Archive for August, 2009

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Everyday We Write the Book: Writing Our Personal Chapters of Jewish Leadership

August 17, 2009

“The writer is always the last one to arrive at the party, the last to have any fun with the act of writing…  I want to read my own production and astonish myself, to be able to read myself as if I too were a reader coming to my own text for the first time.” –  Mario Bellatin, Author

When I recently read this quote by Mario Bellatin in the New York Times I was captivated by his choice of words and the aspirations of self-discovery they expressed. It made me wonder how many of us actively seek to revisit the contours of our character in the context of our own unfolding storyline?  How many of us take time to read ourselves in a way that we find that what we have done or what we have become astonishes us?

In other words, if we were to look back at our individual experiences, would revisiting them truly astonishes us in terms of the meaning imparted by those experiences? Would we, as Heschel might ask, experience radical amazement?

While this question is not limited to the world of Jewish communal experiences, I have found it to be a particularly interesting question in the context of engaging Jewish communal leadership. As a whole, we certainly do not lack any attention to the cultivation of Jewish leaders –  perhaps no other ethnic, cultural or religious community is more attuned to this effort than the Jewish community. Nonetheless, we often miss opportunities to engage and astonish individuals with the meaningful opportunities to serve in leadership roles, and even when those opportunities exist, individuals often miss the opportunity to astonish themselves.

Take for example a recent email I received from a friend in a relatively small Jewish community. This individual has invested talent, passion and resources in several aspects of Jewish life on a local and national level. He is still part of what I refer to as emerging leadership (under 40), but no less capable of taking a significant role within his community’s organized (read as “Federation”) leadership.  Like many individuals similarly situated across the country, he was recently asked to provide leadership in his community’s Federation campaign by assuming the relatively conventional (but not unimportant) role of serving as a “card captain” for a designated giving level.

His email to me articulated what he perceived as his three choices regarding his leadership opportunity – option #1,  accept the assignment out of a sense of obligation even though it did not inspire his leadership energies; option #2 , accept the assignment but  transform it into an opportunity to be creative and innovative; or option #3, decline the invitation altogether.  Certainly his analysis of his options were no different than the options many of us face on a regular basis when we evaluate opportunities to be engaged in our community, and he was looking for some peer to peer suggestions.  After discussion, he chose option #2.

But notwithstanding my friend’s resolution of his own question, his conundrum raised a different question in my mind: how many of us choose option #1 rather than option #2? Moreover, how many people do we know that choose option #3?  Our choices tell us a lot about ourselves, but also tell us a great deal about the organizations that are creating those choices for us. However, it is too easy to blame our choices on the organizations alone when we too have a role in how we evaluation and assess our options. How many times to we not consider option #2 at all, and instead view our choices of leadership in a binary format “their way or no way?” How often do we accept an uninspiring leadership opportunity and perform it by rote without ever reimagining its opportunities?

Back to the quote by Bellatin, how many of us, when we look back at the short stories or long novels of our Jewish community leadership experiences, would want to go back and read those stories? Would we be astonished by what we read? Would these stories be comedies or tragedies, epic poems or powerfully short haikus?  If we were readers of our own experiences, would we enjoy what we read and would we recommend those texts to others? The answers to these questions tell us just as much about the stories we need to write as much as the stories we have read.

What Bellatin reminds us, and what we need to remind ourselves regularly, is that all leaders are authors in their choose-our own adventure stories. How leaders (and the organizations they lead) write those stories foretell how interested and astonished they may be when they revisit and reread them.  Choices, in life and in leadership, are plotlines that need to continue to captivate the writer and the reader, especially when they are one and the same.

So with that, let us all make smart choices about the leadership experiences we undertake, even if we need to be leaders in creating those choices. And in the coming year, in addition to being inscribed in the Book of Life, let all of us be good authors of the books of leadership we will write, individually and together.

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Response to Dr. Sarna: We have a mission; communal life must be about meaning

August 9, 2009

As a Jewish community volunteer and part-time critic, I often vacillate between hopefulness and concern. From the volunteer perspective, I experience moments of enrichment that sustain my belief that Jewish differences can be made and the promise of the Jewish people can be kept. As a critic, I find myself compelled to question not the merit of our Jewish communal efforts, but the quality of our Jewish communal experiences?

But while I may question many things, never have I questioned the mission of the Jewish people. Perhaps because it is too complex a question, and I am too simple to even ponder the answer? Perhaps because the mission is so inherent in what we learn from our faith and understand from our history that our mission as a people cannot be defined, it must be experienced?

It is that question, however, that Dr. Jonathan Sarna asked in his recent essay “Communal Life After the Recession” in London’s The Jewish Chronicle.  In his thoughtful essay, Sarna examines the state of the Jewish Diaspora in these challenging times and ask key questions about what the future looks like. In an era where the Diaspora is now concentrated, and where the protection and rescue of persecuted Jews is no longer an urgent focus of the Jewish people, Sarna asks “[w]ill the Jewish community be able to identify a mission compelling enough for young Jews to become passionate about?” In response, he closes his essay asserting “the goal of formulating a new and compelling mission for our Jewish community need to be high on our collective agenda.”

To his merit, Dr. Sarna presents both an interesting question and thought-provoking response. However, I believe both mischaracterize the nature of the challenge facing the Jewish people at this time in our history.  Quite simply, I do not believe it is about mission – it is about meaning.

In reading Dr. Sarna’s essay I am reminded of another great Jewish thinker, one of an earlier generation – Leo Baeck. In his seminal book (and testament to late German Jewish philosophy), This People Israel, Baeck wrote that “[o]nly as a people of meaning could, and can this people Israel be.” He further wrote “[t]his people’s constitution is founded in God’s commandment; it is a people to that is disposed to God, on that in all its development, its wandering, in all of the ebb and flow of history, must remain within  relationship toward the One-Who-Is.”

To Baeck’s point, we already have a timeless mission – to be a people of meaning.  It is a mission framed by and within the context of our relationship with God and is reinforced by the Jewish embodiment and experience of humanity.  The unfolding experiences that reflect our mission may change, and even the tactics and strategies that we as a people may choose to express that it may change, but the mission itself does not change.

So rather than question what our mission as a people should be, we need to question how we make that mission more meaningful and more relevant to generations of Jews to come.  Perhaps a cause can help us derive meaning, and perhaps an entrepreneurial approach can help shape relevance, but we should not mistake either for a reconfigured mission of the Jewish people; they are each tactics to bridge a timeless covenant with a timely need.  Rather, our immutable mission dictates that our priority, regardless of the era and economic environment, must be to explore and encourage new experiences that provide meaning to the covenantal relationship between the Jewish people and G-d.  Our mission, which we have already chosen to accept, is to fulfill our destiny of meaning through individual experiences of meaning.  That is our priority, that must be our goal.

When reading Dr. Sarna’s essay I was reminded of one other phrase used by Howell Baum in his book The Organization of Hope.  In describing two communities in Baltimore (one of which was Jewish), Baum writes that “[c]reating a community of hope depends on building a bridge of transcendence from a community of memory.”  Those powerful words are a gentle reminder that it is not just mission and meaning that are important, but memory matters also.

So with appreciation to Dr. Sarna for raising the question of “where do we go from here,” I respond differently.  Let us not question what our mission is; let us celebrate it by encouraging ways to find meaning within it.  And moreover, let us use those experiences of meaning to build bridges of memory, communities of hopefulness and a people of Israel that can, as Baeck wrote… be.