Friday, August 28, 2015

We're Joining A Synagogue

My husband, Jay, and I haven't been members of a synagogue for the past three years. And frankly, its been ok. For holidays, instead of attending our local synagogue, we traveled.  Tashlich, casting out sins on Rosh Hashana, on a foreign beach is memorable.
"Gut yontif" opens the door, once you walk through a metal detector, and show a passport, to any synagogue across the globe.  The dinning room table with candles, wine, and challah is a mikdash m'at (a small sanctuary). And for friendship, Saturday night dinners with couples we've known for decades have been joyful. When my mother-in-law passed away, rabbis we know led shiva minyanim. Volunteer opportunities abound.

For many years, previous to our shul hiatus, we had been members of a suburban congregation. During that time, we learned to create and lead meaningful ritual. The child raising years filled with Purim carnivals and family learning forged lasting friendships. Membership gave us the tools to fashion a Jewish social, ritual and spiritual life that was possible without the need for formal belonging. We can do Jewish on our own. And yet, this fall, we'll write a check to join. Why?

The answer comes in a paradox at the heart of a community-- the me and the we.

The me: "Unless the community furthers the well-being of the individual, it has no claim upon his allegiance or cooperation." (Kaplan)

Despite creating Jewish life for ourselves, I've noticed missing pieces. I've missed weekly engaging with a group of people sincerely questioning their lives and the lives of our ancestors as if they were one story. I've missed the light in the sanctuary.

And I've missed Shabbat melodies that implant in me like time-released capsules turning the ordinary into glimpses of the extraordinary Sunday through Thursday.

Jay likes to explain his reason for wanting to rejoin with the old joke, "Sam goes to synagogue to talk to God, I go to synagogue to talk to Sam." Between us, I think he talks to both.

The We: Each generation of Jews sees itself as bound to ancestors whose decision defined its experience and as obligated to future generations whose inheritance it will shape (Aaron Dorfman as quoted in A Guide To Jewish Practice by David Teutsch).

In my "do what you choose world," I don't pay much attention to obligation. I do pay taxes, do laundry (when I have to), and take care of people close to me. With no harm intended, armed with the excuse of busyness, and sometimes helplessness in the face of the great challenges, I forgo attention to "we."

Help. I need reminding. Rabbi Linda Potemken writes, "The community has the additional challenge of helping the individual recognize the obligatory nature of Judaism....we are obligated even if there is no obligator or commander..."

I wish I could report our return to synagogue membership came from a Great Call.

The truth: I need help from a community to lift me. I need the "we" to help me enact my obligation as a Jew--as a human. I want to be reminded how to enact my obligation to the future.

In preparing for my personal work for 5776, and my new job, I ask: What does learning look like that fosters the well being of the individual and helps individuals enact obligation to others?

 I'm going to sign up at the congregation on the tree-lined street in Penn Valley to find out. And I would love to hear your example of learning that balances me and we. Please share.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Rise for The Fall

President Donald Trump. Global Warming. The Pew Report.  Pessimism could abound.

How do you keep your spirits up to begin another year? Where do you get a rise to begin the fall? For me, the answer most certainly includes "with a little help from my friends." I don’t mean just the emotional part. I also mean that my friends spark new ideas. Thanks Evie Rotstein, long time friend and idea sparker, who shared worthy takeaways from her time with Parker Palmer at 

At Evie's suggestion, I ordered two books to fuel Education Under Re-construction:
Before the drone delivers, I'm thinking about another article Evie sent, written by two Harvard Divinity School students:
How We Gather: A New Report on Non-Religious Community:
Insights from the article about a generation that “...reject(s) conventional religious affiliation, while not entirely giving up their religious feelings” (Putnam & Campbell) include:
  • Young people are yearning.
  • Young people, in response to the void they see, create their own spaces to explore those yearnings 
  • These new spaces, like SoulCycle, Camp Grounded and The November Project,  are characterized by some combination of community, personal transformation, social transformation, purpose finding, creativity, and surprising to me--accountability. 
The article highlights the new landscape created by young people for young people. 
These groups encourage friendship, promote neighborhood welfare, and spread messages for the betterment of individuals and society.  Notably, they mirror the values and missions of religious organizations, but use a secular vocabulary to describe their work.

I'm wondering:
  • What are the ways we give voice to young people's yearnings? 
  • What are the ways we foment young people's creativity to build the spaces for their yearnings?
  • How do we create the conversation between secular vocabulary and Jewish vocabulary? 
  • What would it look like if we threw out every piece of pre-written curriculum and began the year with these questions? 
Would love to hear your thoughts. Always looking for a little help from my friends to get a rise for the fall.


Friday, August 14, 2015

Einstein's 55 minutes: The Right Question

You are crazy busy, right? While working as fast as you can, you are trying to check off the to-do list of 18+ things to complete before next week. List includes: post on Facebook, hire the right staff, let go the wrong staff, write/text sermons, brush up on HH nusach, and design innovative-dynamic-clever-everyone-will-love-learning.

Let me invite you, just before Shabbat, to put down your list, and listen to a really smart guy.

If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the right question to ask, for once I know the proper question,  I could solve the problem in less than five minutes. (Albert Einstein)

 I think it is not too dramatic to say, "our lives depend on a solution." Josh Bolton recently wrote in Reconstructionist Chutzpah: A Spirit of Provocation that "...the codes and the boundaries and the rules and the normative are all up for discussion. This era's future Mishnah is still being written." The world we've known has ended.  Despite our efforts, we haven't yet caught up with yesterday's changes, let alone address the altered universe coming at us like the speed of light. To ensure future Jewish life, we will be re-writing the boundaries, rules, and the norms. This is the work of Education Under Re-Construction. How can we re-construct? Re-write?

The advice from the genius with the awesome hair cut and sweet smile is to spend 55 minutes of our precious hour, not creating the answers, programs, and deliverables. Instead, spend 55 minutes crafting the right questions. Then, in 5 minutes we'll have the solution.

While leading educational and organizational change, I have found that my most powerful tool has been, as Einstein instructed, the question.

55 Minute Questions. 3 examples:

1. What are Your Hopes and Dreams?  From California to New York, I've heard from over 200 parents who grapple with: "What are your hopes and dreams for your children? For yourself? What gets in the way?  Together, how do we meet those dreams and overcome the barriers?"

Nancy Parkes's of Westchester, N.Y. shared in her Eli Talk, the forward thrust and new frontier that emerged when folks pondered  hopes, dreams and wishes.

2. When are We at Our Best? Put a stake in the heart of questions that are tired, poor, and yearning to be excised like:
  • How do we get more people to attend services? 
  • How do we make School better/more interesting?
  • How do we get more members? 
Instead, try Appreciative Inquiry questions that access what already works.
Appreciative Inquiry asks:
  • When are we at our best?
  • What are the characteristics of these times?
  • If we were like our best normally, instead of just at peak moments, what would we be doing?

3. How Might We?  This is the generative question at the core of the healthy virus, Design Thinking, spreading across the Jewish community.  "How Might We?"
is a little question with a big bang.

The word How gives confidence by signaling  a solution does exist. The word "might" says we can  experiment, fail, and then learn a thing or two before we try again. And lastly, the word "we" communicates that we can only tackle our challenge as a group--me or you just won't cut it.

I'll stop now with these 3 examples of questions that took at least 55 minutes to frame.  If we are in mishnaic times, as Josh Bolton's article notes, then we we need to re-write. Before we put pen to paper,  or finger to keyboard, let's carefully craft the questions we are asking. We may not get solutions in five minutes, but it feels like the right start.

Would you add something to your to do list? Will you share your 55 minute questions?

Friday, August 7, 2015

Where are We? Where are We Going?

  • Tell me about the successes? In other words, Where are we? 
  • If you had a wish, what would it be? In other words, Where are we going?

These questions are guiding my first conversations as  I step into my role as Director of The Reconstructionist Learning Network. I'm on a listening tour to understand where are we, and where are going. What is the state of Jewish learning in the community? What might it be?

Today, I had one of those conversations while standing by the road. The sun was so inviting, I had to step outside to breath in some sunshine.  Terri Bernsohn from the Jewish Reconstuctionist Congregation in Illinois and chair of RENA was describing the awesome Shabbat she experienced at Camp JRF.

One wish she has--imagine what a "Reconstructionist educator uniquely needs to know, like being a community builder and knowing the ways to foster values-driven-decision making, and then create the spaces to develop those skills." As Terri finished her thought, an old car pulled up next to me. A young woman  leaned out the window:

"Hey, do you know how to get to Manayunk?"

My attempt to explain the 10 turns, and the 15 minutes it would take to get there, left her looking Red-Riding-Hood-afraid--on a mission and unsure. She was so far off her mapquest directions, she had no idea where she was, or where she was going.

Terri graciously said we'd talk later. I got in my car. The young woman followed me down suburban twists and turns until we reached a main road marked on her directions.

She smiled relief and waved a hand with thanks.

No one had stopped to ask me for directions in years. Why this moment?  I couldn't help but wonder if she were an "angel metaphor," sent to help me make sense of my first week at work.
  • There is no clear map of where we are
  • Printed directions aren't going to get us where we need to go
  • We'll need one another to figure it out
  • There are going to be twists and turns
  • Trust, because clear markers will emerge
Thank you angel metaphor. But there is one place we diverge. The young woman had a specific  address where she was going. Where exactly Jewish learning is going, is not so clear.

"Transformational change is more emergent than planned," writes Gervase Bushe and Robert Marshak in a new book about organizational change. "Transformational change cannot be planned toward some pre-determined future state. Rather transformation requires holding an intention while moving into the unknown."

Jewish Education under Re-construction is about transformation. I'm ready to move into the unknown. Ready to go too?

Will you help me know where we are, and where we are going?