Category Archives: Religion

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.

 

 

 

 


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.

 


What do you want to read on a synagogue sign?

 

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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.

 


Marketing Jewish Education for Now and Later

downloading-future

 

Sales. Marketing. Branding. Social Media Presence. Analytics. SEO. ROI.

Just a few short years ago, terms like these were absent from board room discussions in the Jewish community, let alone among practitioners in the realm of  Jewish education.

As the world has gotten more sophisticated, nonprofits in general and Jewish organizations specifically, had to respond. Those that deeply understand how social media and marketing influence their constituencies are better positioned to deal with the ebb and flow resulting from this change.

The ‘prosumer’ mentality, just a short time ago labeled selfish and self-centered, has permeated our culture and affects all sorts of decisions. People make choices on multiple factors, but the one that organizational leaders didn’t anticipate was when Jewish involvement became an optional expense.

Paying for Jewish education experiences is not any different for most people than deciding to pay for any other service (pun intended). This makes Jewish education providers work just a bit harder to provide relevant content in formats and venues that people want.

But as long as people base their judgment on the economics of choice, many will jettison long-term goals in favor of the immediate. So, “free” became the new standard as part of the value proposition.

Free trips. Free membership. Free pre-school.

“Free” is a great short-term sales pitch, but tends to devalue what you’re trying to ultimately sell.

Seth Godin, a well-known marketing guru, makes this point:

“If you are selling tomorrow, be very careful not to pitch people who are only interested in buying things that are about today.”

Mostly, Jewish education is not about now.  Character development, Jewish identity-building, leadership training, and critical thinking…are all about how it will impact you later.

Not only are we trying to sell tomorrow, we’ve increased the challenge by selling intangibles. Things you can’t brag about or take a selfie in front of. Nothing real that anyone can update in a post on Facebook.

How are we to market to this new reality?

Well, according to Godin: “Before a marketer or organization can sell something that works in the future, she must sell the market on the very notion that the future matters (bold typeface mine).  The cultural schism is deep, and it’s not clear that simple marketing techniques are going to do much to change it.”

Clearly, the burden is on us. But you already knew that.

The marketplace is the decider, and we have to weigh in with a compelling model of value.

And even more than that, we have to stop fighting each other for a piece of a disappearing pie. What we offer matters, but it has to be about now–and later

In the simplest of terms, offering experiences provides the now, and when infused with educational content, it provides the later.  People will come back for more if they experience real-time growth and change.  

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This is Not the Climate Change You’re Thinking About

Sloppy Words & Food

Sloppy Words, Sloppy Food

At times, I resist writing a post because I just don’t want to spend the time doing all the research it might take.  I also think that no one would want to spend their valuable time just reading another opinion.  So, to be fair to you, this one’s for me. It’s just something that I want to have noted somewhere, and this is the place I picked.

You probably won’t like what I have to say.

The climate change that I’m experiencing is not related to weather. It’s related to how we see ourselves as human beings in the world. More often than not, my experience of living in today’s society seems to affirm that we think less and less of ourselves.

Our behaviors on a daily basis are less refined. More is done without proper thought or intention.

For one, our speech is less dignified. We’re sloppy with words and they have become more angry, more vindictive, more explosive.  Name-calling is not unusual. We pay less attention to accuracy, and often speak first, think later. Sure, online fact checking exists, but who wants to do that all the time?

I am most bothered about this because it goes against my understanding of our numerous laws and cautions regarding speech. (There have been volumes of commentary written about the laws of speech but for an extremely quick introduction read this and/or this).  According to our tradition, the world was created with words which is why we place such an important value on the spoken and written word.

The very thing that is often associated with Judaism, the Ten Commandments, is really an awkward translation of the Hebrew, meaning “Ten Utterances” (Aseret HaDibrot, the root D-B-R meaning words and speak, reinforcing the elemental connection between the two).

Our way of eating has become on the one hand more conscious, on the other much less so. We might be paying a lot of attention to what we eat (gluten-free? fat-free? organic? all natural? free range? no GMO’s?, no growth hormones? dairy free?–really, I just touched the surface here) but we certainly aren’t paying attention to how we eat.

The food packaging industry has burgeoned with food (?) that can be eaten as quickly as possible, no eating utensils or table needed. Machines can pulverize our food beyond recognition. There are outrageous food contests where thousands gather to watch people gobble as much food as they can without actually regurgitating. There are people who try to win these competitions.

We eat on the run. In a car. While on our devices. In a rush. Often alone.

The way we treat our food is the way we treat ourselves. All the research points to a society that is making itself sick by the way we eat, yet changing those habits is very difficult. There are many laws in Judaism about what we eat and how we eat. They are all structured for us to resist the passive ingestion of substances, and elevate the activity that honors us as human beings.

As much as I think that the world agrees with me on how different we are from animals, that just isn’t so. A recent article in the New York Times has the primatologist Frans de Waal outlining why he believes there is little distinction between human beings and primates.  You can read a rebuttal to that here in the online “Evolution News”.  Denying the fact that we are imbued with a special capacity to make moral and ethical choices minimizes who we are and robs us of what our potential is on this earth.

It is difficult in today’s society to intentionally slow down enough to pay attention to behavior that might elevate our souls, instead of denigrating our core.  The spark that I believe is in all of us, and what makes us special creatures should inform our behavior more often.

May we be blessed with the awareness that comes from knowing that and the opportunity to be able to practice it.