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.

 

 

 

Checks and Balances Aren’t About Your Checkbook

The United States is in the midst of what could be the most unusual (to use a polite word) presidential campaign in memory. Candidates who have never held elective or public service office became (or still are) serious contenders, while a good number of career public servants and leaders have fallen by the wayside (remember George Pataki? Lincoln Chafee? Martin O’Malley?).

Here we are, left with a number of candidates, at least some of whom could not possibly do the job. A few have proven to be remarkable characters, showing great values and thoughts. But that doesn’t make one presidential material.

And that set me thinking:  Back in biblical times (as in the U.S. Constitution) there were concepts of separation of powers and of checks and balances. There was the melech,  a king, who led the government and often led the nation in war. He was the epitome of the executive branch, as we call it here. The kohen was the “priest”. As a group, the kohanim were the ritual leaders of ancient Israel. Then there were the nevi’im, the prophets. They were the spiritual idea people. They didn’t govern, nor were they supposed to. Neither were the kohanim, although one group, the leaders of the Maccabean revolt, did. But that’s another story.

These people – king, priest, prophet – kept each other honest, or at least tried to. And even the great King David needed a good talking to by the prophets of his time as he abused his power on occasion.

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Point is, a number of our candidates are in prophetic mode. They have expressed bold ideas and put forth statements based in values. Whether we like those values or not, by doing so, they have changed the conversation and process. But, these candidates, while they may be the modern-day Isaiah or Micah types, haven’t shown a side that demonstrates their ability to manage and leverage power. In other words, the prophetic voices in the race are just not passing the test of being king material.

So, my thanks to those who have been prophetic voices and have challenged the ways we think and the way our government does business. Accept a country’s appreciation for being change agents. Even the more “establishment” candidates are now touting some of your ideas; even claiming them as their own.

But we have a president to pick now. And as much as I love prophecy and ideas (after all, I am a rabbi), I and the rest of the U.S. need to now get to the business of electing someone to be president.

 

 

 

Civilility, Class and the 2016 Presidential Election

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A while back, I joined a few online groups committed to keeping things civil on social media and the internet. Great idea. Aligned with my Jewish values that are supposed to keep us (inclusive us: Jews, as well as the world) away from lashon hara and rechilut (some disagreement about how the terms differ, but generally, lashon hara is any chatter, while the rechilut brand of gossip is one that typically pits people against one another). To my disappointment, I heard little of nothing from any of these groups. I can’t tell whether the groups dissolved or merely died of frustration, much like the salmon trying to swim upstream.

In case there was any question about the ability of people to use the internet to spread malicious gossip and slander, this year’s election campaign removed all doubt. Oh, and lest we think that we might have a classy process, being classy went down with the now-famous discussion about the size of body parts in the Republican debates.

But back to the social networks. Real posts from Facebook friends and friends of friends, as well as from those I follow on Twitter have included the following goodies:

“Hillary Clinton is an anti-Semite”

“Hillary Clinton is anti-Israel”

“Obama hates Israel”

“Trump is like Hitler”

“Trump is a Nazi”

“Sanders is a self-hating Jew”

and so on.

It is as if the teaching of the Mishna, warning those who are wise to “be careful with your words” was missing from the texts of some of my Jewish friends. Or perhaps they simply decided that it was too much work to be “wise” and that this quote no longer applied to them.

Along the way from the civility of the early days of the campaign to this point, my friends have lost track of what the campaign was all about:  an opportunity to talk about the real issues that we face as a nation and as a world; a comparison of approaches for the best ways to respond to those challenges; and a healthy debate about what each candidate offers.

Also lost in the shuffle: respect for elected officials. For people to pray for the welfare of the president on Saturday and Sunday, and then trash talk him the rest of the week, is religious hypocrisy.

Oh, as to the previously mentioned posts:  None of the major presidential candidates has shown any evidence — in the past or present — of anti-Semitic feelings. You want to know what presidential anti-Semitism sounds like? Take a listen to some of the Nixon tapes. And by the way, his administration saved Israel’s hide during the Yom Kippur War. Do what you want with that.

No, nobody has shown evidence of being anti-Israel. There is a debate, in the United States as well as in Israel, what being pro-Israel will look like as we go into the future. It might not mean that Americans (or Jews) have to support every prime minister’s policies. It might mean that those who ask for a shortcut to the two state solution to which Israel has committed itself have to be respected as part of the dialogue alongside those who believe that the Palestinians cannot, in the current situation, be trusted partners in peace. This isn’t the first time that friends of Israel have had to open the doors to a new way of relating to Israel. It was just as earthshaking when Israel, founded and led by those with a utopian, Socialist bent, voted in the 1970’s to move to a more conservative set of governments. And it took quite some time for Israel’s friends to move towards support for a new set of government platforms.

Oh, and Trump isn’t Hitler. Scary? Sure. Inexperienced in public service? Totally. Verbally supporting violence? Yup. But as scary as he is, nothing he has said approaches Mein Kampf level. And by the time Hitler was entering political life in a serious way, that book had already laid out a future course.

Is the Bern a self-hating Jew? I have no idea. More likely than not, he is typical of a significant, if not majority of the American Jewish population:  knows he has Jewish roots, believes in “Jewish values” (which are, pretty often, humanitarian values that have a reflect the “in the image of God” idea), is not involved in synagogue or Jewish philanthropic life, and feels some vague connection to Israel.

So, let’s move along. Each of the candidates (even Vermin Supreme) is created in God’s image and they, along with our president, deserve the respect due to another human. Each of the major (and many of the minor) candidates have a vision in mind. We can disagree with that vision and with the paths that would get us there. But insults and slander will not lead to results that will be helpful for our country or our world.

A simple proposal:  In any other forum, some of the things being said about the candidates would result in a person being sued for slander. Let’s pretend that the rules are no different for presidential campaigns. Stand up for what you believe in. Oppose what you feel is detrimental. And let’s do so with respect and with class, not with slander. We’re created in God’s image. Let’s start acting like it.