Posts Tagged ‘Building Community’


Posters Without End: The Art of ‘The Conversation’

September 15, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

L’shana Tova Tikatevu!


Itta Dozntmatter about Federation 2.0: A Response

May 31, 2009

“As an essayist I don’t believe in the fiction of an anonymous observer. Rather than the sham of objectivity, I think you should put your perspective up front. That’s only fair to the reader.” – Ralph Wiley

One of the most fascinating aspects of writing a blog is the nature of the comments that one receives after a post.  Generally after I post a new essay I receive several comments, some of which are publicly posted to the blog and some of which are emailed to me directly. Oftentimes the comments via email are done in such a manner because the commentator for one reason or another would prefer a direct conversation (or observation) as opposed to a more public contribution to a discussion I am proposing. In each of those cases I have kept (and will always keep) those email conversations confidential. I also have not (and will not) share feedback I receive without permission.  My feeling is that I am not a reporter with anonymous sources, nor is this blog a conduit for me to refract or reframe the comments of others in a manner of my choosing.  This blog reflects my own thoughts;  those who choose to join a conversation can do so publicly via the comment function or with me directly.

However, just as I respect the desires of those who wish to remain confidential when they contact me, I do not provide a forum on my blog for “anonymous” comments. When I receive comments that come from a source that is identifiable, I post them regardless of content and without edit.  When the comment comes from an anonymous email address or a disguised one, I do not post it publicly.  However, since I have not made this practice clear, I have posted the one recent anonymous comment I have received (since it was intended to be public), but going forward I will not post anonymous comments.

The first (and last) anonymous post on my blog is from a commentator named “Itta Dozntmatter” who wrote from an anonymous email address.  Itta (for lack of another name) posted an anonymous comment to my recent Federation 2.0 post and the comment (in its entirety) is as follows:

“Seth –

Are you working with anyone to accomplish this or are you just sitting back spewing ideas and waiting for someone to ask you to actually get your hands dirty? Stop writing, stop pontificating and actually produce a product and put your words into action. You are beginning to sound like the boy who cried wolf!”

Itta – as I do with everyone who contacts me about the blog, I want to thank you. First for reading the blog (I still marvel that people take the time to do so), and second for taking the time to comment. But moreover, you raise a good question, an interesting suggestion and a much-appreciated observation. I will address all three via the blog (since I don’t have your email to contact you directly).

1.    “Are you working with anyone to accomplish this or are you just sitting back spewing ideas and waiting for someone to ask you to actually get your hands dirty?” Itta – the answer to your question is yes to the first part and no to the second part.  As my peers here in Atlanta know (and as a cursory review of my bio would suggest) I am actively engaged inside the “established” Jewish community advancing many of the ideas that I suggest on this blog. I am always careful to note that the ideas in this blog are my own and are not intended to reflect the views of any particular organization. But make no misstate, as while serving as Vice Chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and as an engaged member of the Atlanta Jewish community, I actively speak about and advocate many of the ideas I discuss here.  I think there are numerous change agents in my own community (and elsewhere) that also share many of my same views, and as they contact me we begin to develop even more coordinated discussions about some of the actions I propose. So yes, I am working with others, but not nearly as many as I need. There is a reason I openly post my email – I welcome others to contact me to join a very important discussion in process.

As to the second part of your question, no I am not waiting for someone to ask me to get my hands dirty, I am asking others to get their hands dirty with me.  Contact me and be willing to be part of a group in Atlanta that helps create Federation 2.0 in our community (because I believe the Federation professionals are willing to create that vision hand in hand with local change agents).  But for those not in Atlanta, also contact me and be willing to be part of a national working group of change agents that work in support of a renewed Federation movement (as oppose to working to only eulogize it). And Itta, I would be delighted to have an open conversation about what “getting our hands dirty” means – even if we have different views, I am certain we would agree that the more hands getting dirty the better.

2.    “Stop writing, stop pontificating and actually produce a product and put your words into action.” So I am not certain that stopping writing is the best suggestion, and I very much try not to pontificate. But the idea of producing a product is one that I very much agree with, which is why I wrote and published Federation 2.0: Reimagining the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.  It has plenty of observations, but plenty of actionable steps too. I continue to use that document as a blueprint for many of the actions I believe we need to take locally and nationally, and Itta – I welcome you and others to take that paper, find a piece of it that resonates with you, and lets’ get to work. A committee of one is not very productive, and a voice with no chorus is not very loud. As I now work to develop the local and national working groups that I propose, I am hoping that many of my words and ideas do get converted into actions. But as I am fond of saying, in this kitchen we need more chefs, not less.  Yes, I would like to see the changes I am proposing, but not to the exclusion of change others are seeking. Federation 2.0 isn’t intended to be only my vision, it is intended to be a model in which my vision, your vision and other individuals’ visions of the Federation movement are all shared, evaluated and implemented.  But before we implement tactics, we need to develop a strategy, and before we develop the strategy we need to identify some common principles of what our renewed movement will look like and feel like. The development of those principles comes from a discussion.  And a discussion is the very first action we need to take, but it needs to be an expeditious and inclusive action.  Sometimes I feel like I am having a one way conversation, I would be delighted if you joined me in this first action step, and then each of the action steps that follows.

3.    “You are beginning to sound like the boy who cried wolf!” Itta – thank you, that is good feedback. One of the hardest parts about writing a blog is the development and refinement of voice. To who am I writing and why am I writing at all? These questions vex me often when I sit down to write. Equally challenging is knowing how my voice is heard and interpreted – am I seen as a thoughtful critic that believes in the Federation movement but concerned that it has been transformed into a “system”?  I hope so. Am I a person who likes combining my experiences (good and bad) with ideas in my head in a thoughtful way then transforming those thoughts into action?  I am.   Do I always get the balance right?  Probably not. In the words of Whitman, I contain multitudes, and this blog reflects many (but not all) of them. You are telling me I am beginning to sound shrill, and that is important to know. Even if that opinion is not universally shared, I am certain it is shared by others. And it is a good reminder to me that I need to continue to develop my voice, and balance my thinking with doing.  But one disagreement – unlike the story about the boy that cries wolf, I am not lying – there really is a wolf. It is called apathy and it is already scattering much of the flock.

Lastly, I am fascinated by the anonymous name you chose for yourself.  As it is written, the name we make for ourselves says a great deal about who we are, what we do and how people perceive us. I write this blog under my name because I am hopeful of change I propose and I believe that my thoughts and words matter in helping create change, as will my actions.

I don’t know what your name is – you say Itta Dozntmatter.

My name is Seth Cohen – and I say it does.


Spirit in the Night: Springsteen on Jewish Community

August 26, 2008

This past Thursday I attended an old-fashioned spiritual revival. It wasn’t at a synagogue or a church and barely a mention of God was heard. But from the moment it started until the last word was spoken, the crowd that assembled was held in an uplifting emotional rapture that stirred the heart, strengthened the soul and made everyone move to the rhythm of the night.

The man who led the revival wasn’t a man of cloth (unless you include denim) and wasn’t passing around a collection plate or tzedakah box at the end of his sermon (unless you include references to the local food bank). But for a large portion of the people in the room, the man up front was guiding everyone thorough an experience that most would characterize as religious.

So who was the leader of this spiritual revival?

Bruce Springsteen.

That’s right, Bruce Springsteen. If you have never seen Springsteen in concert you might not appreciate my description, but if you have seen Bruce in concert, even once, you understand what I mean.

As a Northeast kid growing up, it’s hard not to have the Boss in your blood, so I admit I am partial to the man and his legendary band. The Nashville concert I attended with my friend Adam Rubin on Thursday night was the umpteenth time I had seen him in live and, like the Atlanta show a few months earlier, Bruce didn’t disappoint. Listening to a 3-hour set of classics, mixed with rarities and new classics, the audience was delivered a rare treat of spirit, nostalgia, passion and promise. We laughed at stories, sang our (secular) psalms, clapped our hands and praised the past while screaming for the future. We danced in the aisles…even in the dark.

There was definitely a spirit in the night.

Exhilarated and exhausted, on Friday morning I drove the 3 ½ hour trip back to Atlanta and my family, but on the way home I couldn’t help but think about the show the night before and the lessons it held. Not just how to put on a good rock concert, but also how to connect people to their communities, and particularly the Jewish community. What are the lessons that Bruce could teach professionals and volunteers in the Jewish community about how to touch people in a way that revives their Jewish spirit? Using some of the lyrics from the song the Boss sang that night in Nashville, I offer a few thoughts…

“When I’m out in the streets, I walk the way I wanna walk. When I’m out in the street, I talk the way I wanna talk” (from Out in the Streets).

Lesson #1: People use their own actions and language to define who they are. If we want to walk with them and talk with them, we need to understand them first.

Our Jewish community is filled with a diverse group of Jews with individual experiences and aspirations. They are complex and constantly shifting. If we want to understand what will get them to come in off the street, we need to understand how they act and talk when they are out on the street (and in their homes, and in their social groups).

“Jack the Rabbit and Weak Knees Willie, you know they’re gonna be there; Ah, sloppy Sue and Big Bones Billie, they’ll be comin’ up for air” (from Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)).

Lesson #2: All types of people (and I mean all types) will come out for experiences in the community, so if we want them to come back, we need to have diverse options for their diverse needs and desires.

Members of the Jewish community, especially younger generations, don’t always conform to what the community expects, they expect the community to conform its offerings to their expectations. They have different names than they once had (because of intermarriage) and they have different ways of communicating (because of technological innovation). When they finally come up for air to breathe some breaths of Jewish life, we need to have what they are seeking – or they will seek it elsewhere.

“Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night” (from Thunder Road).

Lesson #3: Have faith in what lies ahead – when we create a constant culture of apprehension and fear about the state of our community, we leave little room for the faith in the magical future that lies ahead.

There is much to be concerned about with our collective Jewish future. How do we engage assimilation in different ways that may be more impactful? How do we prepare for the increasing number of Jewish elderly that we must care for? How do we help support a safe and strong State of Israel? But for all of those concerns, we must make sure that we don’t only focus on the challenges, but also the wondrous experiences of modern Jewish life. There are many magical experiences to have and share and we need to make sure that we encourage and embrace that culture as well.

“Someday girl I don’t know when, we’re gonna get to that place where we really want to go and we’ll walk in the sun” (from Born to Run).

Lesson #4: Community leadership needs to believe in the ability to reach the destination charted for the community, even if we can’t quite measure the timing of that arrival.

In our focus on measuring success in quantifiable terms we sometimes belie the faith we must have to assure the very same success we seek. Especially in the areas of Jewish engagement and enrichment, we need to look longer term with a degree of patience. And our funders (federations, foundations and otherwise) need to find some of that patience too while balancing it with the appropriate level of fiduciary oversight. We might not know when we will get ‘there,’ but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying, or that it will be any less wonderful when we do arrive at that place we seek.

“You can’t start a fire; you can’t start a fire without a spark” (from Dancing in the Dark).

Lesson #5: The rapturous flames of community do not start without instigation – they need a catalyst (or several).

Building community has a slow burning element to it, but it also sometimes requires a fanning of the flames. And those flames don’t always start without there being an encouragement of new ideas, new sparks, that help the burning to create community grow. We need to orient our community institutions to nurture these catalysts and to support them. Support isn’t just financial, it includes encouragement and mentoring too – but when the time for financial support does come we should not be overcautious. If we snuff out too many sparks we won’t have a fire that is growing.

“Mister I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man; and I believe in a promised land” (from Promised Land).

Lesson #6: We need to create personal and enduring relationships between individuals Jews and Israel that transcend childhood and teen experiences.

My friend Ken Stein often reminds me that while we must create connections with Israel at the teen level, we must not lose sight that it is when we create meaningful experiences that endure throughout adulthood we will truly be able deepen our relationships with Israel. So while we invest in programs like Birthright, we must also start younger and maintain those experiences far after the Birthright experience has ended. In our era of Jewish life we have witnessed the return of the Jewish People to the Promised Land- we need to continue to believe in its importance, and create avenues that strengthen that belief in youth and adults.

“I believe in the love that you gave me; I believe in the faith that could save me. I believe in the hope and I pray that some day it may raise me above these Badlands” (from Badlands).

Lesson #7: When building community, we must not lose sight of the religious and spiritual elements that give meaning to the Jewish faith.

There is more to the Jewish community than organizations, activities and experiences. There is also a faith, a belief system and a spiritual fabric, and we would be remiss not to emphasis those elements as we try to raise our community higher. Formal and informal spiritual networks are vitally important for the strengthening of our community because it is our collective faith that has helped us endure all these generations. Belief and prayer are important parts of Jewish life and we need to continue to embrace them as a way to encounter God as individuals and as a community.

“Sky of love, sky of tears (a dream of life); Sky of glory and sadness (a dream of life)” (from The Rising).

Lesson #8: The skyline of Jewish life is filled with love and glory even while it sometimes feels filled with tears and sadness. The key is continuing to dream of what Jewish life could be.

We often struggle with the tragedy of the Holocaust in Jewish history and life as well as seek understanding of the countless tragedies Jews have suffered in the past. We mustn’t lose sight of the experiences and lessons of being an afflicted people, but we shouldn’t let it cloud our ability of also being a dreaming people. A people of creators and inventors, and people that find joy in the everyday. We continue to dream of Jewish futures – near, far and ultimate. And we need to continue to keep painting the sky with those dreams even as we guard against the danger that often confronts us.

“Familiar faces around me; Laughter fills the air; Your loving grace surrounds me;
everybody’s here”
(from Mary’s Place).”

Lesson #9: The goal of building community is not just to collect as many names and emails as possible, but to bring people together for experiences of joy and the feeling of community.

Ask a dozen people how they define community and you get a dozen different responses. Often time one can describe community as a “know it when I feel it” answer. That is the way we need to remember the goal of community building – not just a means to an end, but an end to itself. When we are all together in community we are closer to God and the wonder of all of creation. Lists of names are important, but not as important as when they are all familiar names.

“We made a promise we swore we’d always remember; no retreat no surrender” (from No Surrender).

Lesson #10: Don’t quit.

Being Jewish isn’t always easy. And building Jewish community is even less easy. But it is meaningfully important – it is our great task as a people. We may struggle, but we mustn’t quit – regardless of the challenges.

So there you have it, some of the wisdom with a little bit of ‘drash thrown in for good measure. Whether you agree with all of the interpretations or none of them, one thing that we all can agree on is that a look at Bruce’s lyrics (and exhortations) present a distinct voice that is able to capture prophetic musings while rooting them in everyday struggles. He is a leader with a voice.

But not to be lost in our appreciation of Bruce is the recognition of the E Street Band. Every night, as Bruce tries to deliver his flock of fans to the Promised Land, the E Street Band is carrying Bruce too. He couldn’t do it without them. And that too is a reminder to all of us that even though we admire our leaders who find the voice to lead, the singer is just one part of a band. To make the music that moves us, it takes many instruments and rhythms, mostly in sync, but not necessarily always. Some times the sound that comes from the band is mixed, but if it’s loud enough it still might push us through the darkness on the edge of town into the promised land. And even the followers of the band help push the whole crowd forward…dancing, swinging and urging the revival to continue.

Like the fans at a Springsteen concert urging the rock n’ roll revival to continue, we all must take a role in the continuation of the revival of our Jewish community. Leaders, band members, followers and fans – we all have a role in building community. Nobody can do it alone… not even Bruce Springsteen.

But it sure is fun watching him try.