal principle, “if you grasp too much, you wind up holding nothing,” applies to congregational and nonprofit missions. For many reasons, it’s not possible for congregations to excel at everything, although members have that expectation. My advice based on what we have learned: better to go deep in a few areas of Jewish life and build partnerships with others who can provide excellence in others.

When that happens, I think that you’ll find more people participating in congregational and Jewish nonprofit life because their individual and communal experiences will provide them with personal, enduring and powerful purpose as they live out their communities’ missions. I know that you have much to write about, but hope that others will be stimulated to purchase Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World. Platforms, People and Purpose and delve further into your provocative questions!

Thank you,

Hayim

Hayim Herring & Terri Elton Interviewed by Roshini Rakjumar on WCCO Radio

Posted on: February 14th, 2017 by Hayim Herring No Comments

On WCCO Radio, Roshini Rakjumar interviews “Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World” authors Dr. Hayim Herring and Dr. Terri Elton. The authors discuss leading congregations and nonprofits in a connected – and clearly divided – world.

 

How to Connect in a Politically Divided World

Posted on: January 6th, 2017 by Hayim Herring No Comments

Following a tense and game-changing campaign season, many Americans are wondering how they can still make a positive impact in our socially connected, but politically divided culture.  Two Twin Cities religious leaders have a new book that could offer some answers.

Rabbi Hayim Herring and Luther Seminary Professor Dr. Terri Elton joined us on KARE 11 News at 4 to discuss “Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World: Platforms, People and Purpose.”

The authors say their book draws perspectives from clergy and volunteer leaders on how to engage their members in meaningful ways, identify a common good and, ultimately, advance their positive impact in a socially connected world.


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