Archive for the ‘Reflections’ Category

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August (1929) and Everything After: The Jewish Agency at the Crossroads of History

March 1, 2010

The fruit of three thousand years of civilization and a hundred generations of suffering may not be sacrificed by us. It will be sacrificed if dissipated. Assimilation is national suicide. And assimilation can be prevented only by preserving national characteristics and life as other peoples, large and small, are preserving and developing their national life. –  excerpt from “A Call to the Educated Jew” by Louis Brandeis

 

History teaches everything, including the future.   – Alphonese de Lamartine

 

 

What was it like to be part of the leadership the Jewish Agency in August, 1929 in Zurich?  Less than a month earlier, the 16th Zionist Congress established an expanded Jewish Agency after a seven year long debate about how Zionist efforts would incorporate a wide array of Jewish groups in the Diaspora, and the meetings that August were the first gathering of the expanded organization. Around the table were giants of the Jewish people, including Chaim Weizmann, Louis Marshall, Joseph Sprinzak and others representing both the WZO and Diaspora Jewry and who were invested in the efforts to create a Jewish state. As they planned their joint endeavor toward the realization the “establishment of the Jewish National Home… in Palestine” (as called for by the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine in 1922), this group had the daunting task of prioritizing the initial work of the Agency. Their deliberations resulted in the emphasis on immigration, settlement and land purchase as key endeavors, with efforts also to be undertaken regarding the greater establishment of language and culture of the new nation. Decisions were made and the rest, as they say, is history.

But again, I wonder, what was it like to sit at that table and make those decisions?

This question weighed on my mind as I attended the meetings of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency last week in Jerusalem. Now, like then, the Jewish Agency is at a pivot moment in Jewish history – a moment where, at the end of many years of debate, priorities must be set and decisions must be made. What direction will this historic organization take at this crossroads in the history of the Jewish state and the Jewish people?  Yes, there certainly are differences between then and now – then the very existence of the State of Israel was an aspiration, now it is a reality. Then only a small fraction of world Jewry lived in the land that would become the modern state of Israel, now half the world’s Jewish population calls Israel home. But many of the challenges are the same – how can the Jewish Agency best help make sure that Israel is more than a state, but also a people? How can the organization best ensure that the future of the Jewish nation is secured and enriched by the reinforcement of the national characteristics of the Jewish people?

Those challenges and others face the leadership of the Jewish Agency in 2010 and, like 1929, both the weight of history and the promise of the future cannot be ignored. Then, like now, the Zionist dream was the shared dream of many diverse stakeholders, often sharing common cause but possessing diverse perspectives about how to pursue that cause.  We know the history since 1929, but what we don’t know is this: Like those individuals around the table in 1929 that came together to prioritize approaches to ensuring the creation and sustainability of a Jewish nation, can today’s diverse leadership of the Jewish Agency define its priorities to properly ensure the strengthening and sustainability of the Jewish people?

The answer must be ‘yes’ – history, and the Jewish future, demand nothing less.

In his book Community and Polity, Professor Daniel Elazar postulated that in the postmodern Jewish world there needs to be reassertion of Jewish polity – a transition from fragmentation to reintegration. More than ever before, the Jewish Agency can and should play a substantial role in developing that greater sense of Klal Yisrael, integrating the fragments of Jewish life into a shared sense of identity. While its role since 1929 has been reconstituting a Jewish state, the Jewish Agency must now transition to a role of reconnecting a Jewish people. Yes, there can be no question that Israel is and must remain a center of the Jewish people, but a center unconnected from its broader sphere becomes the center of nothing.  And just like the efforts of the Jewish Agency have long been to weave the multicolored threads of olim into the fabric of the Jewish State, the Agency must continue to serve as a seamstress in the next phase of Jewish history. But rather than only help bring the threads together as the cloth of a nation, it must now serve a new role in stitching together the quilt of Jewish people, sewing together the unique squares of Jewish life and experience that occur in Israel, North America and throughout the Jewish world.  To do so, it must use the expression of individual Jewish identity as the thread that binds the quilt of the Jewish people together.

Of course any prioritization, any design of its future endeavors, must take into account that the Jewish Agency cannot in the abandon some of its key responsibilities in that it is uniquely able to address. But as time changes, and the needs of the Jewish people change, the Jewish Agency cannot remain static. It too must change, and change in the ways the future demands, not the past. Certainly the coming weeks and months will require hard questions to be asked and certain answers to be accepted. But we should not lose site of one question that will be asked, we hope will be asked, one day far in the future –

What was it like to be part of the leadership of the Jewish Agency in 2010 in Jerusalem and what did they decide?

The history books of the Jewish people are waiting for the answer.

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Not Too Small to Matter: Hybrid Organizations and the Challenge of Jewish Innovation

November 3, 2009

A few weeks ago one of my friends suggested a new game – innovation bingo. The rules are simple, sit in a room full of under-40 Jewish volunteers and professionals and wait until the word ‘innovation’ (or some variant) is used. Then yell bingo, and you win. The real fun, my friend joked, is not whether someone wins, but how quickly it takes for someone to win. Unfortunately, nothing about Jewish innovation is as simple as the rules to my friend’s proposed game.  Inspiring and nurturing Jewish innovation is still easier said than done, and the manner in which the rapid increase of Jewish start-ups are supported and integrated into the broader fabric of contemporary Jewish life presents not only opportunities but  challenges as well.  Whereas the last Jewish century has been, in part, built on a foundation laid by large community organizations that are too large to fail, the next Jewish century may very well be shaped by Jewish initiatives that may seem limited in size, but are definitely not too small to matter.

Some interesting thinking that has influenced my own opinion on the role of small, entrepreneurial organizations in the Jewish world is the concept of a hybrid organization.  This type of organization, most succinctly defined by Mark Surman, the executive director of the Mozilla Foundation, is “a mix of social mission, disruptive market strategies and web-like scale and collaboration.”  One of the reasons why I like the definition Mark proposes so much is that it encompasses fundamental aspects or organizational structure (mission), strategic orientation (market strategy) and tactical strength (scale and collaboration). I also think that truly strong hybrid organizations are do not mash-up so many ideas and tactics that they lose their cohesiveness, but are entities (or initiatives) that also leverage core values and incorporate the best practices of learning/changing organizations.  Given the challenges of reframing large organizations entrenched in history and (oftentimes) complexity, the development of small hybrid organizations are frequently the easiest way for engaged social activists to organize an efficient response to a social need they have identified.

While theory is interesting, the facts are even more compelling.  A cursory survey of the Jewish communal landscape results in an interesting an energizing set of Jewish start-ups that address a wide rang of social needs. Ranging from organizations that address shifting approaches to Jewish prayer and learning (Mechon Hadar), to organizations that address issues related to environmental education in the orthodox community (Canfei Nesharim) to initiatives that leverage Jewish values to change the broader world (Repair the World, American Jewish World Service), there are hybrid organizations being created to address every flavor of Jewish social mission imaginable. But it is not just in North America – in Europe and Israel you can find a similar explosion of Jewish start-ups, from organizations helping share a Jewish vision of a positive and inclusive Europe (CEJI) to the expansion of Jewish knowledge and social action in Hungary (Marom Budapest), to organizations developing new pathways of Jewish microphilanthropy (JGooders) new relationships between Israel/Diaspora young adults (Parallel Lives). One gets the feeling that the world of small Jewish start-ups is just beginning to unfold and that, while these organizations may be limited in current scale, their ability to expand the frontiers of our global Jewish community may be unlimited.

But there are limits.

These organizations, just like larger more established organizations, often suffer from shortcomings that can and do impede their broader development and success. First, the proponents of Jewish start-ups tend to overly fetishize Jewish innovation and assume that all small start-ups are going to be the paradigm shifting hybrid organizations they promise to be.  While mixes of mission, strategy and scalability may provide solutions that are engaging and invigorating, they will not be an all-answering (or even an adequate) substitute for larger, historic and impactful organizations. Second, their leadership is often in need of greater training, maturity and reflection – characteristics that entrepreneurs sometimes lack (or resist), but which our broader community desperately needs. Third, we need to make sure that we do not overly invest in a cult of personality, but rather in a cult of excellence. New is not always better and fresh is not always transformative.  While we should not discourage Jewish innovation, we also should recognize that blindly encouraging the development of hybrid organizations to the exclusion of renewing our established organizations might result in community infrastructure that is diverse in spirit but insufficient in capability to address social needs in an efficient and impactful manner.

Nevertheless, the real question then is not whether there should be a role in the Jewish community for these emerging hybrid organizations, but how to make sure that we support their development in a way that doesn’t assume their small size is a reflection of their small potential. Just as much, however, we need to make sure that our value of their high-level of “buzz” is not a substitute for our expectation of their high-level of performance.  In any case, a better understanding, encouragement (and mentoring) of these small, developing (and sometimes disruptive) hybrid organizations will no doubt help the Jewish world mature in a way that, like my friend’s game, would be a no-lose proposition.

Bingo indeed.

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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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A New Year and Some New Ideas for Boundless Drama

October 11, 2009

During the Yom Kippur service and in the midst of the Al Chet, I thought about the transgressions I have made while writing this blog.  And while Gail Hyman at eJewishPhilanthropy enumerated a thorough list of a communicator’s transgressions that this writer has also made, I also have frequently erred by disrespecting my readers’ time by not being more concise.

Now those who know me or who have read its blog from its inception know that brevity is not my strong suit.  But this year I have resolved to try and communicate more by saying less. Moreover, I also have some ideas on how to make this blog a bit more interesting and even a bit more interactive. To that end, I am going to be making some changes on Boundless Drama in the coming year that will roll out over time. But to the point of my focus on brevity, the first change is to write One Jewish Idea in Four Short(ish) Paragraphs.  Accordingly, commencing with my next post, my new posting format will be to take one idea that relates to the Jewish community and address it in four paragraphs.  While I personally enjoy the exploration of ideas through essays, I recognize that people read this blog to have something to noodle, over not wade through, so hopefully this new format will demonstrate the sense of kavod I have for my readers and their time.

As always, thanks for reading and responding, and thanks for being part of the boundless drama of creation in the Jewish and broader world.

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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.