Archive for October, 2009

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Defining the Mission, Vision, and Values of the Next Jewish Century

October 25, 2009

Words matter. For the People of the Book, there is almost no greater truism; we are a people inspired by a covenant and guided by the words of five books. We are a people that have revived a dead language and created words to express modern experiences, and we have no lack of artists that illuminate those words into a beautiful tapestry of Jewish memory and storytelling. But we are also a people that struggle with the meaning of certain terms and how we define them. We guard words so that they singularly reflect certain Jewish experiences (Holocaust) and we empower words so that the serve as a reminder of our collective Jewish future (Peoplehood).   But even though we are a people that love language, we still struggle and debate the meaning of certain words and how we define them for use in our Jewish communities.

This struggle became clear to me as I recently sat in a conference room with Jewish community leaders from around the world and from a range of Jewish experiences. There was no doubt that each person in the room loved the people, the faith, and the state of the Jewish People; however even in a short conversation it was clear that we were all struggling with how we define our mission and vision in the next Jewish century. On one hand there was talk of the mission and vision for the Jewish People, and on the other hand there were questions about how we express Jewish values when engaging people in the pursuit of realizing that vision. Of course some would say all of that is semantic, but the more thoughtful would realize that like the other words of the Jewish People, mission, vision, and values need to have meaning and need to be used in their proper context and with serious emphasis on the possibilities they encompass.

Some notable scholars in the Jewish community such as Dr. Jonathan Sarna have called for a new mission for the Jewish people. While I disagree that we need a new mission, I do believe we need to frame the mission of our People clearly in the context of the faith that guides our People. Our mission is our essential purpose statement and our reason for being, and it is found in our texts and in our belief system. The mission of the Jewish People is unwavering and unrelenting, and as a light in this world it must be unflickering. A vision however, can and does evolve over time because the times in which we pursue our mission change. The vision is what the future looks like, what will be tomorrow if we advance our mission today. It is what we strive for and rely upon to give us the endurance to move forward into the bold future of our imagination. Lastly, there are our values. They are the bedrock of our actions and they are the guideposts of our journeys. The Jewish People have a value system that is incredibly strong but often under-defined. For example, while we understand and respect the value of kavod for example, we often don’t always invest the energy in extrapolating how that value must be expressed in our Jewish endeavors.

As many of our contemporary Jewish leaders have begun to openly discuss, we need to be more open, expressive and thoughtful in the way we craft the vision of the Jewish people for the 21st Century and beyond. We need to boldly imagine what the future could look like and the ways in which our mission and values intersect with that vision. We need to unharness ourselves from the language of hesitation and gird ourselves with the language of optimism. But we also need to make sure we are mindful of defining the values that will help us advance towards the future we envision and the ways in which those values strengthen our ability to make that vision a reality.  And most of all we need to make sure that while we may all speak in different tongues, we nevertheless use the same concepts to guide our future endeavors.

We stand on the edge of a bridge of Jewish tomorrows that is unfolding in front of us, from one beach of history to the other beach of the future.  The bridge crosses a sea of opportunity and challenge, and it is slippery and sometimes hard to see. But if we use the mission, vision and values of the Jewish people to serve as our guide rail, we will surely get to the other side.

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Neither Meat Nor Milk: The Hungry of Jerusalem (Israel 2009 – Day 4)

October 24, 2009

And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corner of your field, neither shall you gather the gleaning of your harvest.  And you shall not glean your vineyard, neither should you gather the fallen fruit of thy vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger. – Leviticus 19:9-10

Jerusalem is a city with a richness that is unfolding everywhere you look.  From the dusty corners of the Old City to the noisy kaleidoscope of the Shuk, there is a place and an opportunity in Jerusalem to experience every emotion and sensation imaginable.  A beautiful city and a complex one as well, walking its streets one can almost feel physically weighed down by the heaviness of its history, even as its sheer beauty and energy sweep you off your feet.  And anyone having spent some time walking the streets of Jerusalem has felt the sensation of wanting to capture every moment, to gather every experience available – to take as much of Jerusalem home with them as possible.  If the city is a vineyard of sweet grapes of Jewish experience, many of us want to harvest as much of the vineyard as possible and drink our own sweet wine of our memories of Jerusalem.

But it is hard not to notice one aspect of Jerusalem that has been overwhelmingly apparent to me – the hungry and the homelessness that pervade its streets. In the Jerusalem of Gold, the divide between the wealthy and the poor is apparent just on a short walk.  On one hand you can walk through the streets around the various hotels frequented by wealthy visitors and be overwhelmed by the gilded developments that continue to be built (even in this economy). Nothing exemplifies this better than the Mamilla Alrov Mall that has been developed and opened since my last visit to the city. A designer mall in the shadows of the Old City just opposite Jaffa Gate, Mamilla is a testament to the modern luxury consumer experience.  Just in case you have not filled up with memories of the Western Wall, while walking back o your hotel you can also fill up with Louis Vuitton handbags and Rolexes. In the vineyard of Jerusalem’s experiences, you can gather both vintage and designer grapes.

But in most parts of the city, one can encounter an almost overwhelming sense of poverty. The beggars are everywhere and the sense of hunger is palpable. Information released by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics has noted that in recent years more than one in five Israeli’s have, at some point, went without food for economic reasons. And as recent reporting by the Jewish Daily Forward indicates, there is ample evidence that in 2009 demand for food assistance has grown substantially. Certainly there are several government programs and other NGO efforts to combat the issue, but nevertheless it is clear to recognize that in a city that nourishes the Jewish soul in almost every conceivable way there are also substantial numbers of people who are physically undernourished and underfed. There is not question that the city and a state have a responsibility to combat the scourge of hunger and the sense of desperation of often creates; but the more complex question is what is the responsibility of the visitors to Jerusalem in combating hunger in the Jewish state?

Of course tourists help fuel an economy as well as tax coffers, so economic support occurs simply through tourism; but is that enough? The shekels that are tossed in cups of panhandlers may seem like help, but is that tzedakah truly combating hunger?  Tourists shop in the stalls of Ben Yehuda and the galleries of Mamilla, but as they glean the emotional and consumer vineyards of Jerusalem, are they leaving enough behind? Are they truly leaving the corners of their fields, or are they clearing the field and leaving nothing to nourish those who are left behind by the economy, society or both? These questions are not pleasant to think about, especially for vacationers and visitors who are overwhelmed by the religious and historical experience of Jerusalem. But in the great social experiment that is Israel, what does it mean for so many to still be hungry when so many are full?

One of the most common questions you hear from visitors to Jerusalem is the frequent dinner debate – meat or milk?   Perhaps the debate should be meat, milk or hungry?  My guess is that few would pick the third option, and neither should Israelis.  So with that in mind let us all take responsibility to make sure that the values that have us hungering for Israel also inspire us to take care of the hungry in Israel – the vineyard is as much theirs as it is ours.

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Good for the Jews?: A Few Thoughts on the Debate About Aliyah (Israel 2009 – Day 3)

October 22, 2009

Today, in the last quarter of the twentieth century, the survival of the Jews and the survival of Israel are the same; and whether Israel can survive depends, among other things, on the numbers and talents of Diaspora Jews who will come to it – which means it depends on you… –  Hillel Halkin, Letters to an American Jewish Friend: A Zionist’s Polemic (1977)

When visiting Israel one generally encounters an inquisitiveness of where you came from and what reason brought you to Israel.  While those questions are standard for almost any person visiting any place in the world, it is the question that generally follows that is unique in the Israeli context – and that is the question of whether one plans to move to Israel and make Aliyah.  Indeed, how the question is formulated and in whatever tone it is spoken it can be more than a simple inquiry; it is often a suggestion, a complaint, a possibility or a prayer.  In a nation filled with all types of olim, Aliyah is still a notion that fills the heart, the mind, and the discourse like few other ideas do.  In 2009, the debate about Aliyah has in many ways overshadowed the encouragement of Aliyah, and unlike when Halkin wrote his strongly worded essay on the its urgency thirty-two years ago, we now more often speak of Aliyah as an ideological aspect of the Jewish State as opposed to an answer to the existential question of the Jewish State.

During the second day of the Facing Tomorrow: The Israeli Presidential Conference in Jerusalem, the complexity and the passion of the Aliyah debate was fully evident in a packed and provocatively titled panel discussion that asked  – is Aliyah good for the Jews?  Moderated by Alisa Rubin Kurshan, the Vice-President for Strategic Planning and Organizational resources for UJA-Fed NY, the panel included Matthew Bronfman, Rabbi Ricardo Shmuel Diesegni – the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Meir Kraus, an expert in the field of Israeli/Diaspora relations, Rabbi Michael Melchior, former Minister of Diaspora and Social Affairs, and Jay Sarver – co-chair of the Aliyah and Klitah Committee of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors.  Each member of the group expressed insightful and often strongly worded positions, and certainly those in the audience looking to understand the contours of the Aliyah debate were not disappointed. From Rabbi Melchior’s frank and forceful assertion that there is a total abscess of support for encouraging and sustaining Aliyah in the Israeli political establishment to Matt Bronfman’s personalized and optimistic assertion how Aliyah is being refined in this area of interconnection and the “living bridge”, each panelist brought to the table a voice that authentically expressed the challenges and opportunities of Aliyah at this point in history. And they were not alone, members of the audience too expressed their opinions (under the guise of questions) regarding the challenges not only relating to Aliyah, but of the challenges of absorption and integration into Israeli society. Were there agendas and opinions in the room?  Of course. But there also was genuine interest and concern, and that was what made the discussion so powerful.

For my own part, I walked away from the discussion with a few key observations.  First (and as usual), I found the debate among an academics and professionals to be of distant relevance to the debates I hear back in my own community in Atlanta.  For a vast majority of North American Jews, Aliyah is a concept to be understood, but not an opportunity to be examined.  Certainly there remains the possibility to encourage North American olim, but just because there is a possibility does not mean there is a substantially realistic outcome to be expected.  And while the concept of redefining Aliyah and reframing Israeli-Diaspora relations within the context of the “living bridge” certainly sound like imaginative approaches in an era that depends on increased Jewish creativity, we cannot lose sight of the fact that certain concepts lose their integrity when we casually begin to change their meaning.  Lastly, I was reminded by the discussion that although Americans often think of Diaspora relations as North American relations, there are other communities that have vital stakes in the debate regarding the future of global Jewry and their relationship to the State of Israel and we are myopic if we don’t recognize the entirety of the participants in this truly global discussion.

Aliyah perhaps is no longer just a strategy to respond to an existential need of an Israeli future, it is now more so a factor in the evolutionary nature of Jewish existence. While there can be little debate that historical the essence of Aliyah has been of a physical nature, the continuing assertions of spiritual Aliyah challenge us to think harder about what it truly means to encourage personal and communal commitments to Israel.  We also can’t lose sight of the impact on Israeli society  (and the correlative impact of global Jewish communities) when considering what role Aliyah can and should play in the future of the Jewish People.  So, in the spirit of Mr. Halkin’s thirty-two year old polemic and in response to the question of whether is Aliyah good for the Jews, I respond with a different question – if Israel still truly depends on Jews (whoever and wherever they are), are thoroughly modern Jews good for Aliyah?

Now that is a panel discussion I would like to see.

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Israel 2009 Day 2: From Dina to Nina (The People Israel in the Land of Israel)

October 21, 2009

While we often speak of the brilliance of a place called Israel, we must not forget that it’s luminescence is dependent on a People called Israel. Of course the land is filled with the People (and as I wrote yesterday, in many ways the land fills the People), but nonetheless there is an important distinction to be made. A land without a people is an opportunity that is unrealized, just as a people without a land is a promise unfulfilled. Today, in my second day in Israel, I was reminded that while the beaches and the hills may make Israel breathtaking, it is the people of Israel that truly take breathe life into this land. And today was no exception – from my first business meeting on the beach of Tel Aviv to my late night dinner on a street café in Jerusalem with a friend, today was a testament to how amazing are the People of Israel.

Case in point, my day’s chronology was a good example of the latitude of the spirit of the Jewish People. My first meeting was breakfast with an Israeli contact that I know from her time working in the US who has now returned home to Israel to reimagine her career in business and finance.  Dina is an example of the kind of indefatigable Israeli perspective- bright, intense, and thoughtful with an overarching sprit of ability and passion for life. Her business interest and mine coincide, but so do her personal passions – while we spoke interestingly of business, we also shared stories of our respective families.  While Dina could work anywhere in the works she wants to be in Tel Aviv, and while she can make it anywhere, it is easy to see she will make it here – and Israel will be the better for it. My second meeting was with a client and newly acquainted legal colleague, and while our discussion focused on our specific business, we also discussed how Israeli business continues to defy all barriers in achieving new levels of success. If necessity is the mother of invention Israeli businessmen and businesswomen are constantly faced with the opportunity and well the necessity to invent new strategies for business success. Like Dina, my lunch partners reminded me that while nothing in Israel is easy, nothing is impossible either, as long as the Israeli passion to achieve endures.

Later in the day I spent some time at the Presidential Conference in Jerusalem, where the opening gala was both energizing and enriching. President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Netanyahu both spoke, as did former Prime Minster Tony Blair in his capacity as representative of the Quartet. While each made interesting remarks, the person who continues to remind me of the essence of the People of Israel is President Peres. Having been part of the beginning of the State and not yet relenting in his vision of what the state of Israel can become, President Peres is nothing short of heroic, both in his love of the People Israel and his endurance as a global statesmen.  Tonight in his remarks, Prime Minister Netanyahu referred to President Peres as, among other things, an entrepreneur. And it is true – whether in the start-up of a nation or helping further fuel the entrepreneurial spirit that is helping create numerous Israeli start-ups in various technology sectors, President Peres reminds all of us that age need not be a barrier to energy and the possession of wisdom does not limit the aspiration of creativity.

Lastly, my day ended with a late night dinner with my friend Nina, who is also here for the Presidential Conference. Nina is a Jewish professional that lives/works in New York, and who is the Executive Director of Bikkurim, an organization that finds Jewish ideas and helps nurture them to organizational sustainability. While our professional lives are different and we live in different parts of the US, we still found time to be together in Israel. After a dinner with her, notwithstanding our various commonalities (similar aged children, similar interest in Jewish life), what struck me most was how many of the same values we shared. In a land of our People, we still found time to remind ourselves of the connections we have as a People, connections that grow in separate places but truly intertwined in this one place.

So to everyone from Dina to Nina and each person in-between (even you Mr. President), thank you for a day of reminding me that Israel is more than a Land and more than a People. It is both and it is beautiful.

Lila Tov from Jerusalem.

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Israel 2009 – Day 1: The Journey and the Flame

October 20, 2009

When you speak with people who have visited Israel numerous times they will usually tell you that each trip is a unique encounter with the Jewish State, a moment that glows from its own unique set of circumstances and experiences. They say no trip is ever the same as the last one, and they always find something new to love about Israel (and sometimes even something new to find frustrating). Whether its businesses, family or friends (and often it is a mix of all three), there is a spark that brings you to the Land and its People, and it is rarely a solitary spark. It is one that kindles on from time to time and is difficult to extinguish without actually indulging it. Yes people visit Israel for necessity, but more often they visit by choice because of a desire that burns inside them.

This trip is my second trip to Israel, the first was a few years ago as part of my experience with the Wexner Heritage Program.  Not a tourist visit, that trip was an educational one that exposed me to richness of the modern Israeli experience and the complexities that envelope it. I knew then it was the first of many visits, and this trip confirms it– this is a different trip, a business trip, but one that will also touch upon the business of the Jewish people. Interspersed with the business meetings in Tel Aviv and Herziliya will be meetings related to the President’s Conference in Jerusalem as well as some meetings in connection with the Global Emerging Leaders Forum organized by the Jewish Agency for Israel.  Between all of those business meetings will be meals with friends and former teachers, and hopefully the opportunity to meet new friends and teachers as well.

However, my departure from Atlanta to Israel was a keen reminder of just how difficult it can be to get to Israel, literally and figuratively. After boarding for an on-time departure, we all were required to deplane because of damage to the plane’s cargo that occurred while loading the aircraft. Despite the frustration of being waylaid on a much-anticipated journey, our experience waiting into the wee hours of the morning taught me two lessons from this trip before I even arrived in Eretz Yisrael. First, it was a subtle reminder that we all bring so much to Israel in our hearts, our heads and our history that sometimes we need to be careful what and how that cargo is brought with us. We try to cram so much into a place and a promise that the effort alone of packing it all into one vessel can be overwhelming and even damaging. If we bring too much with us, we may not have the room to bring back with us that which we learn and live during our visit.

Second, the few hours waiting in the gate with my fellow travelers reminded me that the spark that draws each of us to Israel is different for all of us and the “all of us” is a very diverse group. I met Israeli’s returning home and Americans moving to their new home.  I met a group of Christians who were visiting Israel for, in some cases, the ninth and tenth time and a child of a Holocaust Survivor visiting Israel for the first time. I met yeshiva boys an retired rabbis, men in black hats and little girls in baseball caps; each with a spark for Israel, each kindling a different flame. After speaking with many in this crowd I realized that although our plane was intended to take off into the moonlight, perhaps it was more fitting that this plane full of human sparks an aspirations rose through a sky beginning to fill with sunlight.  As I dozed off for some much overdue sleep, I was comforted by a thought and a prayer: the thought was that our luminescent plane was hurtling towards Zion, its passengers’ collective glow blending into the sunlight of tomorrow’s promising trip to a Promised Land, and the prayer that there may always be, for all of us, a tomorrow in Israel.

From Tel Aviv – Lila Tov.

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Game Changers and Gunslingers: A Few Thoughts From Slingshot Day 2009

October 16, 2009

In the North American Jewish community there are a few names that, when said, conjure up more than just an organization – they convey an idea. For example, mention the words Birthright or Federation and you get more than a nod of understanding of the name, you typically get a discussion (and sometimes a debate) regarding their meaning. The same is true with another word – Slingshot.  Now in its fifth edition, Slingshot has become synonymous with an idea and a movement within the Jewish world of recognizing the contributions of innovative non-profits in the Jewish community. Recognition by Slingshot not only provides exposure to the work of organizations that may otherwise be less visible, but it provides a moment for various organization, funders and partners to meet and discuss common opportunities and challenges. This year’s Slingshot Day occurred at a time when participants had both a recognition of the challenging funding environment in which they operate as well as renewed momentum upon which each organization is trying to ‘slingshot’ itself beyond that challenge (and others).

The bulk of the day’s events occurred in the Louis L’Amour Room in the Random House offices in NYC. Not being a connoisseur of western novels, one might be unaware of the impressive oeuvre of L’Amour and his centrality to the western genre.  However, one could not help but recognize that the room was an appropriate place for the Slingshot proceedings, because in a way we are all still in the wild west of the Jewish innovation movement, where new frontier is being explored and there are new forms of Jewish gold being panned in the hills.  Like any expansion into the frontier though, there often is a bit of lawlessness as well as uncertainty, until conventional forms of interaction become the norm.  New territory means new challenges and new challenges means creating new strategies and tactics.  Yes, there is a certain romance to the frontier; a romance that is rooted in reality is also often better when fictionalized. L’Amour knew that better than anybody and he sold millions of books by telling stories not just of hardship of the Wild West, by the grandeur of its experience and the conquering of its adversity.  The maturing world of Jewish entrepreneurship is no different – it is raw, it is real, but in many ways there is a romantic notion about it that captures our collective imagination of the Jewish communal frontier.

In the L’Amour room during Slingshot Day there were dozens of gunslingers and game changers, activists and entrepreneurs (and their funders) who are staking out a new frontier of Jewish life in a world that is not fiction.  Even those organizations that were five-time Slingshot finalists could not help but discuss some of the untamed aspects of Jewish organizational and financial life with which they need to contend. Certainly there were pioneers in that room, even cowboys and cowgirls so to speak, that would have fit right into the romance of a L’Amour novel. Seeing challenges, these individuals were not turning around and heading home to safer havens, they were drawing their double barrels of Jewish creativity and compassion and continuing to fight on into the frontier. They are changing the game and gaining ground.

That is not to say, however, there is not rugged terrain to cover. Even at Slingshot Day, discussions about how to define Jewish innovation and identify the ethics the Jewish entrepreneurial community were uneven and required more specific and action-oriented approaches. Moreover, the broader challenge to contend with remains communicating how big the frontier is and how we must cover so much territory when time feels so short. Sure there are a lot of Slingshot gunslingers and game changers from New York and California, but between the two there is a lot of ground to cover with Jewish innovation, literally and figuratively. And even after Slingshot Day, it is important to remember that Jewish innovation is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself.  In the words of Louis L’Amour (prominently displayed on the wall of the L’Amour room) – “Reading without thinking is nothing, for a book is less important for what it says than for what it makes you think.”  With apologies to L’Amour, Jewish innovation holds to the same principle – innovating without meaning is nothing, for an entrepreneurial endeavor is less important for what it says than for what it makes you experience.  With that in mind, while there is still a wild (east and) west of Jewish innovation, we are fortunate that Jewish gunslingers and game changers don’t need to rely only on six-shooters – especially when they’ve got a Slingshot it their pocket and all of us supporting their pioneering efforts. May that continue to be the case in the future.

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Dropped Calls and the Challenge of Jewish Discontinuity

October 11, 2009

Perhaps one of the greatest aggravations in this era of high tech communications is the scrooge of the dropped call. It is a ubiquitous experience regardless of your phone or your service provider, and it can happen in the densest of cities and most rural of areas. Dropped calls often result from gaps in cell coverage but are also increasingly the result of high usage at certain times and places.  Whatever the reason those conversations are lost and frustrations found, dropped calls impair the efficient communication we strive for, while also reminding us that our ability to continue to communicate with others is often dependent on resources and networks outside of our control.

Recently I have been thinking of the impact of “dropped calls” in the Jewish community.  As we have already advanced from Jewish life in the iPod era (as the folks at Reboot smartly discussed back in 2004) to Jewish engagement in the iPhone age, it is worth considering the community lessons we can learn from how dropped calls occur in our own community.  These lessons take on increased significance in the Jewish community telephone conversations, because once there is a disconnect relating to a sense of community, it may be harder to redial the connection that was made in the first place. Unfortunately though, just like the root causes for dropped calls in the telecommunications network, much of the reason for dropped calls in the Jewish community is lack of sufficient (or lack of sufficiently dynamic) infrastructure to maintain those connections.

Similar to the overly spaced mobile networks, our “cell towers” of Jewish connection leave gaps in service (often at the most inconvenient places and times). Just like the manner in which phone calls are maintained, the connectivity to the Jewish community is dependent on there being well placed conduits of communication and the right types of interconnection. While the Jewish community certainly has points of contact throughout the Jewish lifecycle, it is the time in-between those key life moments that that are often the place where the connections are week.  Therefore the more towers of Jewish connectivity, the fewer chances for conversations to get dropped. Additionally, we need to make sure that Jewish connections are not dropped because the system is insufficiently dynamic to maintain quality connections in high-use times. For example, even though the High Holidays put a strain on resources (too few seats for people, too few chances to experience true spiritual moments), our community infrastructure must be sufficiently dynamic to be sure that people don’t lose connections to the their community at those times either.

Like the iPhone, Jewish life has seemingly limitless ways to encourage, engage, and sustain individual connections.  Similar to the network that supports the iPhone, the network maintained by the Jewish community needs to be robust enough and of sufficient quality to make sure that there are no broken conversations when someone wants to dial-up a Jewish experience. Dropped calls on the cellular network are aggravating, but dropped calls in the Jewish community can me much more troubling and their disconnection can be much more long-lasting; or even permanent. So in the spirit of the old communications advertisement, lets make sure our Jewish community is not just focused on reaching out and touching someone, but also keeping in touch and avoiding those irksome (and perilous) dropped calls.