Posts Tagged ‘Jewish Journeying’


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.


Dropped Calls and the Challenge of Jewish Discontinuity

October 11, 2009

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

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

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

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


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.


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!


The Fill-up and the Top-off (of Jewish Fuel Tanks)

October 2, 2008

Writing this post from the West Coast, my mind is still thinking of things back east – my family, my friends, and my gas shortage.

Wait – my gas shortage?

Yes, for those who have not heard, Atlanta is in the midst of a terrible gas shortage, the lingering consequences of the one-two punch of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike on the Gulf Coast refinery operations. For almost two weeks Atlanta has been suffering though a gas shortage, the like of which that hasn’t been seen since the Carter administration – empty tanks, long lines and rising frustrations.  The other evening on our way home from Rosh Hashana dinner my wife and I drove around for 45 minutes looking for a gas station that was (1) open and (2) had a line less then thirty cars deep. Suffice it to say after passing over twenty gas stations we finally gave up (and less an 1/8 of a tank of gas for our effort).

Now there are several reasons why the gas shortage has continued, and much of it has to do with the hurricane-induced shortage of gasoline deliveries to service stations.  Of course there is also the overarching addiction that our country (and commuter-filled Atlanta) has to automobiles and the gasoline that powers them. But what I find equally if not more frustrating is the fact that the magnitude of the shortage has been increased by the behavior of so many motorists who ceaselessly stop to “top-off” their tanks to make sure that their tank is never less than full. Even if they don’t have the necessity to fill-up, many drivers – motivated by fear – are nonetheless exacerbating the shortage by constantly diminishing the supplies as soon as they arrive by “topping-off” their tank. Now for many drivers who use their vehicles all day to perform their jobs, a full tank is a legitimate concern. But for many others it is not. And this irrational demand takes a substantial toll on the limited supply and exacerbates the shortage.

So, while I was waiting in line the other day to fill up my tank, and now again as I write this post, I can’t help but compare and contrast the way drivers in Atlanta are dealing with filling up their gas tanks with the way so many Jews fill up (or don’t fill up) their personal “Jewish” tanks.

Think of each Jew as a vehicle on a Jewish journey and his/her neshema, or soul, is the tank where they store their Jewish fuel. No less than the gasoline we put in our cars, the Jewish moments of learning, caring, creating and praying fuel those Jewish journeyers onward on their chosen paths. There are plenty of ‘service stations’ along those journeys, and there are different types of experiences that serve as that Jewish fuel. Some are high-octane and some are regular. Some stations are cheaper than others, and some have better customer service. We pass them everyday (or at least have the opportunity to pass them) and sometimes we stop in to top-off our tanks, and sometimes we don’t.  Just like a few of us do with our cars, some of us drive around with our Jewish neshemot on almost empty, and some of us make sure our tanks are always filled.

But in thinking about the gasoline shortage back in Atlanta, what I am wondering is what will it take to create an environment where, just like the gas stations in Atlanta, Jews are willing to wait in line to fill-up and top-off their Jewish experiences. What would it take to motivate those individuals to seek out those Jewish moments with a craving and exasperation they express when seeking ever-so-scarce gasoline?   What kind of Jewish experiences will it take, what kind of Jewish community must we build, to inspire a sense of urgency to fill our Jewish tanks every chance we get?

As I noted above, certainly one thing the Jewish community as a whole should be mindful of is to create a Jewish infrastructure that supports ‘alternative’ approaches of Jewish experience. Much like the mantra of alternative fuels for our automobiles, we should not be too dependent on any one kind of Jewish experience, because when the quality is diminished or there is difficulty in accessing a particular experience, sometimes people just… well… run out.  Instead we need to encourage alternative approaches to providing people the Jewish fuel to fill up their neshema.  Then, in embracing these new approaches, they might find it easier to fill-up and top off, and have a greater desire to do so.

We also must continue to innovate new ideas and new ways to deliver the existing approaches to Jewish experience. Not all that is old is bad (just like not all that is new is good), and we should be mindful that as much as we need to reimagine new experiences, we also need to refine aspects of traditional experiences. Refine them in ways that create demand, not just panic, joy not frustration.

So back to thinking homeward… hopefully in a few days the gas shortage will end and we will be back to our normal ways of consuming fuel. But hopefully this momentary experience with our irrational demand for fossil fuel for our car engines will remind us of the need for our Jewish fuel used in very important engines… engines that take us into our individual and collective Jewish futures.


On Kosher Megastores and Jewish Megatrends

August 11, 2008

Let’s be honest, we have some serious issues facing us as a Jewish people. Intermarriage rates are skyrocketing, Jewish philanthropy is struggling to adapt new challenges and corruption in Israel threatens to diminish our opinion of the success of political Zionism. Oh, and not to mention the dramas related to conversions and agriprocessors.  But tucked in one corner of the Jewish world there is discussion about what appears to be something dreadful about to occur to the Jewish community in Brooklyn – the opening of a high-end Kosher food megastore.

Really?   I mean, is it really that bad?

While I sometimes have sticker shock at the prices of gourmet items at Whole Foods and other high-end supermarkets, I only have myself to blame when I pay those prices. And deep down, I know that I can get high quality food at my regular grocery stores and neighborhood delis as well. But you know what? At Whole Foods, they make their food look so…well…good.  So good that I have to remind myself that just because it looks good doesn’t make it healthy. And just because it is displayed in the right lighting doesn’t make it low fat.  I know all that – but I still can’t help but occasionally stop in and pick up a bag of groceries that may cost a little more than I want to pay, but are exactly what I want to have at the exact time I decide I want to have them. And that look good.

So back to the opening of the new kosher megastore in Brooklyn. In many ways, I can understand the feelings of those who lament the opening of one more big store crowding out the smaller stores that have been around for a long time. And I also bristle at use of the word “schlocky” that the owner of the new store uses to describe the smaller stores and delis (perhaps “quaint” would have been a better word). But there is nothing stopping the people who want to shop at those smaller stores from continuing to shop at them, and even if those stores struggle at first, they ultimately may find that they are challenged to become more responsive to the changing tastes of their customer.  These small stores may find that they are going to be just fine without adapting to new approaches of stocking, new food displays and new sales strategies, but maybe they will be even better if they do adapt. And even though there may be a lot of history in some of these small stores, there may not be much of a future if they are not mindful of the changes and challenges they face.

That isn’t something to lament, it is something to understand.

And understanding this little microcosm of our Jewish world can help us understand the challenges we are facing elsewhere in our Jewish community. We need to understand how Amercian Jews embrace their Judaism – many want the megastore buffet of well-lighted, well-packaged Jewish experiences. Some want to get their Judaism at the storied (and sometimes quaint) places filled with Jewish pasts. We might disagree about how we want our Jewish experiences, but the important thing is that we want them in the first place. And while we don’t need to adapt certain core aspects and beliefs of Jewish life to meet changing tastes, we do need to have our Jewish institutions adapt to the ways Jews encounter those core aspects and beliefs. Just like the small stores and delis in Midwood, Brooklyn, the synagogues and Jewish organizations of America will need to adapt in order to survive, or alternatively be prepared to meet the challenge of maintaining relevance in an environment increasingly competitive for peoples Jewish attentions.

So perhaps the opening of a new kosher megastore in Brooklyn isn’t the worst of the challenges we face as a Jewish people. But it does remind us of the need to meet the challenge we do face – creating the types of Jewish experiences that keep people coming back for more. And there is nothing schlocky about that.


Jewish Journeying With Purpose (and Peoplehood With Meaning)

August 3, 2008

As I referenced in my earlier post critiquing the current over-emphasis of the concept of “Peoplehood” in attempting to framing solutions for the Jewish future, I have been considering my own theory of “Jewish Journeying” in light of some of the stellar essays I have recently read. Among the best was the essay “Peoplehood With Purpose” by Yossi Abramowitz in the Spring edition of Contact.  In the middle of his essay Abramowitz makes some substantial statements with respect to the concept of Peoplehood, its importance and its role in the future of Jewish life. In particular, Abramowitz states:

  • “Jewish Peoplehood – and its universalistic, noble purpose – must replace the eroding definition of Jews as essentially a faith community.”
  • “Neither faith nor nationalism can continue to be the grand, unifying field theories of world Jewry. Only Peoplehood can, because it is inherently inclusive and encompasses religion, nationalism and culture.”
  • “The goal should be for a critical mass of our institutions, endeavors, philanthropists and leaders to be engines and agents of Jewish Peoplehood.”
  • “Peoplehood is… an organizing principle to recalibrate and synchronize the Jewish enterprise and philanthropy. It is our future blueprint.”

Abramowitz then summarizes, in a clear and convincing fashion that “the purpose – the essence of Jewish Peoplehood – is to be an ongoing, distinctive catalyst for the advancement of morality in civilization.

However, I am not convinced.

If you take all five of the statements I cite above, and recalibrate them into a summary statement of Abramowitz’s argument, it might read as follows:

A critical mass of our institutions, endeavors, philanthropists and leaders should become engines and agents in replacing the eroding definition of Jews as essentially a faith community with a conceptual understanding of the Jewish people as an ongoing distinctive catalyst of the advancement of morality in civilization. As a result, these actions will create an inherently inclusive conception of the Jewish people, encompassing religion, nationalism and culture, and serve to recalibrate and synchronize Jewish enterprise and philanthropy.

That is a pretty big statement, and I must admit, I really like it. But here’s the problem, I don’t think it works.

Why?  Quite simply because I think the catalytic nature of Jews is not simply from their distinctive values, but from their distinctive experiences as well. The catalytic impact on history and society has not only been by the values of the Jews, but by the “otherness” that has often resulted from adherence to those values.  The experiences of the Jews are not just ritualistic or faith-oriented, but also social and cultural. Not only are they communal, but also deeply personal.  Some of the most catalytic Jews were transformed into those catalysts by an experience (not a knowing expression of Jewish Peoplehood) that triggered an unawakened component of their personal value system.  And therefore it was not the overarching Jewish system of values, nor was it an awesome sense of Peoplehood that triggered the development of their own personal identity, but rather, it was a personal experience in their life journey, and as Jews, it was part of their Jewish Journey.

So while I agree with much of what Abramowitz articulates with respect to his conception of Peoplehood, I once again have to state that I don’t think that we should over-emphasize that concept at the expense of understanding Jewish Journeying as a central concept of Jewish life.

In understanding Jewish Journeying, we can understand the limitations of what we can achieve by focusing on Peoplehood exclusively.  The paths of individual Jews are distinctive journeys, and although we may try to infuse them with an understanding of Jewish faith, nationalism, history and culture, it is their journey and we can only act as influencers. But we need to be tactical in the way we endeavor to influence the identity of those on a journey, and using categorical terms such as Peoplehood is not tactical.  It is universal.  Which is all well and good when we are debating conceptual frameworks, but in practice it is a non-starter.

Abramowitz correctly articulates that Peoplehood “will not work as a rallying cry to the Jewish public, which is post-tribal in its inclinations and commitments.”  I whole-heartedly agree.  But then why focus on this concept as an organizing principle when we know its organizational utility is limited?  Each of those post-tribal Jews may not resonate with a conception of Peoplehood that is vague and amorphous, but they can inherently identify with the idea of journeying. They are each on an individual journey, emotionally, socially, religiously and Jewishly.  In the way Peoplehood won’t resonate, Jewish journeying will.

Let’s go back to Abramowitz’s statement that “Peoplehood is… an organizing principle to recalibrate and synchronize the Jewish enterprise and philanthropy. It is our future blueprint.” How would I revise that statement? I might say that Peoplehood should be a central experiential element of Jewish Journeying (as opposed to an organizing principle). And rather than a blueprint (which implies some sort of construction) it should be viewed as the topography of Jewish Journeying. Accordingly, I would then propose that the development of an individual-oriented understanding of Jewish journeying be an organizing principle used to calibrate and synchronize Jewish institutions.  Before we start understanding Peoplehood, we must understand the journeys of the people who comprise it.  And before we try to frame for individual Jews their experiences in the context of Peoplehood, we should use an understanding of their Jewish Journeying to better frame our understanding of how to meet them at the “peoplehood points” of their journeys.

Then we will understand Jewish Journeying with greater purpose, and an understanding of Peoplehood with greater meaning.