Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Tu B'shevat - planting for the future

Jewish tradition has taught for generations about "paying it forward." In one famous Talmudic tale of Honi the Circle Maker, we read:

One day, Honi the Circle Maker was walking on the road and saw a man planting a carob tree. Honi asked the man, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?”

The man replied, “Seventy years.”
Honi then asked the man, “And do you think you will live another seventy years and eat the fruit of this tree?”
The man answered, “Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.”
This story is often used to express the Jewish value of providing for the future in fundraising campaigns - reminding us of another rabbinic teaching: eyn kemach eyn torah - "without flour (sustenance=$$=diƱeiro) there is no Torah." That is, without financial support of our institutions and causes, there can be no substantive learning and activity. How true. 
Of course, there are myriad additional ways for our community to "pay it forward" for the generations yet to come. This evening begins the holiday of Tu B'shevat - the Birthday of the Trees. Traditionally associated with the time that sap begins to run again in the trees in the land of Israel, it is our celebration of our commitment to maintaining the natural world. Somewhat of a Jewish "earth day" and environmental lollapalooza.
What are you doing to plant trees for the future? 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

what's on YOUR playlist?

In his latest book titled Playlist Judaism: Making Choices for a Vital Future, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky of the Jewish Outreach Institute (www.joi.org) constructs a brilliant metaphor regarding modern Jewish life. He demonstrates that in today's world, unlike that of our parents and grandparents, Jews (and people of all religious denominations) wish to create, extremely autonomously, their own "set list" of religious involvement, institutional and otherwise. Whereas previous generations "bought the whole album" even if only looking for the one or two hit singles they enjoyed, our contemporaries are picking and choosing only those programs, opportunities, experiences and activities that are personally appealing and potentially fulfilling.  Introducing the concept in the book's foreword, insightful teacher Ron Wolfson makes the case, describing the evolution of recorded music over his lifetime. After fondly recalling purchasing singles and LPs, he notes:

...perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the experience was the necessity to endure those B-side tracks and the selection of mediocre songs that came as part of the album when it was really only one or two hits you wanted to hear. Today, of course, there is no need to buy the whole album or put up with an inferior B side. Today, internet-based technology enables me to choose only the songs I really want, the songs that really speak to me, the songs that make my own heart sing. Today, I create my personal playlist, my own mixtape of voices that move me. Today...the oft-cited aphorism "We are all Jews by choice" finds its ultimate expression in this twenty-first century Playlist Judaism. The question is, What shall Jewish communal leaders, clergy, and educators do to engage a population that refuses to buy the whole album and increasingly picks only those experiences that resonate with who they are and where they are on their very personal spiritual journeys?

This shift in perspective outlined by Wolfson and explored further by Olitzky has significant ramifications for the "organized" Jewish world. There are of course financial, programmatic, and institutional implications to be considered and navigated. More so, this new reality implies substantial consequences regarding people, personnel and what it means to create community. These are among the issues that Olitzky (and so many others of us today) are attempting to address.

So my question is: given the availability of such a wide range of entry points for involvement, and so many options for Jewish expression, what are those that you place on YOUR own playlist? Let me know...


Thursday, January 15, 2015

Toxic Emotions, revisited

Peter J. Frost, Toxic Emotions at Work and What You Can Do about Them
Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2003.
 
This is an oft-overlooked gem that should be read by every organizational leader, volunteer, and participant - especially regarding those times of challenging transition that seem to plague every type of outfit you can imagine.
 
Insightfully, Frost does not come up with a magic list of reasons for the toxicity that troubles our businesses, agencies, congregations (and even families). Rather, he forces the reader to confront the inherent reality of these difficulties (the nasty co-worker, the problematic situation, the tough merger....); whether or not the effect is a toxic one is dependent on the response to the given condition. He writes:
 
Pain is a fact of organizational life. Companies will merge, bosses will make unrealistic demands, people will lose their jobs. The pain that accompanies events like these isn't in itself toxic; rather, it's how that pain is handled throughout the organization that determines whether its long-term effects are positive or negative. What turns emotional pain into toxicity, especially in organized settings, is when others respond to that pain in a harmful, rather than healing, way (emphasis mine).
 
Ok - how many of us have experienced such behavior? Each and every time, it is that response - the harmful instead of healing one - that actually adds to, even multiplies, the poisoned state of affairs. And, these emotional toxins are just as insidious and dangerous as any harmful agent introduced to the body...
 
Frost goes on to discuss the "toxin handler" - that person in the organization who deals with the emotional and functional fallout that occurs. More often than not, this person isn't specifically designated - i.e. not necessarily part of the HR team. There's always that one person (or a few) that becomes the "go-to" resource for bitching, moaning, complaining, and ultimately brainstorming and repairing that which can be fixed. Important to note - through processing the toxins out of colleagues (and perhaps the system), the toxin handler also needs a great measure of care and cleansing - to purge the accumulated contamination. Organizations that do well in cultivating an atmosphere in which toxins are eliminated and toxin handlers are well cared for are better positioned to thrive.
 
And those who don't...
 
 

Thursday, January 8, 2015

forging ahead

The onset of a new year affords everyone an opportunity to reflect on the past (mistakes, successes, woulda-shoulda-coulda, etc.). 2014 was filled with lots of lousy: Ebola, ISIS, shootings, and more. Rather than the easy default of dwelling on the negative, we must grasp onto the good stuff as a base for carrying on. Think of the milestones achieved. Consider these words from Amy Cosper, editor in chief of Entrepreneur:

     ...it's not all evil and strife. 2014 was the year we put marriage equality in the books; we allowed a nascent industry - marijuana - to thrive; and we celebrated (and wept) as Malala Yousafzai became the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner in history. It was year of humility - and from that humility, optimism...welcome to the year of the storyteller platform...

Well I believe the "storyteller platform" - the notion that personalizing narratives is a powerful effective way the make the case for your business, project or cause - is not new at all. It represents the eternal human need to identify one's own story with the larger world. Telling our stories lends weight, legitimacy and vitality. Story is what ties us together as a human family.
So what is YOUR story? Moreover, HOW are you going to share it going forward? Your story is important - tell it well.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Cultivate YOUR *kitchen for the mind*

Inspired by an ad for the Bosch Kitchen Center in the current (October 2014) issue of Entrepreneur Magazine (www.entrepreneur.com), I re-read the insightful (if not slightly dated) Think out of the Box by Mike Vance and Diane Deacon (originally published 1995) - especially paying attention to the chapter titled "Designing Creative Environments". After an introduction praising the legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright, the authors begin with the simple notion: Don't let your environment control you. A simple thought, right? As we all know, having a workspace that encourages and inspires our creativity isn't so easy to establish, never mind maintain. Too often, the space in which we spend the majority of our potentially creative time (and energy) has been designated, defined or given to us. The office, cubicle, kitchen, class room, reception area, and even sanctuary where we toil was usually conceived by someone else - with no regard for the actual individual/s who would occupy it.
Much of our creative class has, thankfully, trended away from being boxed in, in such a way. Many of us still need to break free of traditional working setups in order to foster the deepest and most dynamic of our talents. True for work, true for home - as the division between these two "separate" places blurs for so many. 
Promoting an enriched place as they call it, Vance and Deacon write:
Think of the kitchen for your stomach. You have the necessary utilities to transform recipes into wonderful food for eating. In your kitchen for the stomach, you have breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. In your Kitchen for the Mind, you work on projects, programs, celebrations and individual activities, cooking up recipes as you go...
...the walls of your Kitchen for the Mind should have lots of space to pin up concepts and ideas...and don't forget musical instruments, board games, a stereo (I said this is dated :), and anything else that gets your creative juices flowing.
When I first studied this material several years ago, I completely reorganized my office space in the synagogue I served: cleared off the large desk to make a truly useable surface area; put up a small white board to jot down ideas, random ones or not, and to keep them visibly part of my environment; color coded my notes, project planning and calendar activities; always had music playing (duh); even made sure the lava lamp was always turned on when I arrived, as if to indicate "open for business."
And, I, much like the universe itself, am subject to the gentle hand of entropy. After several weeks, it became easier again to allow items to pile up on my desk. Piles of books everywhere, seemingly haphazard (though I swear I knew the location of every volume!) littering the floor. Colored pens/pencils so easily replaced by the ever-present black ink...
As I recall, the times I'm motivated and energized to utilize a Kitchen for the Mind construct, because it's totally customized to me, I've been at my most creative, efficient and enthusiastic. Again time to sustain such a space...
Now - how do YOU engage such a workable, pleasing, inspiring, and yes fun spot for yourself? And if you want ideas, or a sounding board to continue the conversation - let me know!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sonny Rollins brings me back

Today should be a great day of celebration for the American spirit. And with due respect to Derek Jeter, another iconic figure I love (though, despite, and due to the fact he's a, no *the* Yankee) - this thought is not about him.
It's in tribute to the saxophone colossus himself, maestro Sonny Rollins. One of the great jazz sax players of all time, and perhaps our last vital link to the ageless pantheon of jazz immortals. His name is to be spoken in the same breath as Bird, Diz, Miles, etc....and let us recall with gratitude he is still with us.
He remains a great personal inspiration...his music, his vibe, his style through the ages...

Go out there, enjoy life, get your improv on, and give thanks to Sonny Rollins - 84 years powerful today!

Monday, March 31, 2014

My turn - why I'm shaving my head

Back in elementary school, I'm don't recall exactly which grade, a friend was diagnosed with something previously unfamiliar to me called leukemia. We were told that this is a very serious illness, and that he may or may not survive. It's the first time I genuinely remember wrestling with the idea of death and beginning to grasp the notion of mortality. Instead of wondering if we could get together to play catch (we were on the same little league team - boy he had a great arm!), I learned to be concerned whether he was having a decent day, week, or even semester. Thankfully, he overcame his cancer and stands testament to the possibilities of care, cure and life. For all the Eddies of my childhood, I am shaving my head.
As a teenager, a dear friend lost her father, all too young, after battling cancer. I still had not known death in my family personally. That summer at camp, I experienced the true power of community in the process of grieving, mourning, consoling and uplifting. We couldn't articulate it with these words, though we received somewhat of a masters class in comforting the bereaved. For all the "Sarahs" in my youth, I am shaving my head.
Serving as a young assistant rabbi in a very comfortable, well-to-do community, it was as if the world was only bright, shiny and positive. A growing congregation of good people dedicated to Jewish values and involvement, very little got in the way of whatever creative programs, activities and ritual we could imagine. And then it seems we had one after another young moms diagnosed with breast cancer. Looking back, I recognize that most of them were younger than I am now. Beyond the typical and wide-ranging obligations being a rabbi in this vibrant setting - I had to grow into the role of being able to hold hands, as it were, with these slightly older peers and their families as they confronted their questions: will I survive? Will I be less of a woman following surgery? Will my husband and children carry on after  I'm gone?  The meaning of just being present became absolutely clear. For the Karens and Anns and Lisas who've made me a better rabbi, I'm shaving my head.
Of course, not quite two years ago, our dear friends learned that one of their precious children faced his own challenge with cancer. I remain lost for words in gratitude for what I've learned through this episode. Their example as a family, in the range of what they've allowed others to witness, is profound: the raw emotion, gentle compassion, and genuine humanity in their expression from rage and frustration to humility and appreciation has helped cultivate a deeper understanding  of love - not only regarding their children, also for the connected circle of family and friends who they embraced during this unimaginably difficult time. All while undergoing what my grandmother taught was the worst thing possible, that parents should never have to bury a child. For all the Sammys who have exemplified bravery and dignity - and so one day there won't be any more - I am shaving my head.
Humbly I know that I'm fortunate that my own family is, at least for now, healthy and safe. And who knows, that may one day change. Jewish tradition demands that we embrace, love and care for the stranger, the "other", as we know what it is to be that stranger. What could be more "other" than someone going through illness, disease or hardship that I've never known? And so it has become even more important to work on behalf of those who are struggling - and to teach my own children that their greatest potential is to make a positive difference in the lives of people beyond themselves. In gratitude for the Bens and Vereds in our lives,and in hope that they might know a world one day free from cancer, I am shaving my head.