Category Archives: Judaism

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

pexels.elephant-trunk-hand

          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 typical ways to make that elephant want to move. 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.

 

 

 

 

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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!

 


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.


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 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?