Thoughts on synagogue life and leadership from USCJ's Bob Leventhal

Friday, September 18, 2015

“We didn’t know him well, but he knew all about us”

When my wife Carolyn’s mother, Sylvia Spellun, died on June 14th, we sat shiva for a week in our Upper East Side apartment and were visited by some of our close friends and business associates. We were also visited by some new acquaintances from our West Side synagogue, Ansche Chesed.

One afternoon during shiva, an older member of the congregation walked in. We had seen him, on occasion, reading from the Torah and leading services, but had never really had the opportunity to speak with him. He is a modest man, so I will not mention his name. He said, modestly, “I was on this side of town so I just thought I would stop by.” He sat with our group for a while and listened attentively. When he left, Carolyn and I talked about the effort he had made to join us. It occurred to us that we often hear Rabbi Kalmanofsky speak to the congregation about moments where we are truly Ansche Chesed, “The People of Kindness,” and indeed, this was one of those moments.

I have written about a congregation’s capacity for ”convenantal kindness”. More than being polite, welcoming, or nice, covenantal kindness reflects a profound understanding of the impact of sickness and loss, and a fundamental commitment to stand with others, both when we want to and when it is more difficult, or not convenient. When a congregation has this type of commitment, they organize themselves to identify those in need, to communicate those needs to the caring community, and to follow through to deliver whatever is needed, for example, shiva books and shiva meals. At USCJ we have developed an assessment called The Attributes of a Thriving Congregation. The assessments asks about this quality of a congregations’ level of covenantal caring, of chesed.

In Thriving Congregations, we have seen that the responsibility of caring for the sick and bereaved does not just fall on the clergy; the responsibility is shared with an ever expanding community, or chavurah, of care. This is what helps develop a culture of caring.

We did not know this man well, but he knew all about us. We were among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem; we were connected to all of the mourners around the world; we were connected to our ancestors who struggled with loss over the ages, and with the generations of comforters who had shared these words of consolation:

המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירשלים

Hamakom y'nahem etchem b'tokh sh'ar avelei Tziyon v'Yerushalayim

May God comfort you together with all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

A Baby Boomer Prepares for the High Holidays

One of my favorite books is Rabbi Alan Lew’s book on the High Holidays called This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation. For many years this book has helped to provide me with a wake-up call to get ready to engage the High Holidays with the right level of intention - with Awe. I have been working on a seven-session leadership program called Sulam for Baby Boomers, to be launched in 2016. Sulam is the Hebrew word for ladder. Sulam suggests that there are challenges we need to embrace at every age of development. Sulam for Baby Boomers challenges synagogue members to reflect on their lives, re-energize their spiritual batteries and re-imagine their sense of purpose. Working on this has been an "awesome" experience for me. As I sit at my desk surrounded by books about Baby Boomers, I find myself preparing for the challenges of my High Holiday reflections.

Boomer Challenges and Opportunities

Workaholic Seeking Recovery
We Baby Boomers are well known for our work ethic. We have harnessed our optimism to our careers and been driven to achieve. As we retire, or transition to less prominent roles, we will be losing some of our power, influence and status. I experienced some of this when we sold our family business and I had to adapt to a new set of bosses. At USCJ, I have enjoyed developing three new consulting colleagues who joined our leadership development team last year. I have been working hard to empower them to take the lead in their consultations. This High Holiday season, I will be working to gain greater equanimity. I hope to know better what I should strive to change and what I need to find the courage to accept.

Learning to be a Passenger in My Children’s Car
We Baby Boomers have often over functioned to ensure our children’s success. As my own children have grown, I have had to learn to stop hovering, and to step back and let them live their own lives. I was the kind of dad that often touched the wheel when they were learning to drive (sorry). At 64, I now know that I need to “let go of the wheel of the car” and get in the passenger seat.  Dan and Micah are in Boca Raton, Florida and Eli is in Columbus, Ohio (Go Bucks!). They are doing well, so I can relax a bit...but from the passenger seat I can still try to put my  foot down on the imaginary brakes.

Honoring My Parents
The parents of Baby Boomers are part of a medical revolution that is creating much greater longevity. Baby Boomers have had to deal with the financial and social needs of their parents. They are being challenged to be compassionate about their parents’ physical and mental issues. I saw my father struggle in his last year before he passed away in 2004 at age 87.  As the High Holidays approach,  I have some regrets. As I look back, there were some conversations I wished I had had. Part of honoring parents is coming to terms with memories of parents who have passed away.
For our Baby Boomer program I will be assigning a book by Lee Kravitz called Unfinished Business: One Man’s Extraordinary Year of Trying to Do the Right Things. After he was laid off at the age of 55, Kravitz spent a year looking up people whom he had allowed to slip away. He makes reconnecting with them his priority. What an extraordinary High Holiday reading! Personally, I have tried to keep in better contact with my mother. She lives near my sister, Laurie, at the JCC Complex in Palo Alto. My sons, Daniel, Micah, and Eli, will be joining me to travel to Palo Alto to celebrate my mother’s 90th birthday. Attending to our parents provides a preview of our own aging years. I hope I can live with as much grace as my mother.

Guarding My Health
According to Dr. Rhonda Randall, Chief Medical Officer for United Health Care (Medicare and Retirement), Baby Boomers have a desire to be active and maintain their health and fitness, to stay mentally fit, to remain engaged in their communities and to maintain a connection to learning resources. As many of you know, I got married on June 14 to Carolyn Reinach Wolf. I don’t need Rhonda Randall to lecture me on health and fitness. Carolyn was a former hospital risk manager. I am getting a steady flow of helpful feedback about the risk of carbohydrates.

Self-Awareness - Getting Up on the Balcony

The Baby Boomer site “Boomer Café” is full of articles about the “second acts” of Boomer narratives. Through Sulam for Baby Boomers,  will encourage Boomers to inhabit some reflective “balcony space” where they can take time to re-charge their batteries. We hope they will emerge re-energized with a new sense of purpose for their second or third acts that will be expressed in some form of community contribution.  As I take my seat in the balcony at Ansche Chesed this Rosh Hashanah, I hope to get some more perspective on the year that has passed, and to gain new energy for the year ahead. My work on the challenges and opportunities of my fellow Baby Boomers has inspired me. I hope that my work with them over the coming  year will help them one day be better prepared for their “ Days of Awe.”

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Turning Lemons into Lemonade (Parashat Matot)

In Parashat Matot (Numbers 33), the Israelites are ready to begin the conquest of the land. We learn that the tribes of Reuben and Gad tell Moses that they would prefer to stay on the west bank of the Jordan in the lands of Jazer and Gilead because their tribes are ranchers and that region was more suitable for cattle. Even though the people are moving to the promise land they prefer to stay on the other side. They beg, “Please don’t move us across the Jordan.” (Numbers 35:5)
Moses, on first reaction, is troubled. He raises two urgent questions:

  • Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here? What is Moses thinking? He may question their intentions and label them as selfish or cowardly. He may feel they should be rebuked.
  • Why will you turn the minds of the Israelites from crossing into the land the Lord has given them? What does Moses fear? He seemed to be concerned about optics. What will it look like for leaders to choose a different land and a different future than the one God has promised?
Whenever you are in conflict, it is helpful to start with yourself. Why are you so angry? Moses has a right to be concerned about any plan that weakens his fighting force. He also has reason to be concerned about the impact of morale when people decide they don’t want to move forward in the land. The case of the spies is infamous and their lack of faith caused they people to wander for forty years until that generations dies out.

Lashing Out: Striking the Rock
Earlier in our people’s desert narrative (in Parashat Hukkat), Moses reacted to the stress of leadership by lashing out. He was worn out by the people. He was reeling from the loss of Miriam. The people were thirsty after three days without water. In Torah and absence of water is also symbolic for an absence of spirituality. Moses spiritual and physical batteries have worn down. Never gifted in sharing emotions, Moses, is at a loss for words about the loss of his sister. Just as he failed to speak when Aaron lost his sons, so here he is silent- without capacity.
He labels all of the elders as “rebel.” Once he labels them his perceptions become self-fulfilling and fixed. He doesn’t have to engage them in council nor take responsibility for any of his failings in developing these leaders.
This time Moses is older and perhaps a bit more capable and wise.
1. He discloses his concerns. He retells the stories of the spies to Reuben and Gad and shows where his anxiety comes from.
 2. He does not label them cowards.  Whenever I go to a congregation that is in conflict I will soon see warring camps where people only tell one side of the story. They speak in terms of “us and them” and assume the worst of the other side.

Wise and Rewarding Generative Leadership
In 1966, when he was 32, George Vaillant took over Harvard’s famous Grant Study. The task: track hundreds of Harvard men, from youth to death, and determine what predicts wellbeing. It was to become one of the foremost “longitudinal studies” of 20th century social science, tracking the physical and emotional health of a cohort of young Harvard men through the rest of their lives. Nearly half a century later, Vaillant lays out his final findings, and discovers that his own maturation is inseparable from the lives he examines. (see George Vaillant - What Harvard’s GrantStudy Reveals about Happiness and Life
Valliant found that the central theme of successful older years were rich and rewarding relationships. Generative leaders help bring to life the possibilities in themselves and others.  In order bring energy to these relationships people need to possess certain core capabilities. The following are some core competencies that can lead to generative relationships.
  1. Orient to the Future, Not the Past
  2. Be Resilient: Turn Lemons into Lemonade
  3. Be Willing to Let Go of Self Importance: Practice Humility
  4. Show Courage in the Face of Declining Health, Loss and Death
  5. Develop the Capacity to Forgive Self and Others

Let’s look at Moses's leadership from the lens of wise and rewarding leadership. Moses leverages several of Valliant’s core competencies which are seen as correlate with generative leadership.
  • Orient to the Future, Not the Past- This time Moses does not play the broken record about how the people let him down. He thinks about spies and then turns off the negative memory so he can move on.
  • Be Resilient: Turn Lemons into Lemonade- Naturally he could be discouraged that the tribes are not lining up. He bounces back and finds a ways to tackle the counteroffer from Reuben and Gad and make it constructive.
  • Be Willing to Let Go of Self Importance: Practice Humility- Like all leaders, Moses had some expectations (a master plan to move forward with all of the tribes). He brings new energy to the mentoring of Joshua. He is committed to placing the mantle of leadership on Joshua. He does not take the negotiations with Reuben and Gad so personally. He doesn’t just label them rebels and malcontents. He is able to see that they can be of use- albeit in a new ways.
  • Show Courage in the Face of Declining Health, Loss and Death- In Parashat Hukkat, Moses was drained by the loss of Miriam. He had lost heart. In Parashat Matot, Moses is carrying both the memory of the curse of the spies and his own leadership death sentence that came out of the incident where he struck the rock. He could easily have bucked and said, “Here we go again!” Or, “Why me?” Instead he rallies to achieve what is achievable.
  • Develop the Capacity to Forgive Self and Others- Part of what helps leaders keep their batteries charged is the ability to forgive themselves and others. Moses has the battery power to cope with Reuben and Gad because he is not blaming himself or the others (You rebels), He is moving on.

The Outcome

Reuben and Gad provide assurance that their intention is not to shirk their responsibilities: 
  • “We will hasten and be  shock troops in the van of the Israelites until we have established them in their home” (Numbers 32:17) 
  • Moses then responds that if they do this “ you shall be clear before the Lord and before Israel and this land shall be your holding under the Lord” (Numbers 35:22)

In the end, Moses is reflective not reactive. He keeps his mind on the prize - the conquest of the land. He does not pretend to know the intentions of Reuben and Gad. He enters into dialogue with them. The result is that both sides get what they need.

Moses has grown from the incident where he struck the rock.  He has shown the capacity to manage his emotions so he could help other leaders generate ways to solve a problem. He has overcome the past so that he can see what is possible going forward. He has demonstrated resilience in the face of personal loss and communal fear.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Yizkor: Recovering Our Memory

Growing up in Springfield, Ohio, I did not have much of a Hebrew vocabulary. When the High Holidays were upon us people would say “Good Yuntif.” It was years before I learned that the words Yom Tov had any relationship with the High Holidays. Hebrew words and Yiddish words were given a Southern Ohio re-casting. To this day my New York-raised wife Carolyn cannot believe some of the hackneyed Yiddish-like constructions that come out of my mouth. When people were getting ready to go back to synagogue on Yom Kippur I would hear them say, “What time is yisskur?”  I did not know that this had any relationship with the ritual of observing Yizkor (which means remembrance).

During the High Holiday services I would get few clues. In our Reform congregation it was called the Memorial Service.  Clearly there were a lot more people for this service than for the afternoon Torah reading about Jonah and the whale. Our Russian name was Leviatan (big fish) so my father felt called to read (and we to listen) this portion of the afternoon service. We thus had a seat to watch as the room filled up for the Memorial Service.

Our rabbi clearly understood that the Memorial Service was the big draw. He reminded them that there was a time when there was an “unseemly exodus after the memorial service” as people rushed home to eat before the sounding of the Shofar. Of course, this was a mythical past. There were always people moving toward the doors after Kaddish. So that is how I remember how we use to remember.

When I began to go to Conservative synagogue I became aware of Yizkor.  For background, I am sharing this information from Jewish Virtual Library:
Yizkor (Hebrew, literally "remember") is a traditional mourning service recited by those who have lost a parent or a close loved one. This is based on the Jewish belief in the eternity of the soul and that although a soul can no longer do good deeds after death, it can gain merit through the charity and good deeds of the living. It is recited as part of the prayer service four times during the year.

Yizkor is said following the Torah and Haftarah readings on Yom Kippur, on the last day of Passover, on the second day of Shavout, and on the eighth day of Sukkot (Shemini Atzeret). It is said on Yom Kippur because of the belief that the dead as well of the living need atonement on this day. Yizkor also includes a pledge for charity, which is something that is believed to help avert a harsh decree.
Repetition – Excavating our Past
The big idea that has emerged for me is the idea of repetition as an aid to memory. I find the traditional approach has merits over the one day rush to honor and remember that I grew up with.  The wisdom of the tradition speaks to the very challenge of remembering. When I remember my father Harry and my sister Barbara (both May yahrzeits) four times a year I gain new insights.
I understand why my father was sometimes fearful. At age 64, I now understand more about the dangers of the world. I understand why he wanted to hold on to his role in the company.  I am currently training mentees to consult congregations. They now have the primary relationship with the client. I understand what it’s like to get old.  I work with a personal trainer just to be able to bend my knees more fully. It doesn’t just happen. Working through the stiffness makes me all too aware of my own mortality.

Not long ago I heard a song by Mary Chapin Carpenter called “Only a Dream.” It brought back memories of my sister and me playing in the backyard in the late 1950’s in Springfield. My sister, Barbara Leventhal Stern, was a painter and she painted a picture of the two of us from an old black and white photo where she is twirling me around in our backyard. The words of the song brought memories of those long past summer days.

We lived on a street where the tall elm shade
Was as green as the grass and as cool as a blade That you held in your teeth as we lay on our backs Staring up at the blue and the blue stared back
We'd grow just as tall and as proud as we pleased
With our feet on the ground and our arms in the breeze
Under a sheltering sky
Let me grow dizzy and fall to the ground
And when I look up at you looking down,
Say it was only a dream
I used to believe we were just like those trees
Twirl me about, and twirl me around

Lifting Up the Veil

Yizkor helps me pull back the veil of forgetfulness about my sister’s and father’s lives. I see them more clearly. I also meet them halfway. I am changing all year long. Layer by layer I lift back the veil to overcome my amnesia and to correct the lens of my vision.  Over time I am able to make connections between an old painting in our collection and song I just discovered. Together the memory becomes real. Yizkor provides a time for these explorations and I am thankful for having a tradition that encourages me to excavate and uncover my memories- to remember. For those in mourning, Yizkor is a time where the synagogue community can really be a place of remembrance and healing.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

It's Never Too Late

Some friends asked me if it was a little late for such a celebration at my age. Since I am in the synagogue ritual business I felt compelled to consider their question. The following are some of my remarks from my speech at the wedding reception for Carolyn Reinach Wolf and me (6-14-2015):

When I was transitioning from the business world I decided to get a Masters in Jewish education. As I was writing papers one friend asked, “Isn’t it a little late to start grad school?”
After Carolyn and I had been together for a few years I bought Dr. John Gottman’s The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. She saw the book and asked, “Isn’t it a little late for advice?”  Now I was able to use some Jewish aikido to turn her around. I told her that I had done the self-assessment for couples. She is so competitive she wanted to know, “How are we were doing?”
When I told friends that we were doing a wedding in New York, one friend from Ohio said, “A real wedding? A reception, music- the whole deal in New York?  Isn’t it a little late for all that? You didn’t consider just going to a rabbi’s study and having a cocktail party later?” We stand before you as a living proof that it isn’t too late. I believe that it’s never too late to learn something new. That’s what motivates me to teach synagogue board members who sometimes think they “know it all by now.”

Respect: I See You
Dr. Gottman said that one of the best signs of a promising couple is mutual respect. The word respect comes from the Latin world- specere- to look. We chose to ritualize this by walking around each other three times so we could look at each other as individuals before we entered the chuppa together. Like the trees in our Ketuba, we are different but entwined.  The sages say that if you repeat something three times it begins to become a habit. Three times around. We hope to make our mutual respect a habit.
I have the greatest respect for Carolyn. She never stopped learning. As a self-made career woman she has never stopped hustling. Tenacity was a core value of my family’s business too.
Carolyn’s work requires compassion. We share a compassion for troubled souls. She advocates for the rights of the mentally ill who are often hidden. Advocating for them is often an uphill battle. I advocate for the importance of synagogues and how they ritualize what is most important in a world that is often perplexing. Today, the benefits and blessings of Jewish living are often hidden to many. Making the case is an uphill battle. We share a respect for tenacity. We don’t give up in our work. We have not given up on each other. Here we are!

Fond Memory
Dr. Gottman suggests that couples who do well hold on to fond memories of their early years together.  They have the capacity to have a palpable connection to when their love was  fresh and strong. The Torah expresses this sentiment between God and the Jewish people (in Jeremiah 2:2):
I remember for thee the affection of thy youth, the love of thy espousals, how thou wentest after me in the Wilderness, in a land that was not sown.
We have put photographic mementos on your tables of the last four glorious years we have shared together. When we face challenges, we hope you will remind us of the promise of our early years.

Loving Witness

Dr. Gottman suggests it is important to have a ceremony where you are surrounded by well-wishers. Just as we were wrapped in the talit, so all of you who have attended have wrapped us in your love and helped make this day sacred and special. Those are not small things. It is never too late to gain love and support for the road ahead. Thank you for coming!

Friday, May 15, 2015

A Window on the World

I spent three years in Jackson, Mississippi from 1977-80 as the manager of one of our family’s production plants. That was less than 15 years from the civil rights battles of the 60’s.  In the Jackson Jewish community you heard stories about the few courageous souls to stood up for justice and a muffled acknowledgment that most had done little. In Jackson, the cost of courage was real. The rabbi, Perry Nussbaum, had taken a stand for civil rights. In 1967 the synagogue and his home were bombed.

Some people, like Rabbi Nussbaum, have the courage to stand and be counted.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel walked arm-in-arm with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma. This is what courage looked like.  I heard that Heschel insisted that his office at the Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC have a window that looked out over Harlem. He wanted to ensure he was not cut off from the world.
When I saw the riots in downtown Baltimore last month my first thought turned to Beth Am Israel, the only Conservative Congregation in the inner city of Baltimore. I asked some colleagues if they had heard anything from Rabbi Daniel Burg. They said no.

Then one offered, “Whatever happens in the crisis you can be sure that Rabbi Burg will be there the day after to help rally the community like a modern-day Heschel.”

Crisis in Baltimore
So I went to do some research. The Times of Israel reported:
Burg’s 93-year-old synagogue was once in the center of the main Jewish neighborhood – before most of the community moved further north toward the city’s borders and the suburbs. Now, Burg’s synagogue is the only permanently active Jewish institution in Reservoir Hill. Burg and his congregants are committed to remaining deeply involved in the neighborhood, the surrounding community, and Baltimore City. His congregants, he says, were very aware of recent cases of police violence against young black men – even months before fellow west Baltimorean Freddie Gray was taken into a police van and emerged an hour later with multiple breaks to his spine, paralyzed and comatose.
“Since Freddie Gray was killed, the conversations here have become more pointed and there is deep concern and consternation about the current state of race relations in this town and about the lack of trust between law enforcement and the civilian population,” Burg said.“On Shabbat after services, I walked down and joined a few congregants who joined a group from Jews United for Justice, and we had a Shabbat prayer experience together. Then we joined the protests at the Western District [police] headquarters where Freddie Gray had been, and walked through west Baltimore in what in my experience was a very peaceful demonstration. “
What the Times article demonstrates is that Rabbi Burg and his community have a “window on the world.” They have an external focus that looks beyond their walls. They look for opportunities for community programs and partners. They helped create a playground for the neighborhood partnering with the Baltimore Ravens. They worked with local groups to create a community garden. In the wake of the crisis the garden was damaged.
Rabbis Nussbaum and Heschel could affirm that having a “window on the world” can be dangerous. 
In Burg’s neighborhood, windows were smashed. Blocks away, protesters burned a CVS drug store and looted local stores.
 “My job first and foremost is to [take care of] my congregation, but our values, mission and vision as a synagogue is to be accountable to and in a relationship with our neighborhood in Reservoir Hill and to Baltimore City. [We try] to capitalize on the opportunities that come at the nexus of history and geography that is a 93-year-old synagogue building in a majority African-American neighborhood,” Burg explained. “In that sense I serve as a community leader, a faith leader. So today [Tuesday] I was out in west Baltimore helping with the cleanup, and working with our partners leading prayer services.”
Burg called on his congregants – and others – “to think about ourselves as part of this community and this city, and on a day like today, not just our neighborhood – Reservoir Hill. The more that we can do that, the more that we can build bridges,”That is what you see when you have a window on the world.
A Mission Bigger than Ourselves
 Rabbi Daniel Burg spoke to the Torah’s mandate of piku’ach nefesh, that we are compelled to act if by doing so we might save a life. I believe that “Prophetic Judaism” challenges the status quo. It forces the community to see. It helps them have a window to Gods will. A commitment to social justice helps Beth Am’s neighbors. It also, I believe, helps Beth Am. A commitment to social justice and opportunities for hands-on social action (Heschel called marching “praying with his feet”)  creates a mission that is bigger than just sustaining the congregation. It gives people a chance to connect to a higher purpose. That is an idea as old as Abraham.

Purpose driven congregations attract members and potential leaders. We find that “thriving congregations” connect Jewish learning, Jewish prayer and prophetic social justice. This is more than an annual mitzvah day or a teen trip to Washington. By weaving the three elements it creates a critical mass of commitment to see the right and to respond to what is called for.

I learned on my visit to Beth Am that this commitment to social justice existed before Rabbi Burg arrived there, but he has built on it. Some congregations are consumed by internal politics rivalries and day-to-day operations. Beth Am had a vision to be in a relationship with their neighborhood in Reservoir Hill and with Baltimore City.  Rabbi Burg has kept his window open and encouraged others too look out of their windows. In the process of helping to transform the Reservoir Hill District I imagine that many of Beth Am’s leaders have been personally transformed. When the crisis came they did not have to break down the walls that separated them from other community leaders. They found that the doors of the community were open to them. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Programming for Today’s Jewish Audience

In the New York Times on May 11, 2015, Dave Itzkoff wrote, “David Letterman’s departure is in some ways the end of an era in late night television. If Mr. Letterman represented an era when a late-night show was a comprehensive end-of-day viewing experience, meant to be watched in a post-twilight setting for an hour (or until you fell asleep), the coming age is fragmented by technology, designed for online virality, unstructured and unmoored from time slots.”

Changing Expectations for Viewers
Itzkoff continued, “What is going away is the expectation viewers will watch these programs in close to their entirety, or even sequentially. And future shows will abandon the familiar, rhythmic tempo of late-night altogether.” It seems to me that Next Generation watches things when they want to, on the device they want to and where they want to. Observers report they have a short attention span. Program developers may find they are just ‘one click away from oblivion.’

We are all too familiar with the disruptive impact of generational changes fueled by economic and technological changes. How do these changes impact the attitudes of the next generation for synagogue’s engagement and or membership? 

Kathy Elias has noted that most synagogue leaders are what she refers to as “structuralists.” They want people to join up and attend key programs at set times, within the boundaries of their culture and within their synagogue walls (structures). In today’s environment, prospective members are often what Elias calls “experientialists.” They may feel they can get Jewish content and experience from a wide array of providers when they want it, where they want it and how they want it. They also have learned that they can get much of this for little or no cost.

Outside of the walls of Jewish institutions (synagogues, federations, seminaries, denominations) the world is changing. Leaders within their institutions must deal with major paradigms shifts. They are challenged to see the world with new lenses. Rabbi Hayim Herring writes about this shift in “Educating Rabbis for Jews Without Borders”:
In the 21st Century, we can now clearly see a new paradigm of a world characterized by human networks that can swell swiftly to upend governments or fund game-changing products; an unbounded start-it-yourself and share-it-with-others ethos; and, heightened influence of lone individuals, ephemeral crowds, and enduring social networks. Individuals have the ability to span cultures, geography and time, and relatively small groups have the means to violently shift national borders.
He then shifts to explain the impact on Jewish institutions:
The American Jewish community has naturally been affected by this new zeitgeist. For many Jews today, the beliefs, behaviors and values that animated the Jewish community have lost their former power. Beliefs don’t hold people. Rather, people hold beliefs – and may discard them when they no longer “work,” customize “new traditions,” or design Jewish rituals drawn from multiple faith traditions. As a result, we might call the Jewish community of the United States, “Jews Without Borders.”
The New Program Scheduling Paradigm

A new paradigm? While many of the changes have been going on for last 20 years, change has accelerated and the accumulated force of these disruptions has created a new reality. How do we create programs in a world where audiences have become “unmoored” from such programming staples as late-night TV? How do we engage current and prospective members when they have a finger on the mouse or the remote control and are ready to turn their attention elsewhere within a moment’s notice? How do congregations program and communicate in a world where the basic assumptions they have operated on have a smaller and more fragmented audience? Here are some programming guides:

  • Volunteer activity will be more episodic. More people will opt for a short projects or task forces.
  •  Programs will need to be able to stand on their own. Leaders can’t assume their participation will be sequential.
  • Resources need to be accessible when people need them. We may have fewer people that attend a live Sulam webinar but many who access these materials later.
  • Programs will need to have shorter time frames- more mini-series where people can jump in for a limited time period.
  • There need to be multiple locations where one can connect to the community (multiple service rooms, home Shabbat networks, book groups, service streaming, sermon podcasts that can be played as you walk through the park etc.)
  • Programs need to show how the synagogue connects members to the world outside the synagogue’s walls through hands on social action.
  • Leaders will welcome programs from the bottom up. The synagogue or Jewish organization may tap the knowledge and skills of groups and simply help them convene. Let them go with their passions within a supportive framework.
  • Leaders have to create a strong brand experience. HBO’s president understands that not all of his subscribers will love boxing or political comedian Bill Maher.  He just needs subscribers to find among all of the programs enough perceived value to sustain his monthly fee.
  • Leaders can welcome programs from across the community. Not everyone can afford to have the program breadth of HBO (from comedy to boxing) . Some need to find ways to collaborate and partner to program with others across  borders.
  • Programs will have to show how they welcome different types of people into the walls of the synagogue (LGBT, singles, interfaith, financially struggling, etc.).
  • Programs have to appeal to people’s interest in learning, social action and spirituality. Programs need to weave different elements together to cluster enough value for an experience.
  • Programs are not enough. Participants need some kind of relationship building experience with others.  They need to make friends.\
  • Participants have to believe in the synagogue's brand. HBO’s subscribers believe in HBO’s brand. Synagogue participants need to believe in the vision (brand) of the synagogue.

Television programs and synagogues are both experiencing disruptive change. Some leaders choose to ignore the paradigm changes and continue to do what they have been doing. Others realize that there is a new generation with their own personal playlist. These synagogue leaders are hoping to get some of their best ideas and programs on these playlists. They want to be a brand that wins the hearts, minds and loyalties of their audience. It’s not an easy process but having a sense of urgency about the need for change is the first step.