Archive for the ‘Personal Pondering’ Category

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Jewish Leadership at the Water’s Edge: A Call for Action

February 23, 2009

With all of the change swirling around us, it has been challenging to organize, synthesize and verbalize my thoughts on the state of the Jewish community in 2009. The organizations in which I am involved, like all of the organizations in which we are all involved, are struggling to reconcile the challenges with the needs and the resources with the requirements.  And while normally I am one to encourage systematic and methodical planning, now I feel like we must boldly  lead by action.  And in order to encourage  action by others, we must do more than just evaluate and understand the nature of our adversity; we must fearlessly lead our communities through our challenges to reach the other side of greatness.  Until now, I have not been able to articulate this strong desire to see my fellow community members, volunteers, and professionals, rise up and lead.  I have listened to planners and prognosticators, seers and scholars, each one of them expressing their voices… their view of what we need to do.  But now I have finally found my voice that I have been searching for and below is my encouragement, my cajoling – my plea – that we not let this moment pass without a great uprising of Jewish leadership… strong and visionary leadership that will lead us through these stormy waters.  This is not a plan… it is a call to action for Jewish leaders at the water’s edge.

From time to time in the history of the Jewish people, moments arise that challenge us to reinforce our Jewish faith and reassert our Jewish purpose. There are, at these moments, great leaders that help us understand and define the decisions we must make and the paths we are offered to follow.  In some cases they are leaders that are shaped by the moments, and in other case they are moments shaped by the leaders. In each case, they help achieve clarity of vision in foggy milieus of difficulty. They are leaders that take bold steps while providing gentle reassurance. They are leaders that do not just stand with us at the water’s edge, but who lead us into the sea and across the river.  Such leaders are called forward in each generation of adversity and drink from the well of Jewish strength that runs deep through our generations and refreshes each succeeding generation of leaders that come to drink from it. These leaders appear in the chronicles of Jewish history at the moments of their calling and leave legacies of faith and fearlessness, courage and community.

My friends, this is our moment, and we must be those Jewish leaders for our time.

We cannot underestimate the challenges we are facing nor the opportunities available for us to embrace. We live in a time where the establishment of the State of Israel still stirs our hearts, but the existential challenges it faces still turns our stomachs and in a time where seemingly limitless financial prosperity has suddenly turned into seemingly limitless financial distress. We live in an era where the quality of Jewish education gives us great encouragement, but the magnitude of Jewish assimilation gives us even greater pause for concern.  We face an increasing amount of anti-Semitism, yet some of the greatest damage to our Jewish infrastructure is the result of thievery of one of our own.  Even in the face of the hate of strangers, we still struggle to build bonds of brotherhood and understanding with one another.

Our challenges are great and they are many.

Yes, these are challenging moments – the moments that call out for great Jewish leaders. For leaders with vision and boldness, with an understanding of the bastions of our heritage and the towers of our future.  Leaders who know that the brightness of the Jewish experience, the collective Jewish journey on which we are all traveling, cannot dim and cannot end. It is an experience bound by a covenant that we must uphold and cannot revoke. In these times, the call for these leaders is strong, it is overwhelming, and it is deafening.

We must answer that call. We must be those leaders.

But being those leaders will mean more than just answering a call – it means more than just showing up. That is not leadership – that is attendance. We must search not only our hearts, but also our history. We must not bemoan the tests that face us, but we must engage the texts that teach us. We cannot muddle or meet our way through our challenges; we must face them squarely and respond to them strongly. We cannot simple respond hineini – we must do more than that.  We must not just say we are here; we must show how we will go from here to there.

But how can we do this? Our institutions are shaken and our strategy is unclear. We cannot plan on relying on only that which we know, but also that which we must create. We must reimagine not only our institutions, but also the way we, as individuals, encounter those institutions.  We must face our challenges, not turn away from them in the hope they will be delayed or distracted. We cannot believe that help is on the way and that time will bring reinforcements – we must be that help and we must signal that time.  Indeed, our strength lies not in safety by avoidance, but by the certitude of Jewish survival.

This is our time, we cannot hide and we cannot falter.

The Jewish leaders before us have faced slavemasters and emperors. They have faced those from outside who would harm us and those from within who have betrayed us.  Those leaders have faced the type of evil and uncertainty that suffocates the sprit and weakens the knees.  But in each generation those leaders have embraced the breath of survival and stiffened their backs in the face of earth-shattering blows. They have fought our enemies from the caves of the deserts and through the walls of ghettos. They sacrificed themselves in their unwavering faith in their God and their people and left legacies of pride and resoluteness.  They did not falter, and nor can we. We must respond to this moment, we must breathe deep breathes of courage and together firmly face our challenges.

We must not just stand at the water’s edge, we must cross.

Like Moses and like Joshua, we cannot simply stand on this side of the water.  We must have faith that in crossing among the high waves we will be fulfilling the next phase of our own journey forward.  We cannot turn back and we cannot hesitate. What stands on the opposite side is not death and despair, but beauty and redemption – nothing less then the next holy steps of a holy people.  We cannot refrain from taking those steps; we must take them with fervor and firmness. As leaders, we must cross that which threatens to engulf us, but cannot extinguish us. We must go to the water’s edge, and we must be the leaders that those waters demand of us.

This is our moment. We must be the leaders standing at the water’s edge.

And for the sake of our and future Jewish generations –

We must cross together.

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The Rally and the Realization

January 9, 2009

Like other Jewish communities across the United States and the world, on Wednesday night (January 7) the Atlanta Jewish community hosted a rally in support of Israel in its fight against Hamas terror. There were hundreds of individuals in attendance  – Jews from across the community, Christian supporters of Israel, elected officials and other members of the Atlanta community.  Sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and organized by members of the local Israel Professional Council, the rally included passionate presentations by numerous community members, including Steve Rakitt, the President of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, Ambassador Reda Mansour – the Consul General of Israel to the Southeast United States, Rabbi Ilan Feldman, Scott Allen  – a regional leader of Christians United for Israel, Mayor Jere Wood – the mayor of Roswell, Georgia, and numerous others.  It was a powerful evening of community and solidarity – from the opening notes of the Star Spangled Banner to the final notes of Hatikva, the night was filled with passion for Israel and support for its fight against the enemy it faces.

But the most powerful moment I encountered did not occur during the rally, but occurred just before the it began. As I was walking from my car toward the synagogue at which the rally was held, a young man yelled toward me, asking me to wait for him. He was new to town and was not certain exactly where the synagogue was. He had heard about the rally and cared enough to come, even though he would not know anybody there.

His name is Puneet. He is not Jewish, he is of Indian descent.

As we walked toward the synagogue we exchanged introductions and pleasantries. But I could help ask – why was he there? Why come out to a rally where he did not know a single person? Why spend that night away from his wife in a room full of strangers?

And then that most powerful moment occurred.  As we walked together in the cool night, Puneet shared with me that he was there because he felt, while not a Jew or an Israeli, that India’s fight against terror and hate, was the same fight that Israel was fighting. He recognized that the hate and venom that fuels terrorist murders in India, most recently in Mumbai, is the same hate and venom being rained down on Israel in the form of Qassam and Grad missiles. Puneet felt that even though he was not a Zionist, he too felt “enough was enough.” He came to stand with Israel because he believed Israel’s fight is just.

Puneet reminded me, in the moments of our conversation, that while supporters of Israel often feel alone, we are not. There are good people, Christians, Indians, people of all creeds and colors that believe in the justness of Israel’s fight against terror and the terrorist organizations like Hamas that traffic in hate and violence.  That while we often feel (and many times rightfully so) that the world opinion is resoundingly anti-Israel, there nonetheless are voices that join our chorus of support for Israel. They are not necessarily our coreligionists, but they are kindred souls. They believe in hope, in freedom, and in peace. They believe that people have a right to feel safe from the shattering explosions of terror, and freedom from the specter of death that is designed by merchants of division.

They stand with us as we stand with Israel.

As we entered the synagogue, Puneet and I were separated, and I did not see him the rest of the evening. But I received an email from him the next morning, and he shared with me how much he learned during the rally, and how much he was glad to meet with other like-minded people. He and I agreed to meet again – to continue a conversation we started as we walked to that synagogue in order to attend a rally for a country that represented our shared ideal.

Israel is important. It is important to Jews, to Christians, to Indians, and to people who appreciate its values and who support it in its struggles. It is important to Puneet.

And for that we should be grateful and inspired.

I know I am.  Thanks Puneet.

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(Jewish) Community Organizing: Lessons from the Obama Campaign

December 12, 2008

Regardless of one’s political affiliation, the recent election of Barack Obama as the forty-fourth president of the United States is a momentous event to consider. In a time of dramatic concern by so many, the Obama campaign has given an equal number of people in the world a moment of radical amazement.  There are certainly many lessons to be learned with respect to the Obama campaign in the political context, but the strategies and tactics deployed by the Obama campaign also hold numerous lessons of how we can better organize our Jewish communities.

1.    Positive messages create positive results.  Certainly in 2008 there were numerous negative topics to be discussed, including a war in the Middle East, and a troubled economy at home.  But Obama, while voicing concern about those several topics, nevertheless focused on a message of hope and change. So too must our Jewish community focus on positive messages.  While so much of our Jewish message is framed in the context of “never again,” too little of it is framed in the context of “Yes we can.”  True, there are great challenges facing our community – slowing affiliation, a nuclear Iran and Jewish apathy.  But much is going right as well – and we need a positive message if we expect people to join a positive Jewish campaign for change.

2.    Small contributions count as much as big ones.  Much has been made of the Obama campaign’s record-shattering fundraising.  But what has been remarkable about that effort is how many of the contributors were first-time political contributors and how many made small, but repeated, contributions. Also remarkable was the way Obama’s campaign tapped into the financial power of the netroots community.  Our Jewish community would be wise to quickly learn these fundraising lessons and apply them to our own efforts.  We are missing a tremendous opportunity to engage community members philanthropically in new and different ways – ways successfully deployed by the Obama campaign.

3.    Investment in field operations and social networks matter.   The Obama campaign redefined the power of the ground game in the recent election. Whereas Hillary Clinton focused on the big states with large primaries, Obama also focused on the states that had caucuses, understanding the power of small collections of passionate individuals. By engaging in places big and small, Obama created a network that engaged voters where they were in ways they wanted to be engaged, where in person or online. Sounds like something we would be wise to do with American Jews – meeting Jews where they are, and leveraging emerging social technologies to make those meetings happen.  We need to improve our Jewish ground game, before that game becomes too difficult to win.

4.    Agents of change still need voices of experience. Obama knew that one of his greatest weaknesses was the perception of his inexperience. So what did he do to counter that criticism? He found one of the most experienced senators to serve as his running mate. Rather than fear the influence of a more experienced leader, Obama embraced it. We should apply the same lessons in our Jewish communities.  While we need to embrace the fresh ideas that come from inexperienced Jewish innovators, we need to make sure those innovators embrace the experience and wisdom of our more seasoned leaders.

5.    Words matter. Perhaps the one critical mistake of the Obama campaign was when he commented that voters in Pennsylvania were bitter and cling to their guns and religion.  The Obama campaign credits that moment as a defining one in the campaign – after that episode Obama took a greater role in the campaign and worked to more carefully craft his message.  The care we need to use in choosing words in the Jewish community is no less important. When we refer to the “problem” of intermarriage we would be wiser to describe it as a “challenge.” Just like voters don’t like to be considered bitter, spouses don’t like to consider their marriages problems. If we want to be successful in our campaign for the engagement of more Jews, we should mind our words carefully.

6.    Create multiple paths to success.  Early in the campaign the Obama campaign said they were going to create multiple paths victory, including campaigning in states long ceded to the Republicans. And that is exactly what they did, so that on election night there were multiple ways for the electoral votes to add up in Obama’s favor. If we are wise, the Jewish community will learn from this experience and also focus on strengthening multiple paths to engagement.  If we want the numbers to add up, we need to create new and novel ways of Jewish engagement.

7.   Embrace the complexities of identity.  Obama has a complex racial background, one he embraced and transcended during the campaign. The Jewish people also have a complex background, filled with nuanced and conflicting identities.  Rather than getting mired in identity conflicts, like Obama we need to find common threads that help us transcend our individual insecurities about our identity.  Jewish identity has become a word we struggle to define and often endeavor to avoid. We should embrace the complexities of Jewish identity and perhaps we may find that there will be many more of us to embrace.

8.    Believe.  Obama believed he could win the presidency, and defying all expectations, he did.  People believed in his potential to effect change because it encouraged a belief that change could occur. Perhaps no greater lesson to be learned the Jewish community is the power of belief – belief in one another and belief in our collective ability to make our Jewish community stronger.

So there you have it, eight lessons from the ’08 Obama campaign. Even with these lessons in hand, it is fair to wonder if can we change the way our Jewish community engage individuals with the same level of success the Obama campaign achieved.  The parallels are remarkable – just like the current state of our nation, the current state of American Jewry gives us much for concern, but much more for pride. And while even the greatest challenges may still lie ahead of us, the strength of our Jewish past and the resilience of our Jewish spirit give us much to aspire for our collective Jewish future.

As a Jewish people, can we too achieve our goals?  The answer must be no different that the one boldly spoken by our new president on a clear, and clearly victorious night  – yes we can.

And we must.

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One Year Later…

December 7, 2008

In a rare occurrence, I have back to back personal posts, and for those who regularly read this blog for my other essays, I apologize.  For those who have read this blog form its beginning, you know that it was inspired  by my friend Jon Barkan z’l who passed on from this world one year ago today.  There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about my friend, and what we all miss in his absence.  Nevertheless, while we honor those who have died with our memories, we also honor them with our lives and the way we live them. Even as we find ourselves sometimes lingering in the shadow of death, we must draw ourselves into the light of the living – to fill voids, to create anew and to celebrate all that life has to offer. I am certain that is what Jon would say  –  and that is what I now say as well.

This morning I was given the privilege of addressing a group of pro-Israel activists at a local AIPAC function. It was fitting that this gathering occurred on the first secular anniversary of Jon’s passing – it reminds us that important work must go on, life must go on, and that it it incumbent upon all of us to recognize both.

Below is the text of my comments delivered this morning.

Comments Delivered to Atlanta-Area AIPAC Breakfast Briefing on 12/7/08

My friends, I am glad to be here with you today, in a room full of pro-Israel activists who have taken time out of your busy lives to spend some time learning about and advancing the interests of pro-Israel politics in our nation. And even as we gather together, it is not lost on any of us that there is one dear friend that is not in the room with us today – our friend Jon Barkan.

One year ago today, we woke up to a world without Jon walking among us.  It was hard for us – it is hard for us – to fully reconcile the loss we all suffered, the loss his family suffered, the loss our community and Jon’s many communities suffered.  There is rarely a day when we don’t speak of our memories of Jon, and the ways he impacted all of us.  And never a day has passed where we haven’t felt diminished by the loss of his ability to do so much, to be so much, and to help so much.

Nevertheless, we have soldiered on with the memory and the legend of Jon in our hearts and minds.  And we have soldiered on in a world that, in many ways, has changed around us.  We have a new US administration and new elections in Israel. We face new economic challenges and new and increasing challenges in the international arenas.

However, there is much about our world that has remained the same. There is still a need to recognize that Israel has numerous enemies that pose serious threats to its safety and its very existence. There is still a need for a strong US/Israel alliance, with substantial economic, diplomatic and military ties.

There is still a need for a room full of pro-Israel activists to gather to learn about ways to support pro-Israel policies and the elected officials that establish those policies.

So in the days following Jon Barkan’s death, many of us recognized that perhaps one of the best ways to honor our friend – a friend who was an enormous pro-Israel advocate, was to inspire and recognize other pro-Israel advocates to do what Jon did – work tirelessly to strengthen the bonds between our two nations.

Through the generosity of several individuals and families, including many in this room, the Jon Barkan Israel Advocacy Award was established.  The award shall be given annually to an individual living in the Atlanta, Georgia metropolitan area who is under the age of 40 and has demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to Israel by means of leadership, activism or involvement in organizations or activities that strengthen the bonds between Israel and Atlanta-area Jews.

Criteria for selection includes demonstration of significant leadership ability, level of passion and involvement in pro-Israel causes, and the potential for greater pro–Israel leadership responsibility in the future. Nominations will be solicited from across the Atlanta metropolitan area and the selection process will be administered by local professional and volunteer AIPAC leadership.

The annual recipient of the award shall be formally recognized at the annual Atlanta-area AIPAC Community Event and, along with a plaque commemorating the award, the recipient shall receive a $1,000 stipend to be used for attendance to the AIPAC Policy Conference (held annually in Washington D.C.) in the year in which the award is given.

To date, over $23,000 has been pledged to endow the fund. Contributions are tax-deductible, and to the extent any of you are doing year-end tax planning with respect charitable contributions, contributions can be made to the fund at any time for any reason. My wife Marci and I have done exactly that, and I invite you to join us in that honor of our friend.

The process for selecting the first award recipient is already underway and if you have any nominations, the professionals at AIPAC will soon be communicating with you the opportunity to share such nominations.  The recipient will be announced at the community event this spring.

When speaking of a righteous Jew who has passed from this world to the next we say – zichrono livracha – let his memory be a blessing.   May that be the case with our friend Jon Barkan, together let us remember on this day and each day that his memory is a blessing.  And let us ensure, with the Jon Barkan Israel Advocacy Award, that his legacy continues to be an inspiration to future generations of pro-Israel advocates.

Advocates just like you.

Thank you.

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Memo to the Federation File: The New (Human) Capital Campaign

November 9, 2008

During the past few months, one can rarely avoid a discussion of the impact of the ongoing economic challenges facing many Americans.  Avoiding such conversations is even more rare in the hallways of nonprofit organizations that depend on the generosity of their donors to provide critical financial resources to address a variety of compelling needs.  These organizations that often struggle for funds even when times are good now find themselves in a time of dramatically increased need even while many of their supporters are more hesitant about their individual ability to give generously. Notwithstanding data that indicates that generosity does not diminish (and often increases) in times of great need, it is nevertheless clear that in these belt-tightening days that many people, when reconciling the numbers of diminishing 401(k) returns and increasing 501(c)(3) appeals, just can’t make the math work.

So these are long days and nights for fundraising campaigns – calls to donors are as much about friend-raising as they are fundraising, for just as there are many individuals who may offer a bit more financial help, there are those who reveal that they are in a bit more financial need.  And along with the greater demands to find financial resources to help those in that seek it, there will soon be challenges to be faced in ways that we haven faced domestically in perhaps generations. How our communities meet those challenges, and how we allocate the resources necessary to help overcome them will be defining questions for community leaders in the months and perhaps years ahead.

So it might seem odd that I would suggest that at this time of immense challenge that we focus on an immense opportunity to commence a new type of national Jewish communal campaign – a capital campaign of sorts, a human capital campaign.

Yes, we must continue and expand important financial appeals in our Jewish communities to serve local, national and overseas needs (we should not forget that the crippling effects of the global slowdown that impacts us at home has tremendous impact on the needs of vulnerable and at-need Jews in places like the former Soviet Union).  But we need to expect that for many individuals who are struggling to cope with their own personal financial challenges, engaging in acts of Jewish philanthropy may be an option that, for the time-being, must be left untaken.  Whether helping shore up their parents’ financial needs, struggling with their own limited ability to maintain synagogue memberships, day school fees or JCC dues, many Jews who would nonetheless like to remain engaged in the community may feel financially shut out.  In the face of these economic limitations, they may feel like what they have to offer the community is diminished, and therefore their engagement in the community should diminish as well.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. And the leaders of the organized Jewish community need to make sure that not only does the false perception of these individuals manifest themselves in our communities, but that we proactively take measures to seize the opportunity offered by those who want to find alternative ways to give back to their community.

Now is the time for us to engage in discussions with those who want to give time rather than money and capture their energies in ways that help us collectively face the challenges that confront us. Sure, many of our most vaunted professional leaders and long-time volunteers may be able to put the current challenges into perspective, but the emerging viewpoints and ideas of new volunteers and leadership will help us define pathways to future achievement.  Individuals who long invested in the community by writing checks may now find that being engaged in a volunteer leadership role is equally fulfilling. And then as economic times improve and they can more generously give once again, our communities will benefit from both time and money.

Therefore, I think right now is the time, an important time, to engage in a discussion of how we embark on the great Jewish human capital campaign.  A campaign with realizable goals locally and nationally for engaging new volunteers, and new volunteer leadership.  A campaign that does not diminish the value of giving financially to philanthropic endeavors, but one that reinforces the value of investing personal time in the organizations that pursue those endeavors.

Now this campaign would not be without its challenges.  Like any great effort that brings in new individuals to organizations and movements there are always questions of ability to integrate the new volunteers leaders into existing roles, to create new roles and opportunities for personal investment and to provide volunteers/leaders high quality experiences that reinforce their desire to give their time to the community.  These volunteers and leaders must be powerfully engaged, educated and empowered to effect change in our communities and help create new avenues of Jewish experience.  And they should have some fun.

Equal to the systemic challenges with respect to the new volunteers/leaders we need to anticipate challenges for our professionals. Many of our senior professional leadership have grown up in systems (most notably the federation system) that have not achieved much-needed and dramatic reengineering of core strategies related to volunteer engagement. Figuring out new ways to engage leaders and new ways to synthesize their strengths into existing organizations is no small task. And as many have realized, Jewish communal organizations are not necessarily bastions of adaptability – recruiting substantial numbers of new volunteers/leaders will require many organizations (and their professionals) to be responsive to the new ideas, approaches, and technologies – each which may be at odds with decades of organizational experience/tradition.

This human capital campaign needs to start at the bottom and at the top. We need new faces at our most basic committee levels in our local communities, and as I have suggested previously, we need new ideas at the top of our local and national organizations.  The human capital campaign is not narrowly focused or easily satisfied.  It requires fundamental changes in the way we recruit engaged Jews and the way we govern organizations that are led by them. We need to challenge old assumptions and embrace new visions. Even those visions that require resources we might not be able to collect in the coming days, months and perhaps even years. Because by encouraging and allowing those visions to take root, we will be harnessing the passions of visionaries who create them.  And when the financial resources are there to transform those visions into realities, the human capital campaign will infuse new life into these financial campaigns as well.

Yes, we face challenging times. And yes, in these challenging times we tend to monitor our campaigns closely – aspiring, stretching and achieving those goals we must achieve to address the needs we face. But lets not be too cautious lest we lose this opportunity to engage in a great new capital campaign  – a human capital campaign that seeks to benefit from the greatest resource of all – the hearts and minds of the Jewish people.

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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.