Archive for the ‘New Jewish Realities’ Category


From Courageous Conversations to Daring Decisions: More Thoughts on Collaboration

Posted on: September 14th, 2011 by Hayim Herring


I hope that more leaders will spark the kinds of courageous conversations that Rabbi Bisno has started in his recent opinion piece, “Let the Courageous Conversation Continue” in on September 7th.  Such conversations seed the ground for potential collaborations on the local level. In following up on Rabbi Bisno’s call to action, I want to suggest a few ways that we can move from courageous conversations about collaboration to daring decisions that foster creative group and organizational partnerships that will enrich the Jewish community.

But first, let us remember just how long various leaders have been calling for greater collaboration. For example, in 1976, the late Rabbi Samuel Dresner wrote an essay called, From Jewish Inadequacy to a Sacred Community, that appeared in a book, Federation and Synagogue: Toward a New Partnership. Since that time, aside from a handful of communities, there are few synagogue-federation partnerships that we can point to. Why, we ask, are collaborations so difficult to create and sustain?

In one community, I interviewed fifteen volunteer leaders, professionals and philanthropists about their understanding of collaboration. They confirmed what I suspected: potential stakeholders in a collaborative effort have different understandings of the implications of collaboration. For funders, it can be a code word for a merger. For a program officer, it can mean more work with ambiguous benefit. For a lay leader, it may mean efficiency. A lack of shared understanding at the beginning of discussions about collaboration sets the stage for misunderstanding and distrust, and often stops partnerships in their tracks.

Here is a definition of collaboration that I have developed based on other experts who have spent a lifetime of work building collaborations and my own experience of over twenty-five years doing so:

At least two organizations working together, while retaining their identity and autonomy, provide a higher level of service to an agreed upon constituency than they can provide individually. Participants in a collaboration share jointly in the costs and benefits of working together.

Notice that cost savings are not in this definition. In fact, collaborations may not save money, at least initially. If community leaders seek to reduce costs, there are better organizational arrangements for doing so, including mergers, joint programming corporations and management services corporations. While saving resources is a legitimate concern, collaboration is fundamentally about raising the quality of experience for participants in a program. Collaborations can make individuals deepen their involvement in the Jewish community and increase their positive feelings about it.

If funders want to see more collaboration they will have to align incentives with that goal. Here are a few ways they can do so:

When organizations collaborate with one another, they make a conscious decision to cultivate a trusting, transparent relationship. Have you ever seen any healthy relationship come into being spontaneously? Collaborations, like all relationships, require ongoing work and support. But they are worth it, because when they happen, they present better ways for more individuals to find personal meaning in the Jewish community and, in turn, contribute their talents to making it richer.

A version of this article originally appeared on the eJewish Philanthropy blog on September 15, 2011.

Games Children Play: A Digital Upgrade for Jewish Education?

Posted on: August 9th, 2011 by Hayim Herring

Image courtesy of

In a recent article in eJewishPhilanthropy, Rabbi Owen Gottlieb makes the case for Jewish “Games for Learning,” writing that today’s learners “are increasingly Gamers, Designers, and Builders (Tinkerers).”  He argues that the expansion of these games in secular educational settings needs to be embraced by the Jewish philanthropic community if Jewish education efforts are to successfully meet Jewish learners where they are at.

Here are some powerful statistics from the Pew Center’s Internet & American Life Project¹ that confirm Gottleib’s point:

In yesterday’s opinion piece in the New York Times, columnist Virginia Heffernan argues that grade-school education needs a “digital-age upgrade.”  She asserts that 21st-century American classrooms, with their orientation to “teaching tasks, obedience, hierarchy and schedules” are a holdover from the industrial-era, when the classroom was retooled as a “training ground for future factory workers.” (I wonder what she would say about Jewish education!)

Heffernan claims that we need to bring education from the industrial-era model to a digital-age one:

Simply put, we can’t keep preparing students for a world that doesn’t exist. We can’t keep ignoring the formidable cognitive skills they’re developing on their own.

Her comments suggest a serious place for gaming in the educational system. We know that many aspects of Jewish education need a digital-age upgrade.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.


Rabbi Hayim Herring


¹Lenhart, Amanda, et al.  Teens, Video Games and Civics.  Report, Washington, D.C.:  Pew Internet & American Life Project, September 16, 2008. (accessed August 8, 2011).

Tisha b’Av: What is it Good For?

Posted on: August 1st, 2011 by Hayim Herring

Image courtesy of

Tisha b’Av is the most significant day of national mourning on the Jewish calendar. Tisha b’Av commemorates the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem and the forced exile of the Jewish people from the land of Israel. Traditional Jewish practice requires a full day of fasting (no food, no liquids), foregoing pleasures and reciting the book of Lamentations (Eichah), which vividly recounts the destruction of the Temple. From a Jewish legal perspective, although the last Jewish Temple was destroyed almost 2,000 year ago, the destruction of the Temple is given greater weight than the destruction of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust in contemporary times.

If you’re an Orthodox or traditional Jew, Tisha b’Av is straightforward. You observe its laws either because you believe that God commands you to do so or because you recognize that when you adopt an Orthodox or traditional Jewish life, you commit to practicing all of it and not some of it.

But I admit to having problems with Tisha b’Av. If I want to return to Israel, I can. If I don’t want to live there permanently, I can visit there. If I can’t afford to visit there, I can follow the daily news of Israel and view pictures and videos of a beautifully rebuilt Jewish State. And, I think that rebuilding the Temple and offering sacrifices would be a theological leap backwards-not to mention the political and military fallout that would occur by rebuilding a Temple on the current site of the Dome of the Rock, which has tremendous religious significance to Muslims. Besides, I don’t want to support Jewish religious fundamentalists who are serious about rebuilding the Temple, another reason that I have problems observing Tisha b’Av traditionally.

Some of my rabbinic colleagues try to reinterpret Tisha b’Av by lightening the laws or reinterpreting them with a contemporary twist. That works for some, but not for me. Neither approach acknowledges these fundamental shifts in Jewish history or the dangers of supporting fundamentalists. Sure, I’m inspired by Tisha b’Av’s message of renewal after devastation, and I believe that Jewish history and Jewish memory are essential to fostering Jewish peoplehood. But can’t we find another way to make this point?

If not, does that mean that Tisha b’Av is no longer relevant?  Or should this day take on new significance?  How do YOU connect to this day? Please share your comments below.


Rabbi Hayim Herring


Introducing Hayim’s Blog (Formerly “Tools for Shuls”) + Special Offer!

Posted on: July 25th, 2011 by Hayim Herring

Image courtesy of

I’m incredibly excited to launch my new blog!  I placed blogging on hold so that I could focus more attention on my book and building my business.  And, I came to recognize that my Tools for Shuls blog was now too narrowly focused.

So much has changed in the Jewish world since I first started blogging a couple of years ago! The economic recession’s impact on the Jewish community, the fractured relationship between parts of the American Jewish community and Israel, the level of civil discussion within our own Jewish community-just to name a few!  “Tools for Shuls” inaccurately suggested by its title that some quick fixes in synagogues could address these issues, so resetting my blog, while launching the new website for the Herring Consulting Network, seemed timely.

If you’ve been a reader of this blog, what can you expect to see that’s different? And for those who are new, what is this blog all about? The general focus is on developing leaders for the synagogue, Jewish communal and non-profit world who want to create the future that they hope to see, instead of waiting for the future to happen to them. For me, that’s a good working definition of leaders: people who dream big about tomorrow and create their tomorrows today.

You can expect two posts approximately every 10 days. One will relate to aspects of leadership. The other will ask you to comment on trends and issues related to your synagogue or organization. I envision the blog as a space for collaboration, where people can exchange ideas and experiences about leading organizations, and where they can pose questions to a diverse audience. So let’s start the conversation by asking:

Special limited offer:
All those who comment on this week’s question will be entered into a drawing for a free consulting session!*  There will be three different levels awarded:  One three-hour session, one two-hour session, and one one-hour session.  The drawing will take place on August 17, 2011, and winners will be notified via email.  So go ahead, share your responses by commenting below and you might win!

I look forward to resuming the conversation with you.


Rabbi Hayim Herring


*Consulting sessions will be given via conference call and will be scheduled according to Rabbi Herring’s availability.  Sessions are non-transferable and not redeemable for any cash value.

Look Past the Label

Posted on: February 8th, 2011 by Hayim Herring

Photo by olaf.herfurth*

For many years, sociologists and Jewish pundits have been predicting the rise of Jews who defy denominational labels. And, they are here to stay! Often, the independent minyanim types tend to become the focus of study and observation. But they aren’t the only ones out there.

There’s another group of people who deserve equal attention. They are serious about their Judaism and they’re equally serious about not fitting into a box that someone else has defined for them. Unlike independent minyanim’ers, it isn’t that they necessarily reject denominations. It’s just that no single denomination can contain their eclecticism.

A friend of mine referred me to a recent post by Nina Badzin, entitled The Rise of Reformadox Judaism. It’s a well-written, edgy piece that precisely captures this other group, which I sense is much larger numerically than the indie minyan crowd. (Full-disclosure-I know the author.)

I encourage you to read this post and the many comments that follow. As you do, you might want to think about some of the following questions: if you’re involved in a denominational synagogue, how do you keep someone like author engaged in your community? What appeal does membership have to someone like the author? And ultimately, what are the possible pros and cons to the Jewish community in general as we see more Ninas claim their place?

Rabbi Hayim Herring

*Photo olaf.herfurth via wikimediacommons

Who Moved My Challah?

Posted on: January 28th, 2011 by Hayim Herring

An article appeared in yesterday’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune announcing the likely closing of the only kosher deli and supermarket in the Twin Cities.  The article begins with the words, “Oy Vey!” but is this an “Oy Vey!” or a “Hurray!” moment?  Perhaps some of both. Sure, it’s a loss on some level for the Jewish community and if it closes, I’m going to miss the best challah in the Twin Cities. But when you reflect on some of the conditions that have led to its impending demise, there’s also some positive news in the story.

As noted in the article, you don’t have to go to the kosher deli to purchase kosher food. You can now purchase kosher meat at the local Costco, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. You can also find a wide selection of kosher foods at many other local supermarkets, from the high end to the discount ones.  Additionally, a new, local kosher supervision organization has recently begun providing certification for a few restaurants and coffee shops that offer kosher products. In other words, while the entire establishment is not kosher, certain foods are.

Kosher food has gone mainstream, along with many other aspects of Jewish culture. In fact, the purchase of kosher foods by non-Jews is on the rise (NYTimes Jan. 13, 2010). “Oy vey!” captures one dimension of meaning for the potential loss of the kosher deli to the Jewish community. But “hurray!” is also in order for what it signals to Jews in America.

image from grongar

How “Getting a Life” Opened My Eyes to New Ways of Jewish Learning and Teaching

Posted on: October 22nd, 2010 by Hayim Herring

On my birthday last August, my wife decided it was time I take up a new hobby.  (Or, as she said, “It’s time you get a life.”) I had been threatening for years to start playing trumpet again, which I played for several years pre-braces, so we’re talking a long time ago. Guess what she bought for my birthday? A trumpet! And now I’m taking lessons and enjoying it tremendously. But….I still managed to find connections between trumpet playing and Jewish life.

My teacher introduced me to an online music education service called SmartMusic. I’m just learning how to use it, but as soon as I subscribed, I realized how apt it could be for Jewish learning and teaching! As a SmartMusic subscriber ($36/year), you can access a rich library of exercises and music for all band instruments. The music appears on your screen and as you practice or play, your computer can record you. Then, a playback of the music with corrections appears on the screen, so that you practice and improve.

SmartMusic doesn’t, however, replace a teacher. Among other things, a teacher can share stories about his or her teachers – that is, give you an oral tradition – and help you move from technician to musician. As it turns out, SmartMusic actually allows teachers to customize lessons for students and enables students to submit MP3 files of their lessons to teachers, so that they can monitor their progress.

My question: is anyone aware of a similar type of site for increasing your knowledge of Jewish learning and ritual?

Rabbi Hayim Herring

P.S. If you’re in a hotel room in some city, and you hear a struggling, novice trumpet player, it’s a safe bet that it’s me working from SmartMusic. Oh….and Mom-thanks for making sure that I received some music education when I was a kid!

image Seph-Outline (Joseph Ruano)

NJ Jewish Standard Can’t Set a Jewish Community Standard

Posted on: October 11th, 2010 by Hayim Herring

By now, you might have read about the story that the New Jersey Jewish Standard inadvertently created about itself and, in doing so, inflicted pain on a gay couple. The facts are simple: this couple submitted a wedding announcement which the paper printed, then retracted under pressure from some members of the Orthodox rabbinate, and then re-retracted the retraction when it received an outpouring of outrage from other religious leaders and readers who were appalled by the original retraction.

Aside from the lack of decency by those at the paper responsible, this incident raises a question about community: who sets community standards today? Sometimes, for the sake of communal harmony, organizations will often adopt a “stricter” position in order to be maximally inclusive of the most traditionally-observant in the community (a common example is kashrut standards). On other occasions, the more traditional elements in a community feel excluded when liberal standards are applied.

Using this New Jersey Jewish Standard episode as an illustration, ask yourself—who determines the standard of what is “appropriate” for a local Jewish community? If you were the publisher of this paper, what process would you follow in arriving at a decision? Clearly, the paper is in a lose-lose situation—some segment of the community is going to be offended by its policy. Please take a few moments to comment, for this issue is not just about this one couple, but about the broader issue of who exactly is authorized to make decisions for a local Jewish community and is it even possible to arrive at a consensus anymore around community issues?

Thank you,

Rabbi Hayim Herring

New Year, New Blog, New Book Idea

Posted on: October 4th, 2010 by Hayim Herring

This summer, I unexpectedly learned the difference between writing the book I planned to write and writing the book I had to write. The book I originally planned to write – Tools for Shuls – was about helping synagogues build their core capacities (areas like marketing, volunteer engagement, fundraising, etc.). But the writing felt like a real chore, and not like the temporary kind of writer’s block that I’ve experienced before. With the help of family and some friends, I reluctantly recognized that there was a different book idea inside of me that insisted on getting out. If you’ve ever been possessed by an idea, then you know what I’m talking about!

So I’m now writing and enjoying it, and while I don’t have an exact name for the book yet (working title: Visions of a 21st Century Synagogue), it’s going to still rest on the assumption that synagogues will continue to do the work of God, Torah and Israel (all broadly defined), but be guided by two premises: it’s time for them to re-examine both 1) their fundamental purposes and 2) and their fundamental organizing structures. It will be different from other books on synagogues, which still generally take the general structures and purposes of synagogues as givens, and focus on either improving them or highlighting some of the functions while de-emphasizing others.

It wasn’t easy coming to grips with this change, given how invested I was in the first idea. But at the same time, I’ll be able to incorporate much of what I’ve learned from you and my own reading into the new book project. So many aspects of the world have changed since I first started writing, but then again – we’re entering a new year, so it’s time for me to embrace it.

One last note – if you don’t want to remain on my distribution list, please let me know. But I hope that you will and more important, that you’ll continue to add your voice to a new conversation.

Wishing you and your loved ones a healthy, purposeful and prosperous new year.

Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D.

Questions of Ultimate Importance

Posted on: August 17th, 2010 by Hayim Herring
Since this past Sunday, I’ve had the real joy of being together with two different groups of Schusterman Rabbinical Fellows. Each group has four distinguished students from HUC and four from JTS, learning together about leadership, outreach and inclusion. In one session, the students heard from an outstanding facilitator who worked with them on speaking authentically, that is, not being pontificators but genuine communicators.
One part of that session triggered three questions that seemed so appropriate to think about as we ready for Rosh ha-Shanah:
when were you recently at your best?
when do you think that the Jewish people acted at its best?
when do you think a significant part of the world behaved at its best?
I hope that you will find these questions pointing to issues of ultimate importance. And I hope that some of you will want to respond to them on this blog. And for anyone who is speaking before a congregation on the holidays about some related topics, please send me your sermons or summarize the key ideas below.
Thank you,
Rabbi Hayim Herring

Since this past Sunday, I’ve had the real joy of being together with two different groups of Schusterman Rabbinical Fellows. Each group has four distinguished students from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and four from The Jewish Theological Seminary, learning together about leadership, outreach and inclusion. In one session, the students heard from an outstanding facilitator who worked with them on speaking authentically, that is, not being pontificators but genuine communicators.

One part of that session triggered three questions that seemed so appropriate to think about as we ready for Rosh ha-Shanah:

  1. When were you recently at your best?
  2. When do you think that the Jewish people acted at its best?
  3. When do you think a significant part of the world behaved at its best?

I hope that you will find these questions pointing to issues of ultimate importance, and I hope that some of you will want to respond to them on this blog. And for anyone who is speaking before a congregation on the holidays about some related topics, please send me your sermons or summarize the key ideas below.

Thank you,

Rabbi Hayim Herring

image from Flickr, Horia Varlan