Tag 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!

 


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.


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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