The one summer I chose Israel

 

At different times in my life, Jewish educators would often prompt seminar audiences to describe and prioritize their Jewish identity. The technique used was to ask “Are you an American Jew or a Jewish American”? Responses from the group almost always guaranteed an energetic discussion. I was never able to make up my mind.

Plus, I have to admit that depending on my mood, sometimes my first thought was Really? What will this answer possibly tell me about myself? How is this question even relevant to my life? Why would I ever have to choose?

Well, years ago on a summer trip to Israel, I did choose and though it happened over a decade ago, I somehow forgot about the circumstances of that decision. I put it out of my mind until recently when, in honor of Israel’s upcoming 70th birthday, a workshop leader prompted us to think of stories when our relationship to Israel might have changed–and I remembered.

The year was 2006 and I traveled with other Jewish educators on a 10 day trip that culminated a year and half of study. We knew before we went that this time of year might be somewhat dangerous, because there were flare-ups of aggression in the weeks before our departure. Knowing this in advance did not discourage us, and only one person stayed back.

During our travels, our guides were in contact almost hour by hour with Israel’s security office, making sure that our destinations would be shielded from any conflict. It was a little disconcerting though, as one day we couldn’t go to the North, then we were not able to go to the South. Katushya rockets were landing in Israel on a regular basis. You could feel that things were heating up.

Sure enough, towards the end of our trip, the security office informed our guides that they needed to abort the trip. Israel was at war with Lebanon. Within what seemed like an instant, people began calling family in the United States to tell them they would be making arrangements to come home, and calling relatives in Israel to let them know that they wouldn’t be visiting. There was a flurry of activity. I needed to be alone to gather my thoughts.

I distanced myself from the others to gain some quiet space to think heavily about what I should do and what I felt I had to do. A rational voice inside said “You have a husband at home and two children at home” I shot back, “Yes, but they’re over the age of 18…”. Back and forth the voices went. In the end, I could not leave and decided that I had to stay. I didn’t have a rational reason for what I would say to my husband. All I knew is that I needed to be in Israel and not desert the country I loved.

My father, an immigrant, barely in the United States for two years, enlisted in the army and fought for this country in WWII–but he loved the emergent state of Israel. He would understand.

I braced myself knowing that all at once it seemed egotistical to stay (really, what would staying here accomplish?), but pulled by the feeling that I did not want to leave…just in case I could be of help somewhere, somehow.

When I called home, my husband rightly challenged me with questions that I could not answer. How will you be a help to Israel if you stay? What will you do? Fly a fighter jet? Become a nurse? Go to the battlefield?

I had no answers. When he had no more questions I said “because I have to. I need to.” I stayed for three more weeks until the Lebanon War was over, and then I came back to my second home.

A few years later, after graduating from an ivy league university with high honors, my son told my husband and I that he decided to enlist in the Israeli Army, and would try out for special forces. We were speechless and held each other while listening to him describe his reasons for his decision. I cried on that phone call for his bravery, loyalty, and from a place of total fear. And I cried several times in the weeks that followed. But I understood.

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Questions and a Meditation Before Yom Kippur

 

“…and after the earthquake a fire; but The One was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice….” Kings I 19:12

Am I coming to face the Divine with a polished soul, cleansed from sins I tossed into the living waters?

For the past ten days, between Tishrei 1 and Tishrei 10….did I fully use the opportunities I had to correct myself?

How can I possibly achieve the mountain of individual work I know I need to do knowing my limitations?

Yet, how can I approach the Holy One unless I truly own the fact that, created B’tzelem Elohim, I hold the Divine in me?

The still small voice in me, how can I honor that voice?

What behaviors can I commit to, what promises can I make to the Divine, that will honor others as Holy Souls of The One?

How can I make sure to live every moment in its purity with gratitude to my Creator?

How can I make sure that “Lo BaShamayim Hi” also means that everyday, in my heart, I remember my vows to The Blessed One?

What can I do to make this fast, this year, at this time, different from others?

A Yom Kippur Meditation

Draw yourself into the present moment, letting all thoughts slowly fade….

Notice your breath. Breathe in very slowly……………..breathe out even more slowly…

Take another breath this way……….Focus on the movement of your chest, your belly as you breathe…

Let go of any tightness, relax all parts of your body as you feel a lightness of being…….

You are in the present moment. You are a Holy Soul, B’tzelem Elokim…

Your soul is pure….

Elohai Neshama she’Natati-bi Tehora-hi….

My God, the soul that you gifted me with inside, is pure….

As you take your next breath, imagine a pure, white-blue lightness filling your soul, filling your entire body, radiating outward from you to the universe…

Begin to feel very light as your essence is not longer separate from that around you….

You are approaching the Holy One as this essence…..

The feeling of attachment is strong…you are part of the One and you are Loved by One Who Loves All….

You are unique. Your purpose here is yours. You bring lightness to the world that is your own….

Your promises to The One are promises to yourself….

You bring honor to all the Creator has created..

Begin to notice your breath once again…you are the gift of life….

You are filled with gratitude…

May you be inscribed and sealed in Your Book of Life….

May the gratitude you feel flow freely from you and with the help of The One, envelope others in this bright, New Year….

 

 

 

 


The global power of Jewish community

venice synagogue

The incredible beauty of the Venice Synagogue. The intricately carved mehitzah (separation) is on the far left.

The rabbi’s D’var Torah was an odd blend of Italian and Hebrew, and other than hearing “Balak” a few times, its meaning was lost on me. What was incomprehensible wasn’t the speech. It was that I was sitting a few arms’ lengths away from this kind, bearded man and participating in the Shabbat morning service as a member of a global community, in a Venetian synagogue that was hundreds of years old—in the Jewish Ghetto, the very first one ever.  

This synagogue was built in a place once relegated to Jews in the 16th century because it was the least pleasant part of the city to live in due to frequent flooding. Yet, just one year past the 500th year of the ghetto’s founding–I am experiencing a vibrancy to this community that no one would have predicted. The Venetian Jewish community was the first ever to live on the site of what was a geto, meaning iron foundry in Italian. (The word was originally pronounced with a “soft g” as in Gepetto or George, but the later German immigrants could not pronounce it properly, so it became a “hard g”).

In 1516, with strict conditions of not living beyond a closed off area, obeying curfews and marking themselves with either a  yellow hat or a yellow badge, among other discriminatory laws, the Venetian Republic granted Jews the right to settle here in this condensed area.

 

venise-quartier-juif-1520

The synagogue is on the left, through the small black door. It’s hard to believe the beauty that reveals itself once you walk inside (above).

Would anyone living at that time have imagined this? World travelers in the hundreds, coming to Venice, wanting to honor Shabbat and be with each other?  Here, in a synagogue hundreds of years old, the words “Am Yisrael” and “Klal Yisrael” were not theoretical terms, but were embodied in the faces of the Israelis, French, British, South Africans, Canadians, and Americans who I sat among.

Who is this people who are drawn to be with each other, who live thousands of miles apart in their everyday lives but for whom the lure of Shabbat evokes its power to gather together? For the two little Venetian girls in the corner, excitedly chattering in Italian, this is just what is–an ordinary Shabbat. For me, the experience is a testament to our strength, our resolve, our commitment to history yet our deep refusal to let it just be history.

In another winding cobble-stoned street of the ghetto is Chabad of Venice, where we davened Kabbalat Shabbat and had our meals.

chabad entrance

The building’s exterior is drab by any standards, but the spiritedness of the people overshadowed it easily.  Close to 200 people gathered to be part of this communal experience, filling a portion of the piazza.

jewish ghetto

While I often spoke to peers and students about the ‘global Jewish community’, I never felt it as clearly as I did on this Shabbat. The experience was so hyper-real that I still can’t comprehend the depth of feeling I had. You are not alone. There are countless souls who you are connected to, with whom you have a shared history. All you need to do is dip into the river of connection once, as I did, to discover its power.


Refuse to accept the arrogant model of leadership

julius.

 

We live in a selfish age. I know, no kidding—so I needn’t bother you with listing all the reasons why this is true. Believe me, it would be cathartic for me to do so.  Are you sure you don’t want some examples?  Okay, just one. In 2014, over 93 million selfies were taken daily. Ninety-three million. This narcissistic attitude permeates our entire culture and is not only limited to individuals, it is also the way companies do business.

Headlines depict company after company’s egregious behavior toward consumers: airbag negligence in cars, airline seats subject to fine print agreements, bogus real estate deals, industry price-fixing, and the numerous recalls of tainted food. There’s even a television show created a decade ago, with enough content to offer viewers a glimpse of dirty dealings called “American Greed”.

This culture of self-hood even extends to appeals by organizations to continually ask you to do things for them, even though you’re the consumer and should be the recipient of any largesse. They want you to like them, follow them, and also post and tweet about them. The goal is to enhance their image by connecting with you via the currency of your social media identity.  Doesn’t this also seem like very self-centered behavior? However, why blame amorphous companies, when the leadership sets the tone.

This morning, Jim Cramer, a commentator on a business show said “we live in an arrogant society”. After reading the first published earnings report from Snapchat he flatly stated that CEO Evan Spiegel is “so arrogant” and needs to find some humility.  He said this because Spiegel did not own up to the facts (a 20% loss) and laughed (Snapchat is a public company). Arrogance is the enemy of humility, because you become so wrapped up in yourself that you are unaware of your obligations towards others. You lose a sense of being connected with others. It is arrogance that has de-humanized the workplace so much so that employees rarely feel a sense of company loyalty, and when they do, it makes headlines. Not surprisingly, the CEO of oGOLead.com  says that we’re in a leadership crisis.

Jewish non-profits can create a different model of leadership, one that has Biblical origins in our patriarchs and matriarchs. The desire to serve people (and a Higher Being) is a mark of humility. Being ‘other-oriented’ requires the ability to recognize that your place is not above another’s and arrogance occurs when someone forgets that.  Recently espoused by Max Depree in The Art of Leadership, a leader is one who serves.  Being a ‘servant’ leader today seems counter-cultural although it is where our roots lie.

Servant leadership means flipping the ‘what can you do for me’ equation to ‘what can I do for you’? This is not as simple as it seems.  First, let’s take a fundraising example. I recently saw a huge billboard sign posted in front of a non-profit (bearing the ubiquitous thermometer) that said “Give so we can make our goal”. See? You might think, ‘what’s so bad about that? It’s honest isn’t it?’  But that approach comes off as just a little arrogant and demanding.  How much more effective might it be to take the place of the other, the one who you’re trying to reach and think about their point of view.  Why should people give to your campaign? How will their help contribute to making the world a better place?  How can your organization serve others better by receiving a donation?

Next, let’s use membership as an example. I receive direct mail requests so often, and find most are highly ineffective, because they haven’t figured out the obvious. It’s not about them, it’s about the cause. Why should someone join? Believe it or not, the reason someone joins is not to become a member. There might be hundreds of reasons why your constituents might be motivated to be a part of your mission, and you need to discover at least some of them.  In order to serve, you need to have information.

At the very least, it comes from a place of humility and a desire to learn, and not in any way like posting a selfie.

 

 

 


What To Do When LEADERSHIP is Lacking

pexels-mountain-climbing

 

Research shows that most non-profits are concerned about succession planning. There often is not a lack of talent in the organization, just no clear pathway to get to a leadership position. Why is this so?

Cultivation of leadership is a long-term enterprise, and often we don’t have the patience or resources to devote to the effort it takes. We’re lazy, wanting the quick fix, sometimes by sometimes hiring a known leader from another organization or looking for someone new to take a position rather than building capacity internally.  This holds true for organizations whether or not it is staff or lay-led. My comments apply to both types of non-profits so for ease in reading, the term staff will be used.

In most cases, staff leave for reasons more to do with lack of job satisfaction than any other reason. This infographic from Inc.com confirms the top 5 reasons that employees leave. It is costly to replace people who leave due to dissatisfaction, and the costs of that is enormous in increased expenses due to lost time, lowered morale, efforts in training, and more.

We don’t take the time to really get to know our staff beyond the basics.  The vocabulary of the conversations that need to occur will consist of words like desires, skills, talents, goals and dreams. These are not quick conversations by an unskilled manager or human resource professional.

In an earlier post, I marveled at the way one organization nurtures its volunteers, but that was just one example. What are some specific general ways that a non-profit organization can expand its leadership pipeline?

The consulting organization The Bridgespan Group found that “based on collaborative research with 30 nonprofits committed to leadership development, we identified four elements organizations should have in place to align their strategy for talent to their goals for impact.” Those elements were managers who were committed to mentoring others, identifying opportunities for skill development, creating individualized development plans focused on skills, and mechanisms for putting those efforts into action.

The tips I offer below are for smaller non-profits who frequently struggle with this issue but lack the resources of larger organizations with layers of support systems. These suggestions assume that your organization is based on a collaborative and not a competitive model.

  1. Require staff members to complete a basic questionnaire that contains questions about their skills, interests, goals and desires. Don’t just file it away, a top level person needs to study it and arrange a time with the staff member to discuss it.
  2.  Institute a practice for peer coaching, sharing guidelines and boundaries with participants. Assign everyone a partner to whom they will check in periodically about their goals. This can be formalized through completion of a self-assessment.
  3. Provide opportunities for staff/volunteers to stretch themselves in new ways—by trying out new skills and develop new talents. Paired learning is effective for this.
  4. Allow staff/volunteers an opportunity to shadow someone whose position interests them for a few hours.
  5. Establish regular check-ins for feedback and coaching.  So far, there are no costs involved here, only dedication to the practice.

If you would like to request a form to use for this purpose, please go to my site and write “Staff Form” in the subject line. You will receive it as my gift to you in order to encourage leadership development at your non-profit. This offer expires on May 31st, 2017. 

 


What do you want to read on a synagogue sign?

 

thou shalt not.jpg

We live in a visual world, right? So why not go with that? My morning commute is peppered with the various church signs I pass on my way to work. I wonder who actually writes these pithy things.  Is there a team of writers in a back room somewhere brainstorming a year’s worth of compelling sayings to post outside on the church lawn? Do they mail a smattering of weekly messages to the church elders who get to select which ones to post on their outdoor billboard sign? Seriously, who writes these? I smile as I drive by signs like “Yes, We’re Open Between Christmas and Easter”, “Home Improvement Needed? Bring Your Family Here”, and “What’s Missing Here? Ch….Ch. UR!”.

Signs like these are old buddies, enticing you in, knowing your faults but pretty much accepting you as you are. “Haven’t been here for a while? Don’t worry, c’mon in, you’re good here.” “Having a bad day? I can relate. Stop by”. The welcoming spirit is what these churches advertise, it’s what they’re about, and they know it, and they’re just waiting for you to come around.  Take a peek at these church signs which are so engaging to read.

Not so with the synagogues I see. When I Googled (in images) ‘synagogue signs’ not a one made me chuckle. They were all quite boring, actually. Not exactly like a beckoning buddy, but an authority figure; more staid, formal, and reserved–and sometimes even indifferent: “Here’s our name. Isn’t that enough?”. “Here’s a list of services and times.”

Am I wrong? Sometimes you can’t even tell it’s a synagogue that you’re passing by  –fear of ensuing graffiti? Attacks? Perhaps. On the whole, synagogue signs don’t accuse you for not believing, cajole you to enter the sacred space, or even seem to welcome you in. Lack of judgement can often substitute for apathy. Okay I’ll admit, there might be some signs that say “Welcome”, fine. But sometimes being so mild-mannered can be construed as disinterest. We all know that person who doesn’t want to ‘intrude’ in our lives by asking us questions, but to us, it just feels as if the person can’t be bothered.

What I do see sometimes are program announcements on billboards: “Rockin’ Shabbat”, “Shabbat Under the Stars” and once I even saw an audacious sign that proclaimed:  “A Synagogue You Can Believe In”.  Take that one in and let its spiritually arrogant message sink in. It’s revealing that the sign is about the building. Really? I’m going to join because of that? What exactly are synagogues of today offering? The most common thing I see on signs is the word “Free”. If a consumer message is what is displayed, what else would someone think about?

Why should the synagogue downplay its message? Are we that insecure about our spiritual lives? Perhaps we’re not as clear as we think about who we are and what we communicate to the outside world. So, what would you want to read on a synagogue sign?

 


What I Learned About Leadership From An Evangelical Minister

lessons-learned

Here’s what I learned about engaging lay people from an Evangelical minister during a holiday dinner party: a faith community’s goals should be reflected in its paths toward leadership.

Last week I sat diagonally across an intense yet energetic, full-of-spirit kind of guy who gives greatly of his time in his church, and who has subsequently become a minister. In that role, he leads study groups and connects closely with church members, taking on their stories and their pain, and in the process, connects them to their faith on a very personal level. The group studies scripture, but the group isn’t just about studying. Teachings are put into practice right then and there.

One of the members of the group said an elderly woman in the parish didn’t have enough money to pay her heating bill. In very short time, group members found the funds for her, paying her electric bill for the winter. I asked if anyone informed the priest, to see if there was a pathway for things like this to ‘bubble up’ to that level. “No,” he quickly responded, “there was no need, this was within our ability to do, and we took care of it quietly”. I didn’t need to ask for elaboration, what he didn’t say filled a huge space. This was true leadership by lay leaders, taking on responsibility to do what needed to get done. No fanfare. No bureaucratic red tape. They knew it was in the mission of their work to care for other members.

He finds immense spiritual nourishment from this work and engages in it while working full-time, attending to his marriage and his two teenage daughters. It’s what he does, what he feels called to do, and it kind of makes you wonder about your own free time.

It took no time at all for us to find common ground about topics that in other circumstances would cause a lot of eye-rolling and polite excuses by others who would choose to converse about much juicier topics. But, we were at a holiday gathering, and the spirit of the season was seated at the table. We soaked up our differing ideas about faith, belief, the bible, and the role of organized religion in people’s lives. I learned a lot from him, and he from me.

Among the things we talked about was the structure of his church, and how lay people who are so moved religiously, are gently led on a path to leadership. The priest encourages them to receive training–doing so incrementally and slowly, and then, when ready, they provide ministry to others within the church. This is accomplished within a small group model, one person ministering to several small groups, even though the church might have thousands of members.  It keeps things small, intimate, and full of personal meaning.

Certain positions within the church lead to ordination by an Archbishop, like that of Deacon, who after years of study and involvement attains a level respected highly by other church members. I thought about what this means, especially when comparing that to the many synagogue lay leader positions that seem mired in fiscal management, operations and building maintenance, and fundraising.

I know that the entire structure of synagogue life is different, but what can I learn from this? How could my experience of synagogue life be so radically different from the picture of spiritual meaning that I heard? It seems like a commitment to living a Jewish life is not generally a requirement for attaining synagogue leadership roles.  What if there was a pathway of leadership that involved religious and spiritual growth?  Can you imagine that? What if there was a requirement for leaders to be personally committed to advancing their spiritual and religious practice? How inspirational would that be, to see people in leadership roles involved in holy soul-work?

If the synagogue’s goal is to build a faith community, how are we working towards that? We know that there are Jewish spaces that have transformed themselves, and it would be interesting to know if their leadership pathways are reflective of that change. What strategies might we employ to incorporate this kind of thinking?

For example, The Union for Reform Judaism developed a strategy for small group work that might operate on the method mentioned above, though I’m unaware of any evaluative material about the outcomes of that enterprise. There might be other innovative approaches to this as well.

We need to learn together, pulling from as many different sources as we can, to reinvigorate the purpose of creating community.