Friday, March 25, 2011

Communities or Empires?

I am constantly fascinated by the unexpected places where I encounter profoundly meaningful messages.  In an incident I may have related in previous postings, I was walking down Michigan Avenue when just such a message jumped out at me from the window of a Caribou Coffee location:

Build Communities
Not Empires

I gazed at the window pondering the meaning of these four words.  “Build Communities” stands alone. Depending on how it is punctuated, this message can be a statement, a command or an aspiration. “Not Empires” is a fragment no matter what punctuation mark is placed at the end.  What does the combination of a potential sentence and a clear fragment add up to?  Why did these two phrases call out to me from the window? And what, if anything, is there to learn about the Jewish future from this message in the window?

Without delving too deeply into the grammatical implications of the phrase, “Build Communities” can stand alone because community requires multiple people and implies multiple structures.  Implicit in “Build Communities” is the understanding and necessity that the community be one of meaning and covenant.  Absent a strong sense of connection, mutual responsibility and obligation, what appears to be “community” is, in actuality, just a group of people living near one another but existing more or less as individuals, private human empires. Like the phrase “Not Empires,” one person standing alone is just that - standing alone, a fragment detached from the rest of society.

Just as one person is not a community, neither is one building.  An edifice that is not part of a community, believing that it can stand alone or rule entire areas on its own,  can be an empire but it cannot stand for long.  Ultimately, it is either abandoned due to emptiness or is crushed under the weight of the empire it seeks to rule.  A grand edifice is, more often than not, a sign of growing hubris.  In many it ways, it marks the beginning of the end.  Whatever the original purpose of the edifice, the absence of community within it overcomes the existence of purpose if one exists.  If nobody buys into the purpose, the grand building sits alone, falls into a state of disrepair, and eventually crumbles.

Parashat Shemini presents us with a model that long predates the Caribou Coffee window message.  The opening verse says:

א  וַיְהִי, בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי, קָרָא מֹשֶׁה, לְאַהֲרֹן וּלְבָנָיו--וּלְזִקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.

And it came to pass on the eighth day, that Moses called Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel;    
Vayikra 9:1

When the Torah says “...on the eighth day...” what eighth day is it talking about? Rashi, in citing the midrash Torat Cohanim, teaches that this is the eighth day of the installation of the Cohanim.  At the center of this installation was the erecting and dismantling of the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle over a seven day period.  On the eighth day, once the Mishkan was put up again and the Cohanim installed,  only then did Aharon transmit the blessing to the entire people, the Community of Israel, and only then did the Divine Presence - השכינה - descend to dwell among them.

At the end of the parashah, after the offerings by Aharon and the strange (and deadly) offerings by two of his sons, after other details and lengthy expositions of acceptable and unacceptable animals for consumption, the importance of all of these rules, the essence of why the community exists, and why the Mishkan is central, is reinforced:

כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה, אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אָנִי;

For I am the LORD your God; therefore, sanctify yourselves and be holy; for I am holy;
Vayikra 11:44

When completed, the Mishkan is not a stand alone building: it is at the center of the camp, of the community; it holds the path to sanctity, to holiness, to purpose - The Torah and Mitzvot; and is the meeting place between the members of the community and God.  Everything else is built around and connected to this central place and mission.  In its eventual and perfect framework, everyone is connected to one another and to God.  Nothing stands alone; it is all purposeful community with a social/ethical/behavioral contract, also known as a ברית or Covenant.

Yesterday, I had an incredible, hour-long conference call with six staff members who attended the National Ramah Commission’s Bert B. Weinstein Winter Staff Training Institute.  Together, we talked spiritedly about the social contract of camp.  I listened as they shared their sense of what makes camp sacred to them and to others, why it is important, and what the shared obligations must be in order to maintain the holiness of the community.  Their strong sense of loyalty and commitment to camp as an institution and to Judaism as a way of life, to one another as staff members and, most important, to the well-being and development of their campers was inspiring.  For them, as for their peers, camp is a place where Torah and People, not buildings and selfishness, stand at the center all with an eye to the future, for this is the meaning of community versus empire.

Spurred by my encounter with the Caribou Coffee window message, “Build Communities, Not Empires,” by my conversation with our Weinstein participants, and by the explicit messages of the installation days, the putting up of the Mishkan, and the statement of ultimate purpose in our parashah, I want to raise the questions I believe we all should and must be pondering:

Are we standing alone or are we building and being part of community?

Do we articulate, repeat and live by our explicit mission? Or is the mission and vision a document to be written and then tucked away and ignored?  

Are we meeting the requirements of our social contract and inspiring and providing for future generations?  Or are we cutting off our future for an expedient solution to today’s financial challenges?

A movement is not a set of institutions or “members.”  It is an idea, a set of values, aspirations, and covenants that centers and directs a group of people to achieving meaning and Divine interaction.  Take people and purpose out of camp and all you have is a bunch of buildings on a lake.  But, when those same people and purpose are put back into those buildings, we get community, purpose and a future working toward what we call “The World to Come.”  The questions listed above serve as reminders that whether we are talking about  camp, our local institutions, our Movement or our People, purpose, meaning, ultimate outcomes, and Covenant must be at the center.  In so doing, we insure that, rather than creating short-lived empires and fragments, we are building sustainable, holy Jewish communities in constant interaction with one another and with God, working to bring about the perfect world and an insured future.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Vayikra – Transitions

For 36 hours this week, I was sequestered in Tarrytown, NY thinking about Jewish transitions with a group of leaders, philanthropists and staff members. A guest of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, I was once again inspired by the questions raised by The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation (CLSFF), by their exceptional approach to hachnassat orchim, and by their desire to improve the Jewish world. Every conference and convening by CLSFF I attend pushes all of my buttons and makes me uncomfortable – all the buttons that need to be pushed and the kind of discomfort that comes from dealing with difficult questions and thinking about them outside of my comfort zone.

We wondered aloud, in small and large groups, about how to make Jewish transitional moments for those leaving high school and entering college, as well as those making the post-college transition, more seamless and easier to navigate, more welcoming and user-friendly. Are there intentional and positive ways we might help people engage all along the way, to help each soul move along the paths of her or his own Jewish journey? What kinds of inter-organizational partnering might be possible and necessary? What are the roadblocks and stumbling blocks, the assets and liabilities? And to what extent is each organization responsible for helping steward people along even after they leave the organization’s direct orbit?

On Thursday morning, we started our day with an exceptional and stimulating limmud session with Rabbi Will Berkowitz of Repair the World. He wove together a rich and varied group of traditional Jewish texts with Jewish texts of another kind – those of Bob Dylan, from a song about longing to return to a more innocent time, before tough transitions. In a room full of diverse backgrounds and opinions, we had a Jewish convening with serious, moving, and intellectually challenging Jewish learning. It was directly connected to pushing us in our own fields to think about making transitions easier. The learning was amazing and it was the way things should be.

These conversations reminded me of a class in rabbinical school with Dr. Neil Gillman on liminality in Judaism – how we mark transitional times with ritual and prayer. During the course, we looked at everything from birth and death rituals to prayers such as Kiddush levana – the sanctification of the moon, which is recited every month. These liminal moments are examples of transitions that are filled with great possibility and great trepidation. To ease the transition, we concretize the emotion into ritual.

The connection between ritual and transition is brought to the forefront this Shabbat, when we start a new book of the Torah, Vayikra. This week, we literally transition: We are out of Egypt and have created a meeting point for the community and God. Now, we focus on the method by which our ancestors communicate with the Divine – with ritual sacrifice to mark times of joy and thanksgiving, daily routine, sins and mistakes. Vayikra opens with words of communication: ויקרא – to call, וידבר, spoke with, and ואמרת , and you will say to them. Rituals are the vehicle for human-Divine communication and the centerpiece of community, in this case in the form of animal sacrifice.

With the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, animal sacrifice ends. Rather than reinstituting sacrifices in another location, they are replaced entirely by our Rabbis with public and private prayer: New rituals created when former ones could no longer be performed. Today, we face the question of creating rituals for transitional moments that did not exist in the same fashion hundreds and even thousands of years ago. We have rituals for so many life transitions yet, very few to mark those arising between bar/bat mitzvah and marriage. Are there rituals and prayers, broadly defined, that can be created and be authentic and powerful, not contrived or hokey, that can speak to and in the voice of those making the transition? Can these be points where the Jewish community fills the space and helps people move to the next stop on their Jewish journey?

The question we pondered this week is about far more than ritual. It is about our future as a Jewish People. In a world where individuals affiliate differently than in the past, where people don’t join but engage at different touch points, how can the entire Jewish organizational ecosystem (traditional organizations and new frameworks included) work together, put aside turf issues and launch out of our silos, in order to strengthen the Jewish People by supporting the individual. Is it possible? Can we do it?

We can and we must. For so many of us, camp is our major Jewish touch point . It is where we have our rebbes, those who serve as our coaches and mentors, those we turn to when we seek guidance, who help us make choices during transitional moments. These rebbes may, in fact, be rabbis and cantors but they can also be madrichim, roshei aidah, and peers. We have to make it a priority to connect people with the activities and organizations that speak to their souls, that energize their activism, and stir their hearts. To do that well, all of the rebbeim have to be knowledgeable about and connected with the panoply of opportunities, leaders, and groups doing meaningful work, be it service work or spiritual work. We have to connect with the folks at Moishe House and Avodah, Repair the World and B’nai (put in the name of any synagogue). And we must recognize that our work is not over once someone stops coming back to camp. We at Ramah must continue our efforts to create programming for alumni in their 20’s and beyond.

As we transition from Shemot to Vayikra and as I transition from CLSFF and Tarrytown back to Chicago, I am more convinced than ever that Jewish camping in general and Camp Ramah in Wisconsin can and do play a central role in helping people move along in their Jewish journey at the critical transitional moments from teenager to college student, from college student to emergent adult. And with all that we are doing, there is more we can and should do and the need to do it in broad partnership. So, I invite you to join me in thinking about these questions as I was invited by FJC and CLSFF. And as graduation season is not that far away, make it a point to identify specific ways that you personally can help someone making one of these key Jewish and life transitions in the coming months.

Thanks Jeremy Fingerman (CEO of The Foundation for Jewish Camp and Nivonim 1977 Camp Ramah in Wisconsin alumnus) for inviting me to join you at the Jewish Transitions Convening. Thanks to the entire Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation Staff for an excellent convening and for pushing the buttons that need to be pushed.

Shabbat Shalom.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Yali Derman - Courageous Artist, Survivor, and Leader

Yali is an exceptional role model for all of us. Her story is profoundly moving and should inspire us to act for the causes for which we believe. Spend the ten minutes watching. It is worth your time.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Visioning Future Success: The Next Iteration of a Central Organization for Conservative Judaism and Kehillot

As the USCJ prepares to vote on its new strategic plan prepared in conjunction with the Hayom Coalition, I feel compelled to share a vision of what a central organization designed to insure the future of Conservative Judaism could look like. We know that people are moved by and energized by vision which then leads to support for strategy and tactics. By no means do I believe that I have all or even any of the answers nor is this intended to be a comprehensive or complete response; rather, it is meant to spur a public discussion not about the past or the present but about the future. Finally, there is nothing here that is great chochma - most of what is suggested here reflects what is going on in the best of the business and not-for-profit world. By focusing on what is already working, constantly evaluating it, and driving creativity and innovation, the future of our movement can be secured.

I welcome any and all comments and suggestions and hope this will begin a respectful and intense discussion about the future of the central body of North American Conservative Judaism.

As we move into our next stage, I believe that to succeed, we and our central organization must:

  • Change our name.
  • Articulate a set of core values for the Movement.
  • Provide multiple visions for what soulful, meaningful, compelling, intellectually and spiritually fulfilling, mitzvot-based kehillot can be by highlighting the best that exist today and envisioning new models for tomorrow
  • Provide high quality marketing materials to support our brand on the local level
  • Negotiate contracts with consultants in each region of the country to support our kehillot in areas where they need it: marketing, hachnassat orchim, budget and finance, mediation, legal, etc.
  • Be the highest quality provider of media based learning for our constituents at every level using existing platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, and whatever may develop in the future.
  • Support early childhood and young family inreach and outreach education programs
  • Lead the best middle school and high school youth programs directed toward building the next generation of thoughtful, committed, observant, creative, progressive Jews
  • Invest heavily in supporting our college students by focusing on campuses with large populations of our students
  • Work with post-college students, known by some as the lost generation or often referred to as Emerging Adults, to develop and implement models that will keep them connected, involved, learning and growing in the context of the values of our Movement.
  • Make The Fuchsburg Center in Israel the pinnacle of experiential and intensive Jewish learning for high school students, college students, graduate students and Adults.

A branding expert that I know often quotes Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead who when asked what the band wanted to accomplish responded:

“You do not merely want to be considered just the best of the best. You want to be considered the only ones who do what you do.”

We are faced with the challenge of determining or at least clarifying what it is that we are about, what we uniquely do and, in actuality, accomplishing it at the highest level of quality.

Changing Our Name

The name United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is not a core value - it is a name, one that is no longer viable. Rightly or wrongly, the name is now a hindrance to our moving forward with success. There are many examples of companies and organizations changing their name as part of a process of reinvention. Whatever sentimental attachment there is to the name USCJ, it must be replaced with a new name as soon as possible.

One possibility for a new name for our central organization is Masorti Kehillot International of North America (MKI-NA). The name Masorti is already in use by our sister movements outside North America and adopoting it in combination with a preference for Kehillot instead of Synagogues, along with identifying a specific region, starts to unify the brand.

Many other possibilities exist. What is important it that the current name is not an asset but a liability. I am by no means committed to the name MKI-NA. There are certainly disadvantages to it such as the fact that the individual words may not resonate with our kehillot. I do, however, use the name MKI-NA for the rest of this document to be consistent in dreaming about the future, and as a way to demonstrate the urgent need to change our name.

Articulating Core Values

In Built to Last, Jim Collins argues that one of the reasons why some companies achieve true long-term success is because they have a clear, unchanging set of core values. They stress innovation not by changing those values but by innovating because of them. To know where we want to go, we must have a compass that provides unwavering, value-based direction, core values that will not change. MKI-North America will join with all of the other central institutions of the movement to articulate our movement’s core values. MKI-North America core values could be:

  • Neshama - We are committed to investing in the individual souls of our congregants. We recognize that before the intellect is engaged, we must reach the soul of each person
  • Kehilla - Building and strengthening sacred, spiritual community is what we do. It is the point where we nourish individuals, connect them to others, and engage them all with The Divine.
  • God - The point of strengthening the individual and community is to be constantly in the Divine-Human dialogue, working to make the world a worthy dwelling place for the Shekhina.
  • Talmud Torah - Soulful, serious, creative study of our sacred texts at all ages and stages brings us into direct dialogue with each other and with God. Torah, broadly defined, is the compass that directs us to a perfect world.
  • Mitzvot - Our Covenant with God brings obligations and rights. Mitzvot are the path to perfecting the world described by our tradition. They are the glue that binds the individual neshama to the community and to God. The kehilla manifests this value by building a variety of rich communities throughout the week and year with a central focus on Shabbat communities of living and learning.
  • Egalitarianism - MKI-North America believes that egalitarianism, however it is manifest in each kehilla, is central to the future of the Jewish people.
  • Hachnassat Orchim - Not only a core value but a mitzvah, MKI-North American Kehillot will be the models for making people feel welcome.
  • Israel - Our ancestral and national home, MKI-North America is committed to the right of the Jewish People to have our established state in our ancestral homeland. We revel and take pride in its success, share our heartfelt critiques out of a desire to strengthen her as a democratic home for the entire Jewish people and for all of her citizens, and make it an essential center of Torah for our constituents.

This list can be changed, lengthened or shortened. It is presented here as an example and as a discussion trigger. Once agreed upon by the entire MKI-North America and the other movement central institutions, however, it cannot change. Tactics and strategies for imbuing kehillot with these values may change but the values themselves must be timeless.

Best Current Practices and New Directions

MKI-NA will devote much of its time to identifying best practices in and for our kehillot, those that are genuinely unique, that promote strong participation, that succeed in building the strongest sense of kehilla, and that bring fulfillment and growth to our members. MKI-NA will work to encourage new models of creative, compelling, kehillot that can be adopted by current or new kehillot. MKI-NA will create program incubators to set aside time to develop new models of belonging and contributing. MKI-NA will be expected to be honest and critical of programs that do not meet commonly established standards of excellence while actively promoting those that do.

The Brand

MKI-North America is the protector and promoter of the brand, in this case, thoughtful, soulful, intellectually honest, Torah and Mitzvah based, egalitarian Jewish community. MKI-North America will provide a clear and thorough brand strategy to support all of its kehillot. Moreover, MKI-North America will provide the highest quality national marketing materials to support that brand on the local level, materials that can be tailor-made to the needs of each constituent kehillah. This is one of the main tasks of a central organization.

Constituent Kehilla Support

It is our belief that MKI-NA should focus on doing and supporting in our constituent kehillot what it uniquely does, do it at the highest quality level and subcontract the rest. Therefore, MKI-NA, working in partnership with our kehillot, will develop a list of common areas where kehillot require support from outside consultants. MKI-NA will then negotiate contracts for consultants in those areas for each region of the country. Such areas may include but are not limited to:

  1. Fundraising
  2. Budget and Finance
  3. Mediation
  4. Marketing
  5. Hachnassat Orchim or Excellence in Support
  6. Leadership Development
  7. Succession Planning

In each of the defined regions, MKI-NA will negotiate prices for congregations based on membership units. When kehillot require consulting services in these areas, they will be able to call and set up appointments with prices already agreed upon. Regional staff will serve as liaisons between the consultants, the kehillot, and MKI-NA.

Regional or distric staff (whatever the final terminology may be) will serve as the local presence of MKI-NA. In addition to serving as the liaison between kehillot and outside consultants, they will also serve as outside evaluators of the process and monitor success. They will be regular and constant presences in the kehillot, maintaining strong ties between all of the local kehillot, as well as serving as a direct presence for the national organization.

Social Media as a Platform for Learning and Connecting

Using pre-existing platforms such as YouTube, etc, MKI-NA will be the premier provider of compelling Jewish learning opportunities for every age and stage. Torah developed in North America, in Israel and around the world will be made easily accessible. MKI-NA will ensure that only the finest, highest quality presentations will be sent out. TED talks serve as a model of what excellence can be. Similarly, G-D Cast demonstrates what creative learning can look like. MKI-NA will make it easy to know about and subscribe to the best of the Jewish Internet without having to build expensive platforms or portals. Moreover, by using resources that are easily accessible via the Internet and promoting those resources, all of our kehillot regardless of how remote or accessible, large or small, will benefit, whether they are webinars created and delivered by the movement or videos, courses, articles, etc that are posted by others.

Young Families and Early Childhood

MKI-NA will focus much of its energy on assisting kehillot in developing and running the most compelling early childhood and young family education programs possible at the most affordable prices. Investing in and connecting family neshamot to the kehilla at the earliest possible time, providing excellent, positive Jewish early childhood experiences, and connecting families to one another will help insure the future of each kehilla.

Kadima and USY

For decades, many of us have heard people say that they belong to the central organization to gain access to rabbinic placement and to the youth programs, Kadima and USY. Whether or not such statements are accurate or acceptable, we should embrace the centrality of our youth programs to the future of our kehillot and our movement. MKI-NA youth programs, Kadima and USY, will be on the cutting edge of where kids are going in the future. Careful understanding of the changing nature of youth and youth programs will help set a path to keep our children engaged Jewishly during these years in a thoughtful, egalitiarian, observant kehilla. This kehilla within the larger Kehilla will not mirror the leadership or programming structure of the larger adult Kehilla; rather, it will be attuned to and up to date with where kids are and where they are going.

MKI-NA will support the infrastructure for national and international programs, will retain current models that work well, and develop new models to engage more teens than ever before.

Koach - The College Years

The college years are, in many ways, the most crucial in insuring the future of the Jewish people and the future of our kehillot. As such, MKI-NA will make an unprecedented financial and personnel investment in the college years. At the same time, we recognize that it is impossible to deliver high quality programming, experiences, and community on every college campus. As such, MKI-NA will work together with Hillel to strengthen the quality of programming on the vast majority of college campuses.

MKI-NA, together with the other central Movement organizations and local kehillot, will identify the ten college campuses in North America that consistently become home to the largest numbers of our kehillot’s college students. MKI-NA, through its college arm, will hire ten rabbinic families, one for each campus or metropolitan area, to reach out to and connect with students constantly thoughout the year. They will be their rabbinic family during their college years.

MKI-NA Campus Rabbinic Families will build model kehillot for and with college students, will model what such kehillot can be like, and will reach out directly to individual students to support them in their spiritual journey during their college years. Such Rabbinic families must be our highest quality graduates who are also passionate about working with the college-age population. MKI-NA will provide a great salary, housing, and budget for a period of no less than four years for a family that agrees to take on this challenge.

It is crucial that we keep in mind that there are plenty of our students that will not be at these largest of campuses. MKI-NA will adopt a model similar to that of the Goldring / Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL) pioneered by Macy Hart to reach out to Jewish students on those campuses. MKI-NA will create regional college rabbis who ride the circuit in different parts of the country on a regular basis to strengthen and support these students.

To give over the college-age to those who are already working in these ways on campus is to cede our future to them. Make no mistake: I greatly respect what these organizations do. We should learn from them and do what only we can do: provide the same services in a way that strengthens the spiritual and critical minds of our future kehillah neshamot.

Finally, in designing programs and methods for successfully impacting the college cohort, MKI-NA will actively seek out the opinions of diverse members of the college student population and include them in the process.

Connecting with Emerging Adults

Given the success of our youth programs and our summer camps, we are uniquely positioned to keep our post-college emergent adults connected. We will use existing networks and programs and develop new ways to help these crucial populations connect Jewishly in the ways that speak to them at this point in their lives. This may be done in the context of existing kehillot or in new settings in ways similar to PJ Library programs that take place in family-friendly settings, etc. A multitude of possibilities for success exist and the populations are actually looking for ways to connect. MKI-NA will include members of this age cohort in the conversation about what their needs are and the best ways to meet those needs. MKI-NA will seek out a diverse set of opinions in this regard.

MKI-NA will share best practices from local communities and organizations. It will develop training models for kehilla leaders to develop the skill sets necessary to grow the involvement with and investment in our post-college emerging adults whether or not they “join” the kehilla in an official way. MKI-NA will create a position on the national level to learn from organizations that focus on this population and that which is important to them, organizations such as ROI, Reboot, etc.

Israel, The Fuchsberg Center, and the Conservative Yeshiva

MKI-NA, as part of Masorti Olami, recognizes the central role of Zionism - broadly defined - and the State of Israel to our future. A center in Israel devoted to serious Torah study that is both critical and soulful, that reflects the core values of movement, is crucial to our survival. Many high school students, college students, graduates students, and families experience their most powerful personal Jewish transformations in Israel and MKI - NA must have an address to provide those experiences.

At the heart of this endeavor lies the Conservative Yeshiva. MKI-NA will insure that this exceptional institution has the financial resources required to recruit students, to provide them with stipends to make it possible to take a year off to learn, and promote it constantly as the place to go and do Torah Lishmah - be it in the summer, for a few weeks, over winter vacation, etc.

The faculty of the Conservative Yeshiva will provide exceptional learning opportunities in-person, online, and via live stream that reflects the values of MKI-NA, which will work to insure its long-term financial viability.


I am more convinced than ever that what we need today is a vision of success - one that is compelling, that will energize and inspire people, and that is eminently achievable. Vision and a leadership willing to make revolutionary change on the national level is what will insure our future. This is an attempt to jumpstart that discussion. I realize that this effort does not include: summer camp, educational structures, seniors, revenue to support the vision, or a host of other topics. At the same time, the conversation, and the development of a vision has to begin somewhere. I know that there are many who want to engage in such a conversation and I hope this stimulates public discussion about future visioning of success for our movement.

© Copyrighted Rabbi Loren Sykes, February 28, 2011.  All rights reserved