Archive for October, 2008

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Heal the Bay, Heal the World: In Memory of Dorothy Green

October 24, 2008


This essay is the first in an occasional series that will address Jewish life, the natural world, and those individuals and organizations that care about both. Special appreciation to my friend Carolyn Oppenheimer who was the first to remind me that we should not just about care about sustaining the Jewish people, but we should also give equal care to sustaining the world in which we all live.

While many of us are activists for various Jewish and non-Jewish causes, unless you live in Southern California or are familiar with the environmental efforts related to water quality issues, you might not know about the recent death of the Dorothy Green (1929-2008), a legendary environmental activist in the Los Angeles area.  Regardless of your personal passions and interests, however, a remembrance of Ms. Green’s life should give us all a reason to pause and reflect about the nature of Jewish leadership.

For those who are not familiar with Dorothy Green, no short summary can do her justice.  But nevertheless, her life can be partially described as follows:  by caring enough to help heal the Santa Monica Bay in southern California, she helped redefine an entire state’s approach to water policy and sustaining clean coastal waters. Prompted by her brother’s experience with sewage-polluted water in Marina del Rey, Green convened a group of like minded activists to create Heal the Bay, a tremendously impactful water quality initiative that is widely credited for redefining local and state policy related to the clean-up and preservation of the Santa Monica Bay.  In addition to Heal the Bay, Green started or assisted with the development of various other organizations related to water polices, as well as supported numerous other cause that were meaningful to her and her family. Even as she faced physical illness, she persevered, and in turn in, her longevity and devotion to her community and her causes have garnered her the reverence of multiple generations of local and national activists and policymakers.

Dorothy Green was Jewish, a daughter of Polish immigrants and a mother of Jewish children, and she credited the Jewish tradition in shaping her active community involvement. But in an era where we often try to categorize Jewish experiences in terms of involvement in Jewish organizations and contributions to Jewish charities, it is easy to lose sight that perhaps the most core Jewish value is the recognition of the power of partnerships to change the world. Whether it is a spiritual partnership, a social partnership or a partnership spawned out of the mutual desire to manifest acts of loving kindness, the recognition of the need for such partnerships and the drive to create them is fundamentally Jewish in nature.

First with her efforts related to Heal the Bay, and then in her other endeavors, Dorothy Green did exactly that – she created powerful partnerships that helped heal part of the world that mattered most to her.  By doing so she actualized a partnership that exists on a more profound level – mankind’s role in a partnership with respect to the sustenance and preservation of  all that is natural in creation. And even though Heal the Bay doesn’t have the word “Jewish” in it doesn’t in any way diminish the Jewishness of her efforts or the mission of the organization she created.  Jewish leadership manifests itself in many ways outside the crisp categories that oftentimes seem to define our conventional understanding of Jewish leaders.  And Dorothy Green is an example of that kind of uncategorizable leadership, raised in the Jewish tradition, and manifesting those lessons to make a Jewish impact.

So, as with every death, we should stop and take pause to reflect on the lessons of the life that has been lived, Jewishly or otherwise. And in those lessons we might find inspiration for us to pursue those causes that we recognize as just, regardless of whether the fit neatly into categories of existing Jewish opportunity. There are numerous organizations that are inherently and explicitly Jewish, and many times we can influence those organizations to meet the challenges we identify individually or collectively. But other times we need to start from scratch – creating new partnerships to achieve common goals. And helping bind those partnerships together may be the common Jewish values we share and the universal values all of mankind should share. The kind of values Dorothy Green demonstrated in her lifetime.

With apologies to the television show “Heroes,” the life of Dorothy Green reminds us that rather than a mission to “save the cheerleader, save the world,” a more fitting mantra for aspiring heroes might be “Heal the Bay, heal the world.”   That is what Dorothy Green did – and fittingly she should be remembered as a true Jewish hero.

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Star (of David) bursts: On the “Bursty” Nature of Jewish Engagement

October 14, 2008

Bursty. It’s a term I have started to use over the past several months when attempting to describe the nature of Jewish engagement.  Borrowed from the technical understanding of network theory, “burstyness” occurs in structured networks when the network experience a “burst” of activity, either as the result of intentional stimuli or because of the natural behavior of the network. The exploration of burst activity in connection with computer networks is an area that has received increased focus as our world has become more and more network-oriented.  Additionally, it has even taken on more innovative usage when characterizing the nature of workforce productivity.

My use of the term however relates to my concern for something far older than current network technologies – the Jewish people. The more time I spend in my local Jewish community and with my engaged and not-so-engaged Jewish friends, the more I recognize the ebbs and flows of their Jewish engagement.  While there are some friends who have consistent patterns of Jewish experience, many others seem to be engaged in bursts of Jewish activity. These bursts may participation in a single event, observation of a particular holiday, or association with a particular cause that they care about for Jewish reasons (even if the cause isn’t distinctly Jewish).  Sometimes they go through periods of time where they engage in several Jewish activities – only to then disappear from the community radar for an equal if not longer time. And while sometimes the burst of activity is driven by individual growth and opportunism, many times the engagement is more inspired by habit, fear, guilt or social pressure and acculturation.

Take the recent high holidays for example. There are many Jews whose familiarity with the rhythm of synagogue life is based on three days a year (for many it may even be only two). Shabbats, daily services and other holiday celebrations come and go, but the amount of time that many individuals spend in and around the synagogue barely registers on the dial. But on the high holidays, the activity is off the chart.  People who don’t make it to one Shabbat service a year get there hours early (early!) for Kol Nidre.  People who rarely peruse the synagogue bulletin, read every word of the service schedule and parking instructions (and of course the babysitting forms) twice (or three times!) to make sure nothing is missed.  The opportunities for spiritual experience can be found inside the synagogue (and outside as well) all year round – the network is always there, but on these few days, the burst of activity nearly overloads the system.

And the same occurrence happens in less Jewish religious experiences as well. Many people who have never thought of joining the JCC also never fail to miss the JCC community festival. And even those Jews who spend time in the Jewish community living and learning on a more consistent basis create their own times when their Jewish lives slow down or speed up – taking the summers “off” from the Jewish engagement and then bursting back into their Jewish lives as the first leaves fall in autumn.

Without surveying the vast landscape of literature on the state of modern Jewry, it is easy to recognize that the “Jew within” as described by Cohen and Eisen continues to redefine Jewish behavior across the spectrum of Jewish life. And while there are plenty of studies that review patterns of Jewish association and engagement, I have found that many of them fail to make the final reduction of theory into what is increasingly obvious – Jewish life in 2009 is not only made of the “sovereign Jew” choosing experiences and investing time and money in independent manners, but those experiences and investments are increasingly coming the form of discontinuous bursts. These bursts manifest themselves episodically over the course of Jewish lives, but also on a much short timeframes; bursts of Jewish engagement may cycle in the matter of weeks or months.  Taken together, these patterns of bursts of engagement give flavor to the burstyness of Jewish life as a whole.

And I don’t believe that as organizations, communities and as a broader people we have sufficiently adapted the opportunities for Jewish engagement to be responsive to this developing landscape of Jewish burstyness. As professionals and as volunteers we need to do so – much faster than we have to date. And our response can’t be bursty – it needs to be strong and consistent.

I will leave it to the much more thoughtful Jewish thinkers and academics to explain in more artful terms the nature of Jewish burstyness. But I think the imperative is simple enough – we need to develop Jewish experiences that create more and longer sustaining bursts of Jewish engagement. Birthright is one example of a large-scale systemic approach to developing one particular burst of Jewish experience and one correlative impact – a bursty experience of Israel is intended to create a lifetime of affinity for Israel. Without exploring the merits or results of that approach, one thing is clear – there is a burst of activity.  How we sustain that burst is another matter altogether, and as more and more communities focus on developing “post-Birthright programming” what they are beginning to find out is that when you start with a high quality, high-energy burst, the follow-up opportunities for subsequent burst need to be equally attractive and inspiring. If not, that initial burst may turn out to be… well … a bust.

So the question we should then ask, must ask, of our existing Jewish infrastructure is this: Are we designing and implementing opportunities for Jewish experience that are responsive to the bursty nature of modern Jews?  Similarly, are we coordinating the opportunities for bursts of Jewish activity in a way that help increase the number of bursts, sustain their lengthen and increase their magnitude?  These questions are questions that can be reduced to a more granular set of questions for each organization and initiative. For example, when planning a multi-part education/social/philanthropic initiative, is the programming responsive to the bursty nature of the target audience? Does its time commitment parameters exceed the typical length of burst that the target audience considers “available engagement time” for the offered experience? What is the follow-up plan for the burst, and when is the next burst opportunity?  If the answers to these questions aren’t known, or aren’t even considered, than it is likely that the potential of that specific opportunity to develop and magnify the number of Jewish bursts will be limited.

So back to network theory  – most network developers would tell you that a high functioning network is less bursty and more regular in its performance.  The network should be used in an optimal manner with a high level of activity so that bursts are irregular, not the norm. 

However, the Jewish network is a bit different… in an era where the level of engagement is inconsistent, and where we seek to encourage a high level of activity, bursts of activity and results in the “Jewish engagement network” are signs of what works, and perhaps what doesn’t. Understanding what makes Jews bursty will ultimately strengthen the future of one of the most important networks of all – the Jewish people.

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The Fill-up and the Top-off (of Jewish Fuel Tanks)

October 2, 2008

Writing this post from the West Coast, my mind is still thinking of things back east – my family, my friends, and my gas shortage.

Wait – my gas shortage?

Yes, for those who have not heard, Atlanta is in the midst of a terrible gas shortage, the lingering consequences of the one-two punch of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike on the Gulf Coast refinery operations. For almost two weeks Atlanta has been suffering though a gas shortage, the like of which that hasn’t been seen since the Carter administration – empty tanks, long lines and rising frustrations.  The other evening on our way home from Rosh Hashana dinner my wife and I drove around for 45 minutes looking for a gas station that was (1) open and (2) had a line less then thirty cars deep. Suffice it to say after passing over twenty gas stations we finally gave up (and less an 1/8 of a tank of gas for our effort).

Now there are several reasons why the gas shortage has continued, and much of it has to do with the hurricane-induced shortage of gasoline deliveries to service stations.  Of course there is also the overarching addiction that our country (and commuter-filled Atlanta) has to automobiles and the gasoline that powers them. But what I find equally if not more frustrating is the fact that the magnitude of the shortage has been increased by the behavior of so many motorists who ceaselessly stop to “top-off” their tanks to make sure that their tank is never less than full. Even if they don’t have the necessity to fill-up, many drivers – motivated by fear – are nonetheless exacerbating the shortage by constantly diminishing the supplies as soon as they arrive by “topping-off” their tank. Now for many drivers who use their vehicles all day to perform their jobs, a full tank is a legitimate concern. But for many others it is not. And this irrational demand takes a substantial toll on the limited supply and exacerbates the shortage.

So, while I was waiting in line the other day to fill up my tank, and now again as I write this post, I can’t help but compare and contrast the way drivers in Atlanta are dealing with filling up their gas tanks with the way so many Jews fill up (or don’t fill up) their personal “Jewish” tanks.

Think of each Jew as a vehicle on a Jewish journey and his/her neshema, or soul, is the tank where they store their Jewish fuel. No less than the gasoline we put in our cars, the Jewish moments of learning, caring, creating and praying fuel those Jewish journeyers onward on their chosen paths. There are plenty of ‘service stations’ along those journeys, and there are different types of experiences that serve as that Jewish fuel. Some are high-octane and some are regular. Some stations are cheaper than others, and some have better customer service. We pass them everyday (or at least have the opportunity to pass them) and sometimes we stop in to top-off our tanks, and sometimes we don’t.  Just like a few of us do with our cars, some of us drive around with our Jewish neshemot on almost empty, and some of us make sure our tanks are always filled.

But in thinking about the gasoline shortage back in Atlanta, what I am wondering is what will it take to create an environment where, just like the gas stations in Atlanta, Jews are willing to wait in line to fill-up and top-off their Jewish experiences. What would it take to motivate those individuals to seek out those Jewish moments with a craving and exasperation they express when seeking ever-so-scarce gasoline?   What kind of Jewish experiences will it take, what kind of Jewish community must we build, to inspire a sense of urgency to fill our Jewish tanks every chance we get?

As I noted above, certainly one thing the Jewish community as a whole should be mindful of is to create a Jewish infrastructure that supports ‘alternative’ approaches of Jewish experience. Much like the mantra of alternative fuels for our automobiles, we should not be too dependent on any one kind of Jewish experience, because when the quality is diminished or there is difficulty in accessing a particular experience, sometimes people just… well… run out.  Instead we need to encourage alternative approaches to providing people the Jewish fuel to fill up their neshema.  Then, in embracing these new approaches, they might find it easier to fill-up and top off, and have a greater desire to do so.

We also must continue to innovate new ideas and new ways to deliver the existing approaches to Jewish experience. Not all that is old is bad (just like not all that is new is good), and we should be mindful that as much as we need to reimagine new experiences, we also need to refine aspects of traditional experiences. Refine them in ways that create demand, not just panic, joy not frustration.

So back to thinking homeward… hopefully in a few days the gas shortage will end and we will be back to our normal ways of consuming fuel. But hopefully this momentary experience with our irrational demand for fossil fuel for our car engines will remind us of the need for our Jewish fuel used in very important engines… engines that take us into our individual and collective Jewish futures.