Tag Archives: Religion and Spirituality

The one summer I chose Israel

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What do you want to read on a synagogue sign?

 

thou shalt not.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


What I Learned About Leadership From An Evangelical Minister

lessons-learned

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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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From Jewish Camp to Home: Five Easy Things to Do

camp

 

How can your Jewish community maximize campers’ experiences when they arrive home?

Summer camp is exhilarating for our Jewish teens. For most, living Judaism 24/7 and not as an ‘add-on’ activity that so often happens on the home front is a powerful experience.  The ways in which it’s different are probably obvious but some still deserve mentioning:

  • Weeks at camp have the rhythm of Shabbat
  • They’re socializing in a “Jewish bubble” surrounded by staff and friends who are all Jewish and who are making a commitment to be together for several weeks
  • They’re being challenged in unique ways that stimulate thinking and growth
  • Many or most of their activities are highly interactive and engaging
  • The adults they interact with are supporting and non-threatening
  • Camp is a socially safe (usually) environment where problems and issues are sorted out in real-time, when they occur.

So, how can we bridge these experiences to foster a deeper connection with Judaism when they arrive back home? 

How can we assist our Jewish teens,  who have just spent the summer being energized about a Judaism that is alive, pulsing, vibrant, and changeable, return home?

Here are some suggestions for using the talents our teens have gained over the summer:

#1.  Mentor a group to begin a ‘camp style’ group at the synagogue, or community center. Members may have been to camp, or just be interested in this new offering.

#2.  Put one or more Jewish teens on your committees to infuse it with some new ideas and approaches that they’ve learned at camp.

#3.  Help the teens develop goals to incorporate one new and different thing from camp into experiential programming for your youth.

#4.  Feature these Jewish summer camp experts as part of a panel that explores the ways in which your community can learn and be enriched by their experience.

#5.  Get these teens in front of younger kids to share their experiences and foster motivation for a Jewish summer camp experience.

(optional #6: tell me  how it goes!)

 

Photo credit: Wikipedia


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.


Jewish Scholars Wanted to Know Years Ago: Are These the Leaders We Deserve?

 

Who is a Leader?

Who is a Leader?

Whenever I get ready to write a headline for a post, I google it, to make sure that it hasn’t been used before, but also to search for content that might be relevant. This time, my search results were lackluster. I did see this headline, from Israel’s Ha’aretz paper, which was really close to what I wanted to say: “Are the Leaders of Today the Leaders We Deserve?  Though the article was written three years ago, referring to Obama, Martin Luther King, and the impending Israeli election, it asked similar questions.

Asking these kind of questions is not a recent phenomenon. In the era of the Talmud, scholars were discussing aspects of character, leadership, and community. Perhaps because we’ve been outsiders for so long, we tend to think objectively about the society around us, and our place in it (or not):

Rabbi Yehuda Nesiah (grandson of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, the redactor of the Mishnah) were in disagreement: “One said: According to the leader, so the generation. The other said: According to the generation, so the leader.”   Talmud, Arachim, 17a.

What is your opinion? Is our society reflective of the characteristics of our leaders, or are  have we produced the leaders that represent our values, morals and ethics?

What do you think of this in light of the presidential race?

Are you surprised by the character flaws of the candidates? Did you expect more in the way of the choices you have? In what way are these candidates reflective of our society? Are enough people who are disappointed with the choices we have turning a mirror toward our society and its flaws? How much responsibility should our society bear? If so, how would things change? How do we encourage the types of leaders we want? Is that even possible?

There are those who think that we have very good choices in front of us and might be wondering why I’m even writing this. There is enough evidence of candidate scandals, dishonest dealings, name calling, hostile speeches, angry rhetoric, and divisive tactics to fill pages. You just can’t wish the evidence away.

I’ve heard and read many complaints about the leaders we find front and center in the Presidential race. I’ve experienced this from media on the right and left, online publications, blogs, and posts. The comments about the situation range from anger, disbelief, frustration, to hope and faith.

But I have yet to hear anyone turn those observations inside out (maybe I missed it, please let me know) and examine the kind of society that produced such choices.