Friday, January 22, 2010

Parashat Bo - On Leadership and Vision

Over the past few weeks, I have spent a significant amount of time talking with our Rosh Aidah candidates for the coming summer.  We are truly blessed with an incredible talent pool and I cannot imagine being more impressed with the group of candidates for our summer leadership team.  In listening to these developing leaders, I hear great passion for the Jewish people, deep appreciation for what Camp Ramah in Wisconsin has given them over their years as campers and staff members, and an intense desire to help grow the next generation of Jewish leaders...and they want everyone to have fun, themselves included. 

Conversations with potential roshei aidah cover a wide-range of topics from the sacred to the mundane, from logistics to leadership styles.  I have a set of standard questions that I ask of each candidate as I get to know them; yet, each conversation goes in unique directions based on the interests, strengths, self-perceived weaknesses, and answers of the individual candidates.  From the impact of staff members on their own camper experiences to the imprint they wold like to leave on those with whom they work, I learn a tremendous amount about each person, their character and their aspirations.

At the end of the interview, I extend an opportunity to each candidate to ask me whatever questions they might have.  Often these questions revolve around the logistics of decision making, the time table, and what happens once decisions are made.   I am usually asked about my expectations of roshei aidah, not in the world of theory but in the realm of the very concrete. In once recent conversation however, a rosh aidah candidate asked me about  leadership, not about my leadership style or about what ingredients I look for in camp leaders, but about what I believe is the first and most important characteristic of a good leader. Without missing a beat, my answer was one word: vision.  Without vision, without knowing where you want to take people, without an understanding of what success can look like and how the world can be different, then you are not a leader; you are just a person wandering around with others.

Vision is at the heart of Torah, a Divine Plan for what the world can look like.  In riveting narrative and detailed legalese, in beautiful poetry and heart-stopping prose, the stories of Torah lay out a vision for our ancestors and for us.  If, however, we took only one piece of the text, the legal portions, divorced from the narratives that frame those legal texts, we would not have a vision, we would have only law.  We would not have a sense of what a world could be like,  we would only know what we were to do without knowing "why" on any level. 

The centrality of vision in leadership comes into clear focus, in a rather round-about way, in this week's parashah. At the precipice of deliverance from slavery to freedom, just after God tells Moshe of the impending tenth plague, the death of the firstborn of Egypt, just when we are expecting to hear about the plague occurring and the Israelites departing, our story is interrupted with a detailed passage of laws regarding the קרבן פסח - the Passover Sacrifice.  It is here that the centrality of vision in leadership is raised as a major theme of Torah. Commenting on  the very first verse of the Bereisheet, Rashi famously asks: 

"Shouldn't the Torah simply have started with the verse "This month shall be the first..." which is the second verse of Exodus chapter 12 (in our parashah this week) for it is the first mitzvah commanded to Israel?"

In other words, why do we need all of the stories of Creation, of Noah, of Abraham and Sarah and all of their descendants?  Why do we have to read so many chapters of family tensions and then of slavery when we could just cut to the chase and learn about what we are expected to do?

Essentially, Rashi answers that the stories provide the context to a future challenge to the legitimacy of the Jewish People to reside in the Land of Israel:  "You are thieves who conquered the lands of the seven nations."  Paraphrasing his response, Rashi explains that all that precedes Exodus 12, the laws of the Passover Sacrifice, does so in order to show that here is a Divine Plan: that possession of the land is God's and it is God who determines who resides in the land.  God has a vision and a plan. 

Whether a person accepts Rashi's answer, and leaving aside all of the modern day political implications of Rashi's answer on the Peace Process, Rashi is telling us that the law without the context is not a vision, it is just a set of laws.  With the context of vision, the laws become a road map to achieving a Divine Plan not just for our ancestors or for us but, in the biggest future imaginable, for the entire World.  Rashi, however, is not the only one who teaches us that vision is at the heart of leadership.  It appears throughout our tradition in places both expected and unanticipated.  Luzzato, for example, in Mesillat Yesharim, a text that informs the Mussar Movement, argues that all of life in this world is to prepare the soul for The World to Come.  This world is a road map to achieving a future goal.  The tefilah, the prayer, that ends our Erev Shabbat davvening at camp, Yigdal, reminds us that God perceives the outcome of a thing before it even exists.  In the most modern of contexts, a book about the founding of Ramah, really a dialogue between Dr. Serymour Fox and his author, is titled, "Vision at the Heart," that a vision of a Jewish world served as the motivator in the development of Camp Ramah.

I believe that developing and successfully implementing visions for our Jewish worlds, be it for Camp Ramah in Wisconsin specifically or for Jewish Peoplehood in general,  is the central leadership challenge we face today.  To develop these visions we need people who can imagine things different than our current circumstances, who can dream big dreams and then go about inspiring others and implementing those plans.  We need people who can be like Nachshon ben Aminadav, who takes a calculated risk and steps into The Sea when nobody else is ready or willing.  And in dreaming about those possibilities, in developing plans, and while inspiring others to take steps to make change and vision happen, we need to remember that these visions are part of a greater vision, a Divine Vision, and that they are part of a tradition that includes both narratives and legal expectations, for the two cannot be divorced from one another. 

For over sixty years, Camp Ramah in Wisconsin has been a leader in developing and successfully creating Jewish futures, in inspiring people to become leaders - dreamers, innovators, and inventors - who have gone on to change Jewish worlds.  Together, we enter the next era of dreaming and designing, built on not only an exceptionally strong foundation but an equally strong building of work.  In the weeks and months to come, working with all of the exceptional members of our leadership team, from our executive director to our long-standing veteran summer leaders, from lay leaders to our program director to our new and veteran Roshei Aidah, we will imagine the next generation of Jewish leaders and Jewish communities, we will plan for them, and then we will make them happen. 

With thanks to the rosh aidah candidate who asked the question, with great anticipation of working with and learning from our 2010 team of Roshei Aidah, and with dreams of a bright Jewish future, I wish you all a

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, January 8, 2010

From Beginnings to Names - מבראשית לשמות

מבראשית לשמות

From Beginnings to Names

I have been thinking a lot about the transition we make this Shabbat, from the first Book of Torah to the second as the title change itself speaks volumes about where I find myself at this particular moment.  During the first few months in this new role, I experienced constant beginnings:  children starting new schools; acclimating to a new neighborhood; beginning relationships with colleagues and communities, families and staff members.  Much of my time these first few months was devoted to laying the groundwork, the transmission of customs and traditions, the downloading of foundational knowledge. 

Now, however, I too am moving into Names - camper names, staff names, parent names.  Camp is filling up! There are growing lists of names of returning campers who are enrolled and shrinking lists of veteran campers who are not.  Each and every name represents a valued, priceless soul deserving of a healthy, safe, fun and meaningful Jewish summer and each name is one that I will learn and get to know in some way in 2010.  At the same time, there are names that will soon be wait-listed as there are aidot that are filling up, aidot where some campers who want to enroll will not be able to be at camp.  And each one of those names represents a soul that will not be touched by the experience we know Ramah to be. 

There are more and more staff members, veterans and first-timers alike, applying for positions this summer.  Right now, most of them are only names on a page for me.  I had the privilege of meeting with many individuals for brief periods of time during my visits to camp but I could not spend meaningful time with every staff member.  Thus, many of the names on the staff lists start out as just that for me - names.   Fortunately, the camp benefits from the institutional wisdom and history kept by our senior leadership team and they are beginning to reveal the people behind the names, the outstanding souls that nourish the Jewish neshamot of our campers each summer. 

As winter deepens, as the snow falls not just in Conover, but outside my window here in Chicago and, it seems, all over the Midwest, I dream of the summer - not for the temperature improvement - but for the opportunity to meet the souls that lie behind the names on all of the various lists that float around my office, to see camp filled with the magnificent neshamot of campers and staff members, to see the Jewish future today.

דבר אחר

Another Thought on Names

When Rebecca and I were married, Rabbi Soloff co-officiated at our wedding.  Under the Chuppah, he read a famous poem by Zelda, a Hebrew Poet, titled, "לכל איש יש שם"  "For Every Person There is a Name."  It is a powerful poem and I highly recommend it to you as Shabbat reading.  One particular segment of the poem has been on my mind these days:

Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love

There is incredible meaning in a name, whether that name is given out of love or out of hate.  Naming something imbues the name-giver with a power that can be used for good or for hurt, for honor or for disgrace.  While there are names that we earn, there are also names that others sometimes give us.  Of these, there are names that we want and names that we don't want.

The power of names is on my mind in light of teaching  I did at the recent International Convention of USY, held here in Chicago (where I had the privilege of meeting many CRW campers). The theme of the convention dealt with making healthy friendship and relationship choices.  One entire session was devoted to the issue of healthy choices related to the internet and social networking sites and our group spent much of the session dealing with the emerging phenomenon of cyber-bullying.  I was impressed by the sincerity of the USYers and their desire to make good choices.

What saddened me was that each USYer could identify a situation where they had either been cyber-bullied, were the bully themselves, or knew about serious incidents in school, committed by or against peers and friends.  And in so many cases, the bullying was about attaching denigrating names to people, or commenting on photos of them in ways that "gave them a bad name" or were, in terms of Jewish law, "Motzi Shem Ra."  And, just like in the famous hasidic story, once something is set loose on the internet, there is no way that it can be taken back.  Moreover, the person who puts it out there has no idea where the damage to the person can lead.  Sometimes, the act is just thoughtless.  Worse, however, are the times where it is intentional.

Jewish law prohibits embarrassing (causing to go white or להלבין את פני חברו ברבים) another person in the public arena.  Today, the internet is the equivalent of the water cooler of old or the chatzer or square of the ancient world of the Mishnah.  Not only is it prohibited to publicly embarrass somebody but, according to חז"ל, our Sages, the end result of shaming another person in public is equated with killing them.  Once an embarrassing photo is put up on a facebook page or a nasty text message is sent about another person, a part of that person's soul is deadened, their dignity lost.  And why?  For what purpose, for what gain?  Rather than talk directly with a person who has caused hurt, it is easier to shame them publicly.  And in more cases than not, there is no hurt - the person doing the shaming does it for personal entertainment or out of their own lack of self-esteem.

After listening to stories of USYers, of reading about the damage that is done to people via social networking sites, after hearing stories from the entire Jewish camp community, and Ramah is not excepted, it is clear both that cyber-bullying is a more public humiliation than old fashioned bullying was and that it is a violation of the spirit and, I believe, letter of the law regarding the prohibition against giving someone a bad name.  Which raises the question:  What are we going to do about it? 

First, we need to return to teaching about the sanctity and power of names and of giving names, from the Sacred Names of God to the naming power given to the First Human.  Moreover, we should emphasize to our children, our campers, the responsibility they have when speaking about their friends both in cyberspace and in the real world, be it directly to others or through general postings on sites. 

Second, we should not shy away from teaching the rabbinic position that shaming another person in public is the equivalent to killing some part of them.

We should be talking with our children, our campers, our staff about the awesome responsibility they have in the public sphere to be proactive in their own choices while also reminding them that they are "the keeper" for their fellow human being and that when they see friends committing acts of cyber-bullying or thoughtless embarrassment they are obligated to work to lead that person in a different, positive direction and to do it in a discreet fashion so as not to cause further embarrassment to either party. 

Finally, we should constantly remind our children that every member of the community deserves the right to their good name, to have it protected and maintained as Sacred, by our own deeds, our own actions, and our own postings.

The consequences of not addressing the issues head on is the killing of part of a soul, public embarrassment and humiliation, pain and suffering.  Unaddressed, the community that stresses Sacred values, the uniqueness of each person, the safety of the environment is undermined - be it a Jewish overnight camp, a day school, a synagogue, or a neighborhood.  Addressed directly and properly, with the force of conviction and the reinforcement of modeling, the sacred community is preserved, more room is made for God's Divine Presence, and everyone can stay within the Camp.

Shabbat Shalom.

You can find the full version of Zelda's Poem in English and Hebrew at: