Archive for September, 2009

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An Honor and a Blessing for the New Year

September 22, 2009

Since we are in the days where repentance and reflective honesty are paramount, it is timely that I admit something that I regret –  I do not enjoy receiving an honor during the services at my shul.  Whether it is a regular Shabbat morning service, weekday Shacharit service or the Chagim, I do not particularly enjoy being called for an Aliyah or some other participation in the ritual of the service. When the gabbi walks among the congregation I usually avoid eye contact and appear otherwise distracted, less an accidental locking of eyes has me inadvertently participating in the service. For this I ask forgiveness.

With that said, he High Holidays are often the most challenging service for me to avoid receiving an honor, because rather than the impromptu request, the notice of honors for the Chagim come via letter/email a few days before the new year.  There is no way to slip out of the sanctuary to avoid the request, nor is there a gaze to be avoided. Whether embraced or not, the honor arrives and a decision must be made: accept it or kindly decline?

Now there are two reasons I have always tended to avoid receiving an honor. First, I struggle with the level of my own piety and worthiness to take a role in a service of meaningful prayer and ritual. Yes, I may be a dues paying member of my shul in good standing with a so-so attendance record, but status certainly does not equal merit. The second reason is more basic and more selfish. I prefer to sit in a back row, blending in with the congregation, undistinguished and unnoticed. Enough of the rest of my Jewish life has me “up front” in various leadership roles, and during services I enjoy the pleasure of being anywhere but up front. Left in my own individual world of prayer I find that I can be a bit more relaxed and even a bit more spiritually-oriented. It is not that I want to be an island unto myself, but I would prefer to be on the more remote part of the beach of that island.

So typically, even during the High Holidays, I turn down the offer of an honor during services. But this year was different, and all because of a short conversation with a new friend.

You see, a few weeks back when notice of my honor arrived (now in the thoroughly modern mode of email), I was attending a small Jewish conference outside of Baltimore. Chance had me lamenting my predicament with a new friend who happens to be a professional in the Jewish community. However, if I thought I was going to get sympathy I got quite a different response – instead of an empathic response, I received a challenge. The professional, who also happens to be a Rebbetzin, pushed me to reconsider both my response to the request as well as my underlying rationale for declining it in the first place.

Notwithstanding my hesitation, she argued, I should not separate myself from my community.  Rather than view the honor as an affront to my self-perception of my own piety and an encroachment of my personal prayerfulness, I should look at it as both an obligation to my community and an opportunity for me personally. As a Kohen, it was my responsibility to fill a role that is proscribed for me in fulfilling part of the Torah service. And it is also an opportunity for me to embrace my involvement in my spiritual community and the respect that I have for each member of that community. If I make a mistake, if I falter, the opportunity is even greater – to show that we come to our respective honors with humility and with our flaws, but nevertheless with a sense of commitment.

She did not need to make her case for too long. I barely knew this woman but her words were true and her persuasiveness, even in its brevity, was enormous. Later that day I sent a message back to my Rabbi. I was wrong in turning down the honor, I said, and I shared with him that if it was not too much an inconvenience, I would like to claim what I had previously declined.

So this past weekend on the second day of Rosh Hashana, I sat in the sanctuary waiting to be called to my Aliyah. In all honesty, it was a moment filled with mixed emotions.  As I reflected on the story of the binding of Isaac that we were about to read, I thought about the test that Abraham faced and the commitment to G-d he demonstrated that day. A test far greater than the simple request to fulfill an honor during a holiday service, Abraham did not hesitate in his own service to G-d.  And for his commitment, he received an unparalleled blessing that endure to this day.

With that in mind, as my name was called and I walked towards the center of the sanctuary, I thought of my friends and family who haven been tested over the past year and who continue to be tested. The friend who lost a spouse and the children who lost a father. The women who have beaten breast cancer only to find themselves once again in a fight for their lives. The couple with a child who has a rare medical disorder and who are dealing with so much uncertainty (except for the certainty of love they hold in their hearts for their child). Those tests, they are enormous; they cannot be declined, they must be survived. They are tests that call out for more than honor, but for blessing.

So as I kissed the Torah with my tallis and began to recite the blessing, I could not help but think of my friends, including my newest friend who had challenged me to say the very words I was about to recite. I had forsaken my back row in the sanctuary (at least for a few minutes) to stand before the congregation with my anonymity uncloaked and my hesitation unlocked. It was a new year, a year for new commitments, new undertakings and yes, unfortunately even new tests. But it was a time for new blessings, even if they were ancient words spoken by a new voice.  And as my head swirled with the thoughts of friends old and new, old words and new circumstances, my lips pursed to form load and clear words…

Bar’chu et Adonai hom’vorach!

May each of us find honor and blessings in the year to come.  And to my friend who has already taught me of the blessing of an honor – thank you.

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Posters Without End: The Art of ‘The Conversation’

September 15, 2009

“Is it possible to make a poster of unlimited dimensions, a poster as long, or as high as you care to make it? A poster three foot by five, twelve foot by two and a half, six foot by ten…?” – Bruno Munari, Italian artist and designer

What makes a good community conversation? Is it the people that participate, or the format of the discussion?  Is it the agenda that frames the questions or the outcomes that result from the experience?  Moreover, is a good community conversation defined by the quality of the experiences that are shared or the amount of deeds that it inspires? Are open conversations of the diversified many more influential than closed conversation of a powerful few? And when the conversation ends, what begins?

Those are the questions that filled my head as I flew home to Atlanta at the conclusion of my participation in the two-day “Conversation” hosted by the Jewish Week (and a myriad of other supporters and alumni).  The experience, an immersive exercise in the “open space” method of conversation, gathered a interesting array of individuals from all aspects of North American Jewish life, with diverse passions and distributed geographic points of presence. Nametags with names but no titles, and a conference with participants but no agendas, the Conversation is an ongoing experiment of creating insightful community dialogue in an open and safe space.

One of the ways you know that a room has been the center of “open space” discussions is there is always a wall of posters filed with questions and answers, ideas and ruminations.  In this sense, the cacophony of conversation is not only audible, but the pastiche of its product is visible. On one wall there is a magnificent array of what happens when people combine what is in their heads and their hearts with the same elements that others offer to share. We too had that wall during our conference; it grew over the hours and days and with it took shape of the art of the Conversation.

Yes, there are some fascinating people that participate in the Conversation, and it is hard (at least it was hard for me) to feel like one belongs in a room with such passionate, experienced and innovative individuals. The imaginations in that room were as broad as vista of the rolling hills that surround the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center in Reisterstown, Maryland (where our meetings were held) and the seeds of collaboration that were planted are certain to be as fruitful as the seeds planted on the on-site Kayam Farm that nourished us. But it was not just the people and the ideas that were amazing, it was the way the conversation developed, transformed, extended and intertwined over the time we were together. Those who once were strangers were soon friends and partners, what once was a delicate two-step of introductions became a lively dance of exhortations. We were changing the Conversation and the Conversation was changing us.

After that kind of experience, one can step back and truly marvel at the power of dialogue, and the unanticipated artistry it elicits. So much of the time we have conversations to seek outcomes, to help realize the individual goals of the participants in the conversation. But sometimes the conversation itself can be a majestic and beautiful expression of community, a product in and of itself. Yet we sometimes struggle with conversation that has no stated intended outcome – perhaps that is because we are more comfortable when we know what to prepare to say rather than when we realize we are unprepared for what we may hear? Or perhaps it is because our need for action so outstrips our patience for conversation that we miss the unfolding beauty of our shared energy (and exhaustion) in planning our action?

Now be sure, not every piece of art is flawless and neither is the Conversation. A vibrant artistic expression often benefits from a greater mix of colors, a finer nuance of shading and a deeper exploration of detail. A little bit more of each of those elements could enhance the Conversation in the future. But art is a matter of personal taste and so is conversation; it is at the same moment inherently timely and timeless, and as the “open space” method provides – whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened. The art of any particular conversation is a product of the imagination, passion and prose of its participants, it can’t be more and it is never less. That is true not just for the capital “C” Conversation, but for all conversation in the Jewish world.  But perhaps our communal conversations should be less about give and take and more about hear and grow? Rather than being a source of frustration, perhaps we would be better served if we actively consider Jewish dialogue as an expression of communal artistry?

So back to those posters on the wall.  When one looks at menagerie of words on paper, one can’t help but notice the space between the posters and the still empty space that surrounds them as whole. One notices that in some places the posters bunch together tight and in other places they are separated – simultaneously being boldly distant and invading from the fringe. Recognizing this phenomena in the artistic world, renowned designer Bruno Munari wrote  “[t]he edges of a poster are therefore worthy of special consideration. They may serve as neutral areas to isolate one poster from the others around it, or as calculated links in a series. In any case one can never ignore them when one designs a poster, and certainly not if one wants to avoid the unpleasant surprise of seeing one’s work come to nothing once it goes up on a wall.” We too should not lose sight that the gaps between the posters have meaning to us a Jewish community as well… it is not just what is inside the lines of discussion that matters but the conversation outside the lines and the conversations yet to occur that matter as well.

With that in mind, and with special appreciation to conveners of the Conversation for the reminder, let us all find ways to experience the artistry of conversation in our own Jewish communities, however big or small they may be. And let us pray that 5770 be a year filled with posters of beautiful discussions, sustainable dreams and exquisite and impactful actions – and that the art of Jewish conversations always have a place in the galleries of our Jewish lives.

L’shana Tova Tikatevu!

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I Hear a Symphony: The Sound of Jewish Social Entrepreneurship

September 7, 2009

As I continue to have discussions with members of my local and national Jewish community, I am constantly amazed at the diversity of ideas, opinions and attitudes related to Jewish social entrepreneurship. From the entrepreneurs that are ahead of the curve to the funders who are trying to financially support the curve (and in between,  the organizations who are wondering how to make sure the curve doesn’t curve right around them), there is a lot of conversation, a great deal of action and even a bit of confusion. The discussion is a beautiful musical arrangement performed by an orchestra of engaged Jews that perform their own parts with instruments and within music halls of their choosing. Yes, when I listen carefully to the community of Jewish social entrepreneurs and their supporters, I hear a symphony.

But of course, like any attentive listener, I strive to make sense of the sound – to understand what I am hearing and how to best embrace the grandness and complexity of the experience. I am not alone – there are community leaders, professionals and funders that also hear this new music and are endeavoring to better understand what to listen for.

There is no lack of resources to help guide the individuals in making sense of this brave new world of thoroughly modern social entrepreneurship. Whether it is resources provided by funding organizations that support the fellowship of entrepreneurs or thought leadership by online news aggregators and blogs like eJewishphilanthropy.com, one can generally find some assistance in determining how best to encourage, engage and evaluate Jewish social entrepreneurs. But even with all of these contemporary resources to aid me in my listening, I go back to a resource about as far from modern as you can get, Aaron Copland’s book “What to Listen For in Music” –  first published by the composer in 1939.

Now its interesting to note that back in 1939 the composer who eventually became one of America’s finest composers and recipient of a Congressional Gold Medal was already struggling with how to best describe contemporary music. In his book he wrote:

Over and over again the question arises as to why it is that so many music lovers feel disoriented when they listen to contemporary music.  They seem to accept with equanimity the notion that the work of the present day composer is not for them. Why?  ‘Because they just don’t understand it.’”

This quote, like so much of Copland’s book resonates with me as I listen carefully to the symphony of modern day Jewish social entrepreneurship. While so many of us are happy to get our groove on in the fluid and changing world of Jewish innovation, it is true that even some of the greatest lovers of the Jewish people have a sense of disorientation of where we are and were we may be going as a people. We need some guidance as to how to listen to the contemporary music of Jewish engagement being performed by the combination of ancient and modern instruments and orchestrations.

We should not only acknowledge the importance of listening actively and carefully to these diverse voices, I also believe we must challenge these innovators to help us understand their music.  The conventional wisdom has been that the entrepreneurs innovate and everyone else figures out (1) what elements of the composition are that which are essential to hear (so as to identify/satisfy the appropriate funding criteria) and  (2) how  to categorize the  communal and social impact of the  innovation on the broader Jewish community.  I believe that conventional wisdom is wrong.  I believe that it is these composers themselves that must help us understand their compositions, to help us make sense of how we should listen to their works and how we can best express the reaction they are hoping to generate.

These composers, our Jewish social entrepreneurs, must take a page from Aaron Copland, they too must help us understand how to listen to their music.

In his book, Copland even suggests as much. He wrote:

“To a composer, listening to music is a perfectly natural and simple process. That’s what is should be for others. If there is any explaining to be done, the composer naturally thinks that, since he knows what goes into a musical composition, none has a better right to say what the listener aught to get from it.

Perhaps the composer is wrong about that, perhaps the artist cannot be so objective in his approach to music as the detached music educator. But is seems to me the risk is worth taking. Fro the composer has something vital at stake. In helping the others listen to the music more intelligently, he is working toward the spread of a musical culture, which in the end will affect the understanding of his own creation.”

Following that line of thinking, Copland’s book is an attempt to do just that – to explain the importance of careful listening, as well as suggesting exactly that to which one should listen upon hearing a musical composition. He wrote not only the sheets of music, but the sheets of interpretation of that music.

That too is what I believe we should and must ask of our social entrepreneurs, as we write the next book of Jewish experience. We must, without hesitation or limitation, encourage these men and women to follow their passions in helping innovate new ways to strengthen the Jewish community and to demonstrate the impact of Jewish values.  But we should also not be shy in asking them to be engaged in helping the rest of us figure out how to best listen to their innovative approaches and respond with support. In other words, we must not only respond to requests to help guide the creators, but also request that the creators take responsibility for guiding us.

How can we do this? First and foremost we need to understand that not all social entrepreneurs are the same, and while we may categorize the movement broadly, we should understand that each innovator is unique and that our approach to engagement must be similarly diversified and customized. In our effort to build individually customized relationships, we not only can advise them, but they can help advise us. Whether it is customized peer-to-peer relationships, peer-to-predecessor relationships or peer-to-prospect relationships, these conversations should be bidirectional and mutually beneficial. But one-on-one relationships will not be enough to harness intelligence of our social entrepreneur community. We must also restructure some of our “organized” Jewish community institutions to be more receptive and welcoming to these entrepreneurs, but this restructuring should not be done “for” them, it must be done “with” them.  Certainly this will require a bit of sacrifice from the social entrepreneurs, just as the community is required to sacrifice some of its conventional attitudes and approaches.  But it is this type of mutual sacrifice that has defined the Jewish community since the Exodus, and it is the benefit of this mutual sacrifice that has sustained us as a Jewish people as each generation has joined with the generation before it and after it to encounter our collective challenges and transmit our shared values.

Yes, when I listen to the conversations of our local and national social entrepreneurship community I hear a symphony.  But for it to be more than a tender melody, we need everyone – the composers and listeners, to take ownership in both what we hear and how we hear it. If that is the case, a powerful, enchanting and sustaining symphony it certainly will be.