Voting for Flawed Leadership

Sex scandals. Abuse of power. Arranged “hits”. Family conflicts. Challenges to the country’s security. Endless battles with foreign forces. Clashes between religious forces and the state.

Think we’re talking about the American political scene and campaigns?  Guess again.

These issues are representative of the rulership of King David, who is described as the forerunner of the Messiah in Judaism!

During a community-wide series of events, led by Temple Kol Ami Emanu-El and its Women of Reform Judaism chapter (and with the proud partnership of Orloff Central Agency for Jewish Education and others), Geraldine Brooks’ remarkable book, The Secret Chord, became a catalyst for exploring King David and the biblical books of Samuel and Kings across the Broward County, FL area

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Interesting how, in an election year that is presenting candidates (at many levels) with significant character and ethical flaws, so few people have bothered to look back to the Tanakh / Bible to see what it has to say about leaders with flaws.

My takeaways from the Biblical texts (and I’d like to know yours) are:

  • The characteristics of a person that bring him/her to a position of power are also the same character traits that can easily get him/her into trouble
  • Leaders aren’t perfect. They are flawed. Because they are human
  • One, or even a series of, mistakes and errors of judgement do not necessarily disqualify a person from ruling a country.
  • Failure to acknowledge mistakes and errors, and continuing to deny any wrongs, might disqualify that person
  • Good leaders take critics, especially critics with a solid moral compass, seriously
  • If you look for perfection in who you elect to lead, you’re going to be disappointed consistently
  • Even the person whose name is associated with the coming of a messianic era, was deeply flawed, yet also a great man

What are your observations?

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Building the Embracing Jewish Community for Tomorrow (and Now)

Earlier this month, a dozen of the leading educational directors from synagogues across Broward County, FL joined in this year’s opening meeting of their network, housed and staffed at Orloff Central Agency for Jewish Education. Joining with us was a representative of Jewish Federation of Broward County, who challenged the group with the following: What is the best way for the community to invest its money to build the reach of synagogues’ educational programs?

It’s a huge enough question, yet it only touches on part of the challenge that we, as a community face. For many in our Jewish community, the question isn’t “where in the Jewish community should I connect?” but “how does connecting with a Jewish community add value to my, and my family’s life?” This question is not unlike the questions raised by the best-selling author, Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone, bemoaning the decline of communities and their attraction. We can curse the darkness, blaming this decline on generational factors, synagogue and organizational dues, the online world, financial considerations and more. But, as one of our insightful educators pointed out, we have also failed to recognize that the nature of what a community is (or should be) has changed drastically.

Based on recent writings and research that I’ve perused, I would like to humbly suggest that we, who are invested in Jewish communities, consider the following as part of a plan:

Stop and listen to the folks that you would like to engage. Do it before jumping into action with marketing and outreach. Can they identify something missing from their lives? What are they asking for that we aren’t providing? What are the causes that do engage them? What are the things they will leave their digital lives for? Are you noticing generational differences in these answers? Once you get answers, identify how you can change your community in ways that meet the needs of today and tomorrow.

Welcome everybody. We’ve opened the doors to community, but we need to continually open the doors even wider. Are you sure that your organization doesn’t put obstacles or fail to meet the needs of the broadest possible number of participants? Can everyone find programs and a chevra (smaller, more intimate community) within your community: Singles, childless adults, empty nesters, LGBTQ members, Jews of color, non-Jewish members of families in which there is a committed Jew? You don’t need to be everything to everyone, but we do need to work together as a community to identify where everyone has a place and offer opportunities to those who may not find their place in our own chevra.

Put membership on the back burner. I still remember with astonishment the synagogue welcoming committee that came to my door in one community and handed me membership forms and information about cemetery plots (!) before asking us whether we needed anything in our new home. Create value and relationships first. Do the ask much later.

Bring resources, people and organizations together. The competition is not between one synagogue or Jewish organization and another. The competition is between Jewish organizations and opting out entirely. Recruiting? Join forces with other synagogues and organizations. The people opting out aren’t interested in the subtle differences between one brand and another. They want to know why they should be engaged at all. Let’s band together and show them what a Jewish community can do for them and for their world.

Community building is not on its face the goal of a Jewish educational organization, but in reality it is what we do. Yes, we offer an incredible variety of educational programs, opportunities to grow and work with other Jewish professionals to expand access to learning in Broward County, but what we really do is make sure there is a place for every learner in our community. For those that are curious about the basic, for those that are looking for something more advanced, for teens who aren’t sure what they are looking for – we are offering them a chance and a place to learn and connect. We are offering them a chance at community.

Let’s band together and show what a Jewish community can do for all Jewish people and for their world.

In Memoriam – September 11

It is 9-11, 15 years after a group of terrorists attacked American and the American way of life.

I am spending the day at the Day School Leadership Training Institute’s Lay Leadership Institute, a program of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education.  The partners in this program include Jewish Federation of South Florida, Friedman Commission for Jewish Education of the Palm Beaches, and Orloff Central Agency for Jewish Education (with the support of Jewish Federation of Broward County).

This is part of my response to the attacks of 9-11. We are joining in strengthening American Jewish Education across two South Florida counties.

Please join me:  Find something today that supports and affirms freedom, education, peace and all other values that were under attack fifteen years ago. May the memories of those who were murdered then serve as an inspiration and a blessing.

Joe Maddon and the Art of Jewish Leadership

Last night I watched my beloved Chicago Cubs win a truly strange baseball game. After falling behind early, with a new pitcher on the team allowing three two-run home runs in the first three innings, the Cubbies caught up in the bottom of the ninth inning, and went on to win in the 12th inning.

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Some of the highlights:

Pitcher Travis Wood got the Cubs out of a jam in the 6th inning. In order to keep him in the game, manager Joe Maddon moved him to left field, where he made a spectacular catch, then returned to pitch the Cubs out of another jam.

Hector Rondon, recently replaced as the Cubs closer, wasn’t supposed to pitch at all. But when the game went into overtime, he pitched two great innings and earned the win.

The Cubs used every position player, with some playing two or even three positions during the course of the game. When position players were depleted, Joe went to his pitching staff for pinch hitters.

The close of the game was Joe Maddon calling on Jon Lester, a career .051 hitter, to bat with a runner on 3rd in the 12th. With two strikes against him, Lester laid down a bunt, batting in the winning run.

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Today, media (including social media) is abuzz with praise and disbelief of Joe Maddon. He’s being called a miracle worker, iconoclast, genius and more. He’s also, correctly, being seen as a great leader, which he is.

Here’s what we can and should learn, as Jewish communal leaders, from Joe Maddon:

  • There is no inherent value in being an iconoclast. There is, however, great value in not accepting the status quo as being necessarily the best way to get things done. Challenging “the way we’ve always done it” makes sense in a world of change. And if “the way we’ve always done it” leads to a 100+ year absence from the World Series, then for sure the time has come to question conventional wisdom and practice.
  • Make sure your people (professionals and volunteers) know how to do more than one thing. The Travis Woods of our organizations will be the superstars.
  • Have a strong bench. We may have great staffs or great boards. But unless we have great people waiting to jump in, we risk depleting our human resources when the going gets tough.
  • Make bold moves and take calculated risks. You never know whether that .051 hitter can lay down a game-winning walk-off RBI bunt unless you give him a shot.
  • Bring fun back into your Jewish organization game. Joe Maddon, when interviewed after the game said, “I hope you enjoyed it”. Right. It’s sports. A game. You’re supposed to have fun watching it and even playing it.  While Jewish communal life is not a game, it should include joy and celebration.
  • Be purpose driven. When Joe told Javier Baez jokingly to “try not to suck”, it went from being a joke to becoming a fundraiser for Maddon’s foundation. And, as any good leader, behind him are players who have been encouraged to pursue their own charitable and volunteer good works.

Maybe Joe Maddon and his team will bring a championship to Chicago, maybe not. But he has already blessed us with some wisdom about what it means to lead.

 

Jewish Education and Engagement Needs to Get its Chalutz (Pioneer) Game On

In 1988, a group of American Jewish educational leaders, working in tandem with a group of Israeli leaders, took a huge gamble. Envisioning a time at which the Holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel would be a faint memory, they launched what in today’s world would be referred to as a “start-up initiative” and the March of the Living was born. The American Jewish educators who stuck their necks out and innovated (nobody was using that terminology back then) risked a great deal. Some put their organizations in debt. Some took so many staff that they practically shuttered their offices for months at a time. Some of those pioneers are retired. Some are even deceased. Yet, the traction was such that this educational program continues to thrive and to evolve 28 years later, and impacts thousand of American Jewish teens annually.

Other pioneers of that era whose efforts continue to pay off include those who founded Alexander Muss High School in Israel and more recently Birthright Israel. Experiment in Congregational Education is another innovation whose work, while very different today, spawned new approaches.

Surprisingly though, in our day, when innovation is the catchword in our society as a whole, our communities are uneven in taking calculated risks to try to change outcomes [i.e., if you do things the way you’ve always done them, you’ll get the results you’ve always gotten].  Some communities have gone all out to back new initiatives in congregational learning. Some (including my own) are supporting blended learning through initiatives like Shalom Learning. Some (again including my own) are moving from tired models of teen education and engagement to exciting, hands-on models that include Community Internships, Jewish Service Learning, Jewish Teen Philanthropy, Jewish Environmental Learning and more.

At the same time, there are those communities that have been slower to invest in new approaches, preferring safe ground even if numbers decline.

We as a Jewish educational community need to look for and invest in the next big things. Innovative approaches will look different from the chalutzim of the March of the Living or High School in Israel. This generation of chalutzim are likely to be much more local and are as likely to be independent entrepreneurs as they are to be the “establishment” organizations that dived into the March in the 80’s. But our establishment (and yes, I am a proud leader of an establishment organization) needs to perform an act of tzimtzum (to borrow the Kabbalistic term), retracting to give room for new entrepreneurs with experimental ideas, to gather momentum and to create impact. We need to be bold and brave enough to make our institutions into laboratories in which new ways of educating are tested and proved.

The future of Jewish education and engagement depends on it.

 

It’s Friday. And What We’ve Learned is Sad, Scary and a Wake Up Call

On my social media feeds most Fridays, I post “It’s Friday, what have we learned this week?” It’s become oddly famous, having been quoted as a sort of best practice in a few books and online publications.

But I took a week off. Instead, I posted that in the past month, what we in America have learned is about violence and killings. Now, I don’t care about your political views, your views on gun control, your race, your gender or orientation. I don’t care what you think of President Obama, Senator Clinton or Donald Trump. Today, it doesn’t matter. Not one bit.

People were murdered because they were gay. People were murdered because they were police officers. People lost their lives because of the unequal way in which deadly force is sometimes applied by law enforcement.

The lessons as we go into Shabbat, the day of Shalom, completion and peace:

  •  Life is holy.
  • All humanity is created in God’s image.
  • Every time a person is killed, it diminishes God’s presence.
  • Every one of us. EVERY one of us must do something to make it stop and do something that adds holiness back into the country and the world.

May our commitments and actions lead us to a better world, speedily and in our days.

Shabbat Shalom.

The Orlando Terror Attack Requires the Jewish Community to Broaden its Prayers

The mass murders that took place in a club in Orlando occurred on the Jewish holiday of Shavuot. What that means is that on the following day, synagogues throughout the world had these options available to them:

  • They could have recited the mi sheberach prayer, included on Shabbat and holidays on behalf of those who are sick or injured, and be sure to include those wounded in the attack
  • They could have recited Yizkor, memorializing those who have died, and specifically memorialized those murdered
  • Their rabbis could have tossed out their pre-written sermons and instead discussed hatred in the world, and how we need to spread a Torah of love
  • They could do little or nothing to note this tragedy

I’m going to guess that few did the first (mi sheberach), fewer did the second (Yizkor), some percentage did the third (re-writing their d’var Torah) and a significant number did nothing or next to nothing.

Admittedly, at least in traditional synagogues, doing either of the first two requires a degree of creative thought and innovation that are often discouraged by congregations themselves. Many of the prayers, particularly in more traditional liturgies, are oriented primarily, if not exclusively, inwards, towards the Jewish community and its members. There is even a pretty good historical reason for some of that inwardness, especially since the origins of Yizkor’s recitation on holidays has some connection to memorializing those who were murdered in anti-Semitic attacks that often were linked in time to these holidays. Frankly, most of our prayers were written at a time in which the “us vs. them” mindset was understandable. While some elements of that type of societal view still exist, in communities in which most of us live, we happily interface in positive ways with those of other faith and ethnic communities.

If we fail to create liturgical approaches that express care and concern for others who are not of the Jewish people, we are missing the opportunity to show unity with others in our world who are being targeted by the same individuals and extremist groups that seek the harm of Jews and Israelis.

I am neither a poet nor a writer of liturgy, but I’d like to suggest what prayers, specifically for victims of terror, might look like, while keeping them close to their traditional forms:

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Mi Sheberach

May the God who blessed our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, and who is the source of life who created all humanity in His image bless and heal those who are ill or who have been injured [specifics of terror incident may be inserted here]. May the Holy Blessed One in His compassion cause their health to be restored and their strength to be revived. May God swiftly send them complete and speedy healing of body and spirit, and let us say, Amen.

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Yizkor

May God remember the souls of those who have been killed [in defense of freedom / as victims of terror / etc.] who have gone to their eternal rest. In their memory I pledge to donate charity. Through my prayers and actions, may their souls be bound up in the bond of life with the souls of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, and with the righteous men and women of all nations who are in the Garden of Eden and let us say, Amen.

I sincerely hope that those who are more skilled than me will write their versions of these prayers and, more importantly, will promote the inclusion of all people who have been victims of violent hate crimes.

Jewish Folk Religion and the Internet

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Judaism is a wonderfully odd thing. Those who want their religion to be more rationalistic can find a home in the thought of Maimonides, the Lithuanian yeshiva world or the Reform movement. If you like your Judaism with more of a mystical bent, Hasidism, some Sephardi schools of thought and Renewal might work for you.  It’s a big tent, with plenty of room for you.

It is particularly in that mystical group, though, that Jewish folk religion finds its most fertile ground. People who hang their hats there are not as bound by the need for extreme rationality and are fine with what others would refer to as “magical thinking.” Some of the most ingrained Jewish practices grew in the mystical, Hasidic and Sephardi world (and were opposed by the above-mentioned rationalists). For instance, hakafot with dancing on Simchat Torah and tashlich on Rosh Hashana were practices the Jewish public wanted, even as the rationalist rabbis opposed them. To this day, the rationalists are appalled by kapparot (or kapores, as they are more commonly known), decrying pagan and other roots. But not only has the practice not gone away, it seems to be growing. Not cutting the hair of boys until they turned three years of age was rarely encountered outside of some Hasidic and Sephardi circles just 25 years ago. Today, it’s found surprising popularity beyond those limited groups. And even the rationalists among us can’t leave Israel without a red band on their (ok, OUR) arms, regardless of knowing that the woman who tied them on us purchased the string at a plain old fabric store.

In the old countries, folk practices were often localized. They were spread by traveling merchants (indeed one theory behind Rabbi Gershom’s Ashkenazi decree against polygamy was that it was in response to travelers who encountered and tried to adopt polygamy on the road). But the cross-pollenation of practices and ideas took time to travel.

In today’s connected world, Jewish folk practices spread like wildfire. When I see what to me is a new Jewish practice, I invariably try to track down its origin. More often than not, the person who has just posted the latest and greatest Jewish practice has no idea where it came from.

These days, my Jewish social media is blanketed with folk practices that I had never heard of:  Baking challah as a “segulah“, a type of transfer of positive energy, often on behalf of an ill person. Schlissel challah, challah with either a key hidden in it, or in the shape of a key, again as a segulah. These, as well as the earlier mentioned customs, were largely unknown outside of Chasidic and mystical enclaves in places like Jerusalem, Tzfat or (l’havdil), Brooklyn.

Is the proliferation of folk traditions and practices good or bad for the Jews and for the world? The answer is probably: both.

What’s good about it:  Well, frankly, some of the traditions are just plain interesting, and they do capture our attention and get us thinking. Also, in a world that spins out of control, these practices give us the sense that we can do things that make a difference. They’re rituals, and studies show that rituals can be healthy for us emotionally.

The bad news: These practices blur the lines between what is “authentically Jewish” and what is a folk practice (assuming that such a line ever existed…). People who perform them often do so mindlessly, without meditating on their value. And, when the action doesn’t have the desired impact (for example, when baking magic challah doesn’t result in a person’s healing), it can diminish a person’s belief in all Jewish ritual.

Lesson learned:  Nobody, not Maimonides, not you and me, not even the Reform folks, are going to do away with folk religion among our Jewish people. What we need to do is to constantly ask the questions: Why are you doing this? Where did this practice originate? Are you sure this is a legitimate Jewish practice?  And when the answer often is: I don’t know, we need to take a deep breath and appreciate that these rituals reflect the fact that being Jewish is nothing more or less than the Jewish people’s attempts to figure out what the universe wants from them.

Sesame Street, Jeremiah and Blogs

I am a pretty committed reader of online journals and blogs. It’s one of the ways that I stay current with my areas of interest:  Jewish education, Jewish life, innovation, pop culture and even a little investment advice. When Google dropped its “Reader” program, that let me look at my blog and journal reading all in one place, I found another handy tool, Feedly. And there I’ve been for a few years.

Like other committed followers of online writing, I’m always looking to add to my list of blogs and journals. After all, you’ve got to be a lifelong learning, especially in this day and age of rapid change. And like others, I’m sure, I just about never trim my list.

Yesterday, I decided to see how all the nice folks I was reading were doing with their blogs. To my surprise, about 1/4 of the blogs I had been following had gone inactive.

Here’s the thing about radio silence. Saying goodbye is important. In my youth, the last episode of M.A.S.H. was a huge event. In more recent times, last episodes of Friends, Seinfeld and The Good Wife, all were important for closure.  But blogs are different. People just get busy, or change careers, or grow new interests. They stop abruptly with no warning.

Bloggers, as much as any of us, are subject to short attention spans. Maybe it’s because of Sesame Street, with its short segments. Maybe it’s about our times, when, as my friend Allison Fine pointed out, we are moving towards a workforce that changes jobs every 2.5 years.

It wasn’t always that way. Baruch ben Niriah, the “blogger” for the prophet Jeremiah, didn’t suddenly change jobs when Jerusalem was destroyed. If he had, the book of Jeremiah would have just stopped cold. Same with the “redactor” of the Torah. He didn’t find a new job and just stop after, say, Leviticus.

Sadly, our times are different. I can still rely on a few stalwarts in the blogosphere and some great journals to keep my learning current. But, I do miss the idea of signing off with a last episode, a final post, a goodbye, and a thank you for following.

 

Dear Young Adults: Please register to vote. NOW.

I know you.

You’re 19 and in college. Or 22 and between jobs. Or 25 and moving back in with your parents for the cost savings. Or 28 and in a job that’s OK, but thinking about moving on. Or 31 and thinking about a long-term committed relationship. Or even 36 with your first child.

Oh, and you were all on board with the Bern because, well, you’re idealistic. Or you were running with Rubio or Cruz because you like traditional values. Perhaps you liked (and maybe still do) one of the third-party candidates. Maybe you were just laughing at the whole circus of the presidential sweepstakes.

Guess what? The primary game is over. And now it gets real. The two candidates who appear to be the ones left standing have figured out that they’re going to be their party’s nominees for president. And there is a real choice here, because these two represent very different visions of what America and the world should look like.

Did you wait to register? Or perhaps you’re still registered at your last address? Or perhaps you haven’t signed up for absentee ballots?  Maybe you even heard the (basically false) internet rumor that says that absentee ballots are only counted in a close election. Time to step up, folks.

I’m 60. The next president is unlikely to change the quality of my life or world in a serious way. But s/he IS likely to change the future of the world that you’re increasingly being expected to take leadership responsibilities in. So (and I hate this expression, but…), get over it. Deal with the fact that your idealistic candidate, whoever it may have been, is done. Move beyond your preconceived notion that you somehow aren’t going to make a difference.  This time, maybe more than ever, you count. YOU. Yes, you.

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Doesn’t much matter where you live, the election this time around is going to be too close to call. And yes, it’s months away. And yes, the major parties haven’t officially nominated their candidates. And yes, a few third parties are still in it, supposedly. And yes, I do still dream that Colin Powell will miraculously decide to lead an American Unity Party and grab all the disheartened voters, rolling to victory. But in the real world, we know where this is all going.

So right now, NOW, so you don’t forget:  Register if you haven’t; update your address on your registration; sign up for absentee ballots if you’re not sitting in the state in which you’re registered. Do it today. You know who you are.

Thanks.