Category Archives: Jewish Community

Bringing God Home from Jewish Summer Camp

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Take a moment to truly see

Jewish summer camp was an incredible oasis where I received daily doses of spiritual inspiration. At 10 years old though, my first summer at camp was more of an annoyance. There was too much praying and too much Hebrew. I didn’t understand why there were  classes at camp, after all, it was supposed to be a fun place. Looking back, why wasn’t I suspicious that the What to Take to Camp list included a Bible?

It took a few summers before the rhythm of the summer’s spiritual essence took hold of me.  The experience was so compelling that I craved it every summer season, participating first as a camper and then in successive staff positions, which took me through my college years and way beyond. Although almost two decades have passed since then, I still can conjure up memories of those times in an instant.

I told my adult friends that the summers were like an inoculation against Jewish apathy; an injection of Judaism that carried me through an entire year’s worth of holidays, services, and events that paled in comparison to the energy and exuberance of living Jewish at camp.  My beloved suburban friends couldn’t understand my desire for the hang-my-towel-on-a-rusty-nail experience. No air conditioning, worn out mattresses, and splintered floors  were a small price to pay for the inner peace and joy I felt immersing myself in the waters of Torah and learning.

There were speakers, experiences, texts, and interpretations in abundance, and there was no end to what I could learn. I filled myself up from the constant buffet of knowledge from visiting scholars, teachers, Israeli staff, and resident educators.  I spent 9 weeks during the summer as an active member of a vibrant and observant Jewish community–something that I have yet to experience in a sustaining way. I felt God’s presence all the time, in the prayers, in the natural setting, in the deep discussions,  and in the special sweetness that appears when a community comes together.

As those days came to an end in my adult years, I wondered how I would ever feel that way again. Where would I experience God now? How could I possibly recreate that exquisite sense of overwhelming quiet that prompted my new spiritual awareness? There, you feel God’s presence….you can’t help it. You are primed for it. Those starry nights were a Hollywood-like backdrop for thinking deep and spiritual thoughts.

I realize now how much that immersive experience contributed to my life as a practicing Jew and when I started to think about camp’s overall impact on me, it brought me to wonder once I put those years behind me, how I ever made the transition from being ‘there’, in a spiritually charged place, to being ‘here’. I needed to discover what it meant to seek out my connection with God and figure out how to make those feelings easier to grab onto.

Well, I did eventually figure it out. I brought God back home with me. I do remember that I decided that it was up to me to bring God into my life. I would no longer depend on what the outer environment offered me. I need to be in charge of my own experience….and I could alter my perception of things. I could capture moments of awe. It is all accessible to me, every single day. It just took looking and seeing beyond the surface. I would be able to see the Holy One’s work in a pebble, in a leaf, in a daffodil. I was responsible for how spiritual I felt, not camp.

So, now I have teary, heart-to-heart conversations with the One Above, the One who is everywhere. In my car. In my quiet times. Sometimes in the emerging light of the dawn and more often, in the darkness of night. And at those blissful times, as more and more of them fill my day, I thank The Holy One of Being for Being.

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Post Note:

I was fortunate to attend many of the Ramah camps as a camper, teacher, staff counselor, and Assistant Director.  The ones I attended—one of which no longer exists—-included those in New York (Nyack, Glen Spey, Berkshires), Massachusetts ( Palmer) and Pennsylvania (the Poconos).

Related posts: 

Parents: Don’t let summer choices drive you crazy

Seven Things to Do When Teens Come Home from Jewish Summer Camp

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There’s no secret sauce: we already know the recipe for Jewish engagement

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          How many ants does it take to move an elephant?

That’s what the traditionally bureaucratic Jewish community feels like to me sometimes, like ants trying to move an elephant. No matter how many ants you have, there won’t be any way to move that elephant unless you think about other ways of tackling the problem. Similarly, some Jewish organizations are adding more and more to their offerings (more ants) but not really tackling the issue of increasing Jewish engagement in different ways. Many have written about this, most recently, Ron Wolfson in “It’s About People, Not Programs.” 

There are all sorts of traditional tactics that different organizations use….from offers of ‘free’ programs to urgent requests to sign this petition or that (they even provide the pen), to guilt-laden messages like ‘if you just cared a little bit…’.  And then there are the organizations that use fear. They report some of the worst anti-semitic attacks from the past year, complete with the horrid pictures, and also offer statistics about assimilation. As if it is not hard enough to read headlines about hatred just once,  these are delivered into my mailbox, just for me.  I recently read yet another mood-boosting online article:  “A Bleak View of American Jewry” 

The fact is, I care a lot about the future of the Jewish community, so I need to know that the elephant can, in fact, move. So, wouldn’t it be wonderful to read, just now and then, about stories of success? There are many good ones out there. How did you engage people in your efforts? Tell me some stories, we love stories.

I’m lucky, in my work, to hear moving experiences almost every single day. I hear from people who have been touched in a deep way and it has brought them closer to their faith, their families, and places of worship. I will make a commitment to myself to write about that more. I know that being in fellowship changes people. It’s a slow and steady process of relationship building that bears the sweetest and juiciest fruit.

A Chabad Rabbi said it so simply. When asked what his techniques were for engaging so many young students Rabbi Yosef Kulek, at the University of Hartford, summed up Chabad’s approach and success in one word: Love (a dose of great marketing doesn’t hurt). “I know that sounds cliché but it’s really true,” he said.

Chabad has expanded its reach by 500 percent over the span of 15 years. Since 2000, their presence on campus has increased from less than 30 to over 198 today. Yes, growth in the Jewish community.

Unfortunately, there’s no short-cut for the kind of persistent and loving approach that is needed to engage people in a tradition that is overflowing with richness and beauty. Relationship building takes an enormous amount of time, and doesn’t show up in data on how many followers an organization has, how many posts were Favorited, or how many clicks per view a website link got.

It’s about a whole lot of attention and love. That’s what I think will move the elephant.

pexels-elephant sunrays.

 

 

 

 


Easy Ways to Create a Sensory Passover Seder Experience

Nice Seder, but not intensified

Same Seder, intensified!

What will you do to construct meaningful memories at Passover this year? The Seder sweetly builds fresh memories upon old remembrances. We can think of the layers and layers of promises to our people coming forth, cemented by memories of miracles and plagues. Death and rebirth. These are incredibly powerful images that we need to mediate for our Seder guests so that they walk away with their own special Seder-connection.

Every year we get the chance to reinvent this consummate educational event and solidify our own connection to our past, present and future –gifting our guests with that opportunity at the same time. It is an opportunity that we shouldn’t pass over. 

We can go beyond our usual limits, and immerse ourselves totally in the story of redemption, enacting all our senses in the process of calling up the bonds of slavery in order to release ourselves and become free, and in doing so reaffirm our faith in The One.

We can make sure that we take each opportunity in the Seder to ramp up our spiritual connection with what’s occurring. You need to become comfortable going ‘off script” and taking a dive into the unknown, to discover new treasures in what was already there.

 

Think experiential. For every sensory experience, think about how you could maximize the intensity of the taste, the smell, the feel.

What if everyone at the table had their own dish of salt, and salted their own water to the maximum that they could tolerate?

What if, along with the dipping of the Karpas, there was more dipping to be done. Think raw vegetables and dips of guacamole, ajvar (red pepper spread), baba ghanoush, and pesto (pareve).

Would closing the eyes help intensify the taste of the Maror? What if everyone peeled their own piece of horseradish?

What if, after the recitation of the Four Questions, everyone thought of a new one to ask? What types of questions might stimulate conversation and discussion? What was the spiritual purpose of marking Jewish houses? What is so compelling today about marking our houses with Mezuzot? You were there….what questions would you be asking before you went on the journey? 

Help your guests identify with the larger themes of Passover by asking a few provocative questions.

What does the safety of slavery conjure up versus the risk of freedom?

Think of  the way that Pharaoh described the Jews and how we describe ‘the other’ today–what are the similarities?

What does it means to be a powerless minority amidst a totalitarian power?

What does it mean when we opt for predictability instead of self-determination?

Why does Judaism not present freedom as the only goal, but pairs it with responsibility?

Just think about the rich conversations that could be going around your table!

I hope you decide to try at least one or two of these ideas and then please, please, share your feedback with me. I’d love to hear from you and will share some stories I receive with you, here.

May you and your loved ones enjoy a Chag Kasher v’Sameach!

 


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. Your soul is tehora.

Elokai 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, blue-white 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 presence is a wonder….

You are filled with gratitude…

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

You are in this place, this Makom, and in the world’s place.

 


The global power of Jewish community

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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.