Tuesday, February 24, 2015

What About Membership, Funding and the Meaning of Community?

This is a guest post by Barry Mael, United Synagogue's Director of Kehilla Operations and Finance. Thank you, Barry!

Synagogue dues and membership models have, for several years, been the focus of spirited discussion in the Jewish world. The question about dues speaks to the heart of the Post World War II American Jewish model, since the system has become so ingrained in our collective psyche. Jewish leaders have been discussing the pros and cons of alternative models at conferences, on blogs and in the Jewish press. Some congregations have reported astounding success after switching to alternative members models, while others have continued to struggle with finances and membership numbers. The spotlight on the issue grew much brighter when, on Feb. 2, the New York Times published the lengthy feature, The "Pay What You Want" Experiment in Synagogues. The piece offered considerable history, context and anecdotes, describing an internal Jewish debate to the widest possible audience.

We will be looking at the topics of financial sustainability, dues models and revenue sources at the upcoming USCJ Convention 2015, November 13-17 in Schaumburg, Illinois. We will not only be continuing this conversation, will be adding to it, deepening it and moving the agenda forward. We will also focus on what, up until this point, has been a neglected aspect of the discussion: Just what does Torah – taken in its widest and most expansive meaning – have to teach us about membership, funding and the meaning of community?
Here is a related d’var Torah to get our juices flowing for November. Here is a spoiler: These issues are not new. In fact, they are timeless.
The Torah portion of Terumah contains the first call for the ‘congregation’ to hold a capital campaign. In Exodus 25:2, Moses approaches the people for help to build the Mishkan, or Tabernacle:
Tell the Israelite people to bring me gifts; you shall accept gifts for me from every person whose heart so moves him.
The verses go on to describe all the different kinds of materials that are needed and wanted as gifts, allowing the people to give according to their interests, abilities and strengths. Notably, there was no requirement for everyone to give. One’s affiliation to the community was not based on financial or other material contributions.
This “campaign” took place during the journey through the desert, in order to build the portable Mishkan. The people had left Egypt, experienced the crisis of the golden calf and received the Ten Commandments. The Israelites were becoming connected to the Torah and the concept of being a unified people who served God. The people also had plenty of money and materials which they had removed from Egypt. The population was inspired and primed for this voluntary giving opportunity and they certainly gave freely.
They gave and gave - in fact, to the point where the builders and craftsmen finally came to Moses and asked him to have the people stop because there was too much material (Exodus 36:3-7)! In addition to giving materials for the bricks and mortar, the Torah also tells us that people who had skills to build or sew or create certain crafts were recruited to make all the utensils, pieces and elements of the Mishkan.
And every wise hearted person among you shall come and make everything that the Lord has commanded (Exodus 35:10).
A wonderful concept is stated here regarding Terumah and the building of the Mishkan. Specifically, whether a person gives his or her discretionary money or their discretionary time as a skilled volunteer, each and every gift is needed and appreciated. We also see that in the case of this ‘capital campaign’ with respect to building the Mishkan: Those who chose not to give at all were in no way excluded from the community. The entire, one-time capital campaign project was voluntary. (Though, perhaps, encountering God’s awesome power at Mount Sinai convinced many to yes when Moses came asking.)
The Torah makes reference to two other models for community support: the half-shekel and tithing. These were not voluntary models. In the one case, everyone gave a half-shekel as a participant in the census; to literally be counted amongst the people. In the other, the people were required to tithe, which meant the more you had, the more you gave. In this case, in order to be part of the community, one was required to give their mandated share. Supporting the community was expressly stated and understood to be everyone’s responsibility and therefore not voluntary. These funding streams were necessary for maintaining the “operational budget” of the mobile Jewish people.
In the context of our current debate, what does it mean that the Torah gives us alternative models to fund community? Is it as simple as special campaigns should be voluntary, but community members must support the community on an annual basis? Is it more complicated than that? Here are some thoughts:
  1. Giving of one’s discretionary money or time are both needed and appreciated.
  2. The Torah did not rely on nor mandate that voluntary giving is the way to support the community in an ongoing, consistent manner.
  3. It was much more frowned upon and difficult to exclude oneself from the community than it is today.
  4. When people feel inspired and care about a project they will support it with a full hand and a full heart.
  5. Having a mapped-out process and goal in mind will allow you to know when you have truly met your goal. The builders and their head “contractor”, Bezalel, knew when to say to Moshe that they had everything they needed and the campaign was done.
  6. Voluntary pledging was used for specific events or projects, but not as the main revenue stream for the support of the community.
  7. Voluntary pledging was not connected in any way to affiliation in the community.
  8. Voluntary pledging seemed to relate to volunteer time and not only financial support.
  9. Consistent annual revenue streams such as the half–shekel and/or tithing still have important roles in helping the community remain sustainable.
  10. There is a significant element of a successful campaign that relies on the communal/relational element of belonging. At the time of building the Mishkan, it was the only game in town.

Now, I don’t believe it is a coincidence that as a centerpiece case statement of the Mishkan capital campaign stands the famous line: Make for me a Mishkan and I will dwell in them (Exodus 25:8).
The famous question is this: Why does it say B’tocham (in them) instead of B’tocho (in it), which would be logical? If we build a house for God to dwell in our midst then the emphasis would be on the actual building, the bricks & mortar. The message being sent here, quite clearly, is that the emphasis needs to be on the people, the community and what is happening in the building, not on the building itself. If the success of this campaign was based on gifts made from only whoever’s heart is moved, then how do we create a community or environment in our kehillot that will inspire our members to give and volunteer? What will inspire all of their hearts and spirit?
I can’t wait for the discussion in Chicagoland in November. Consult our sources, the media, or wherever you look for ideas and inspirations. Come prepared to learn, to share and to teach.

Written by Barry S. Mael , Director: Kehilla Operations & finance, USCJ, Rosh Chodesh Adar 5775

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Why Does Synagogue Change Miss the Mark? Think Structuralists vs Experientialists

Anne, Adam and Ariel belong to the same congregation. If you ask them what they want from their synagogue, they use exactly the same words:

To feel embraced and supported...Grounded, a place that feels like “home”...Stabilty - to know the synagogue community will be there.

If you ask them how to make all of that happen, they use exactly the same word: change.If you ask them what to change, well, that’s where we get into problems. You’d have to know more about them to understand what they’re imagining.

Anne​ has been on the board of directors for eight years, and a member of the congregation for more than 20. It makes her sad to see how much the Shabbat morning crowd in the sanctuary has decreased. In her Conservative synagogue, it seems like they’re reading every word of the prayer book. They move back and forth from the Hebrew to English, in an attempt to keep people engaged. She’s pretty sure that shortening the service will make a difference and bring people back into the seats. To shave off 10 or 15 minutes, she’d like the clergy and ritual committee to start with a change in their policy that requires reading the full Torah portion of the week.

Adam drops off his toddler twins to the early childhood program at the shul every morning. He grew up in the community, (his grandparents were founding members), and, in his youth, he was the USY chapter president. He and his wife like the Tot Shabbat program on Saturday mornings for the sake of the kids, but they’re not interested in what’s going on in the sanctuary. They’d like babysitting and an alternative, laylead service with more Hebrew, music and participation. The change he’d like to see is more options on Shabbat.

Ariel is a single mom with two kids. She was one of the most active volunteers in the early childhood program, creating a “friendship circle” that rotates Shabbat dinner every week among four families who are now the key leaders of the Tot Shabbat service on Saturday mornings. They are talking about banding together to start their own family learning chavurahinstead of sending their kids to the congregational school. She’d like the bar/bat mitzvah policy to change so that this is accepted as preparation, and wants the Education Director to give them the learning goals that they’d be expected to reach. 

Put on your change management kippah and look closely at whatwill change if each person could get what they want. Which change tinkers with what exists already? Which calls for creating something new? What is dismantled with every change?

Anne’s solution to shorten Shabbat morning services might take time and might even cause some friction with the ritual committee, but Anne is not proposing to overhaul or do away with the service itself. Ariel, however, is opting out of the congregational school. She and her friends want to create something outside the traditional synagogue structure. Their invitation to the Education Director to provide the parameters is, in itself, a challenge to the synagogue structure. And everyone understands that the stakes are high – if the four families in Ariel’s group choose to go it alone, it would remove ten children from the community.

This tension is one of the core findings of United Synagogue’s research in the last year as we explored how to partner with kehilla leaders for our next convention in 2015. We came out of our Centennial celebration and convention in 2013, The Conversation of the Century,with the goal of moving from conversation to action. We surveyed kehilla leaders, reviewed data from thousands of members of the congregations in our strategic planning program, and looked for patterns in what they said they valued and how they spoke about change.

What we found can be summed up by two divergent perspectives. It’s what makes kehilla leaders feel like they’re chasing a moving target that never gets closer or clearer. We’re calling it the gap between structuralistsand experientialists.​ 

Structuralists​ understand and value synagogue communities. They want to strengthen them. Their approach is to make changes to the existing structure of their community – changing Shabbat service customs, hiring different clergy and staff, tweaking their membership dues models, consolidating their school or merging with another congregation. This is not for the faint of heart. Structuralist leaders are often willing to risk their personal and familial time, peace of mind, and faith in the structures themselves, year after year, trying to find the recipe for a vibrant kehilla.

Experientialists​ want to strengthen their Jewish lives. They understand and value the myriad of options they have in and out of synagogues to accomplish this. Their approach to get what they need is to create it themselves, find solutions that work, and/or move through experiences until they get the right fit. This is not for the faint of heart, but experientialists see the world built this way in real time all around them a connected, crowdsourced, DIY world where technology, the economy and social structures change almost as quickly as an Amazon app on Google Play. 

Structuralist leaders say things like, “Why don’t they want to join us?” and “If we only had better...(pick one)...marketing materials, programs, music, participatory services, clergy, ways to explain Conservative Judaism, relational strategies... it would bring in new people.”

Experientialists say, “I value being Jewish, but I don’t need to pay to feel Jewish,” and “Why should I work on a committee and wait for a group to decide what I can or can’t have? It can be created now, and I can find it myself if I need to.”

If you think that this chasm falls along generational lines, you might be right. The generations of baby boomers and their parents built our synagogue structures, and, in many kehillot, still tend to be the majority in the leadership. Experientialists are probably younger, and may or may not be members of kehillot.

But if you only think only in generational terms, you’ll miss the big picture. Structuralists and experientialists can cut across generational lines. It’s possible for a person to be both, depending on what part of their lives we’re talking about. In the examples I gave, Ariel imagines the most experientialist change in educating her children, but she is still trying to work within the existing structure. Deeply dedicated to her Conservative congregation, Anne might go to High Holiday services at the Reform Temple so she can be with her grandchildren.

And, keep in mind, I have not given a fourth profile - Avery - an experientialist who won’t come near the kehilla that Anne, Adam and Ariel are changing.

These divergent perspectives affect every aspect of our synagogues from our board tables to our kiddush lunch tables. But it’s not hopeless. When we look for where these perspectives converge, that place seems to be around shared values about feeling embraced, supported, connected and grounded in a living Jewish tradition.

 If change is going to happen, structuralists will need to see possibilities beyond their perspective, and experientialists will need to be given the tools to build what they envision. For that reason, at United Synagogue, we’re incorporating this lens into our all of our kehilla strengthening and transformation programs, and, in November, creating the place where structuralists and experientialists can learn to work together.

We’re designing our next convention, from November 1317, 2015, as the largest Jewish workshop in the world. Our call to action is to Shape the Center.We especially want people like Anne, Adam and Ariel to attend as a team from their kehilla, people who will dedicate themselves to shaping their communities with openness and shared intention. We want everyone at the convention to feel empowered to pursue an optimistic vision for the future, and feel connected to the thousands of others who will do the work of transformation in kehillot across the globe.

If I said, "Join us!" I would sound like a structuralist. So, instead, I'll say, "In November, let's get to work... together." 


Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Lifetime of Kehilla

My father-in-law, Dr. Gabriel Elias, passed away last week at the age of 99. As we sat shiva this week, his large family - six children, 14 grandchildren and nine great grandchildren - gathered and celebrated his extraordinary life. He was a self-made man of 20th Century America, an immigrant from Greece who earned a law degree and a Ph.D., served in the U.S. Army during World War II in the intelligence service, had successful careers as a lawyer, college professor, therapist and businessman, and accomplished every goal he ever imagined, on his own terms.

During their 67-year marriage, Gabby and his wife, Alma, developed friendships with thousands of people. He was the seeker, and she is a nurturer. She is a Zionist; he was a humanist. Together, their genuine curiosity and kindness were the magnets that drew others to them.

Childhood friends, neighbors, synagogue friends (from their 50-year membership at Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, PA), couples from a variety of book groups, Humanist Group members, (he was the founder of the Humanist Association of Greater Philadelphia), the couples he married as one of the first non-clergy officiants in the country, and a myriad of wanderer-acquaintances they met as they traveled around the world, form the concentric circles of community that reflect their diverse interests and life path.

This week of sitting shiva brought people together from almost all of the communities in the Elias family life story. As they tell and re-tell the stories about the man they knew as Grandpa, Pappou, Gabby, Gabe or Dr. Elias, their perspectives add texture and details for all of us.

In the last seven years, their fellow residents of Martins Run, the senior living community in which they live, became their newest circle of friends. They're providing the final perspective. The Martins Run residents got to know Gabby when age-related memory issues made his prized intellectual intensity harder to access. What emerged in him was a sense of humor and a kind of detached bemusement about his cognitive decline. When you asked him how he was doing, he would answer ironically, "Getting younger every day." This week, his children, remembering the serious dad who required that every child hear an ethics lesson from him before getting their weekly allowance, are hearing about his jokes and one-liners in his last years.

It is the Martins Run community members who have gathered with us every night for our shiva minyan. The women surround my mother-in-law before and after the service with conversation and hand holding. They assure us that they'll continue to do so when her children and grandchildren leave town today and tomorrow. Most of them have lost spouses or partners, and they know how to create the support network to help someone navigate this new phase of life.

We're all able to find kehilla throughout our lifetime. The Elias family is grateful for, and I am inspired by, the Martins Run kehilla.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

My Season of Cardiac Care

Two nights before Yom Kippur, I went home alone from the hospital to our big old house, trying not to notice how empty it felt. The charming place that my husband, Bob, and I bought this year to rehab and re-sell suddenly felt like a used trebuchet from the Renaissance Faire that would need to be unloaded on Craig's List.

That evening, Bob was getting ready for heart surgery.

His condition, and the urgency for intervention, surprised both of us. For the next few days, on my way to the intensive care unit, I drove past my synagogue without an ounce of mental, physical or spiritual energy to stop at the one place that had always given me all three.

The surgery went well, and when Bob was recovering, I realized that at that moment we were living through the perspective-taking about life and death that's built into the ritual and liturgy of the High Holidays. (Watch for my blog post next year on how the Unetanah Tokef will never be the same for me.)

Fast forward to good news. Life is returning to normal. He has a couple more months before he'll be ready to tackle big home improvement projects or move the 50 boxes of books that are still in the garage. That will come back in time. I have resumed my typical work schedule of either talking on the phone all day or traveling. We throw a kiss or send a text message when either of us leaves the house. We're as present as we can be for other family members who are going through some difficult times, too. We're looking ahead to our son's wedding next year, eagerly waiting for photos and details about the date and site. Ok, that might just be me who's eagerly waiting. Also normal.

Here's what happened instantly and hasn't stopped: We smile every day because we will have more days together.

Here's what took awhile to notice: The help we needed from our synagogue community didn't come from an organized committee. And I'm grateful for that.

Let me explain.

My first call to inform people that Bob was in the hospital, after I activated our family network, was to the office at my synagogue. I couldn't say at the time why that was so important to me; we're all comforted by different connections. (Bob's first call was to our painter to cancel their punch list review.)

Almost immediately, Bob got a call from our rabbi. There was no deep discussion about life and death - I think Bob joked about the lengths he'd go to to get out of Yom Kippur services. But those first few days unloaded an avalanche of medical information, decisions, and pain, and our rabbi provided a familiar non-anxious presence that comes from a relationship built over decades. A chat, even about Yom Kippur sermons, was a welcomed gift of normal at an abnormal time.

For the first few weeks, our family and friends regularly visited or checked in. Bob's closest buddies and our sons were always a phone call away to shop and do errands, or stay with him while I went out. I knew my support network, asked for help when I needed it, and got it.

Synagogues expend a lot of energy organizing a corps of chesed volunteers, people who kindly cook or do errands for community members going through medical crises or loss. They are critical lifelines for many people. I'm glad to say we didn't need this. It's because our corps of chesed volunteers are continually present in our lives - friends we collected through years of synagogue membership, sharing Shabbat and holiday dinners together, celebrating weddings, and supporting each other after the deaths of our parents. There was nothing to activate; our network is always there.

Bob and I have belonged to four kehillot in the last 32 years, and these sacred communities have enriched our lives with relationships. Our children went to their schools, and their friends' parents became our friends. When our children grew up, we formed a circle of friends with whom to continue to do Jewish things... or not. Our synagogue office is one of the first places I call because I'm confident that some gesture that brings a moment of peace or comfort will come from it.

I have spent a lot of time in my career teaching leaders of synagogues how to "create community," and here's what my season of cardiac care taught me:  No single synagogue committee, on its own, creates a support network. It's built over time by the whole community, piece by piece, person to person - during high moments of transition and predictable daily, weekly or yearly rituals.

Our sacred communities anchor us with a gathering place, a commitment to something beyond ourselves, and a calendar that, if we follow along, opens up the potential for building a human network, one that can carry us through the worst, and best, of what life brings us.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Blessing of Wonder

When we say things like "people don't change" it drives scientists crazy, because change is literally the only constant in all of science. Energy. Matter. It's always changing, morphing, merging, growing, dying. It's the way people try not to change that's unnatural. The way we cling to what things were instead of letting things be what they are. The way we cling to old memories instead of forming new ones. The way we insist on believing despite every scientific indication that anything in this lifetime is permanent. Change is constant. How we experience change that's up to us. It can feel like death or it can feel like a second chance at life. If we open our fingers, loosen our grips, go with it, it can feel like pure adrenaline. Like at any moment we can have another chance at life. Like at any moment, we can be born all over again.
Well said by one of my favorite philosophers - Meredith, on Grey's Anatomy

Rosh Hashana is built into our calendar as the time when we can stop and look back at the changes that have happened in our lives in the bite-sized piece of one year. As I do this, I'm startled by the changes I have experienced this year. 

In my personal life, my husband and I made a counter-intuitive decision to buy and renovate a large old Victorian house and property. Empty nesters aren't supposed to upsize, but we did. It has been the most joyful thing we have ever done, except for bringing three children into this world and watching them grow into wonderful men.

In my work life, I can't begin to count the changes in the last year. We reorganized our departmental structure, said farewell to several dedicated colleagues, brought new people on board, and all of us had to adjust to new roles. My position has changed and my job title is new. I can already feel the changes in my interactions with people within and outside United Synagogue.

The writers of Grey's Anatomy put the words in Meredith's mouth, but they could just as easily be mine. Opening up to the possibilities of change does feel like pure adrenaline.

The liturgy of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur recognizes that feeling. There's a reason why these days are called the Days of Awe. We blow the shofar every morning, and hearing it is a visceral wake up call to pay attention in a different way than the rest of the year.

So for the coming year, what I wish for myself and for everyone is the blessing of wonder - that each day we find moments when we loosen our tight grip on how we perceive the world. Each moment of wonder can be like the sound of a shofar, awakening us to see our second chance at life.

L'shana tova u'metuka.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Kehilla Permaculture

In a few weeks, I'll be moving out of my house to a new home with more land. As a passionate gardener, this is a dream come true. To prepare for my real-life enactment of the game, Gardenscapes, I decided to learn about permaculture.


Permaculture is a way of looking at the environment holistically, and working with, rather than against, the natural systems that already exist on a site. Instead of viewing the soil as a resource to extract, and weeds or insects as things to be eradicated, permaculture honors the patterns and relationships in nature that build and balance growth. Nutrient-rich soil is developed organically; animals and birds are encouraged into the garden so that they, not herbicides and insecticides, will control weeds and bugs.

There are two things about permaculture that attracted my attention because they're so common sense that they apply to our kehillot - sacred communities - as well.

1. Understanding the site

Gardens at Duke University
Before building up expectations about the size, location and shape of a garden, permaculture practitioners take into account forces like sunlight, wind patterns, slope and flooding. Some places just make the gardener work harder. They don't get enough light or they're at the top of a hill when all the rain water washes to the bottom. That's not to say that it's impossible to maintain a garden there. It means, though, that the gardener has to be intentional about the selection and placement of plants so that they match the strengths of the environment. Otherwise, the gardener spends more energy fighting the site than cultivating the growth of plants that have the natural inclination to thrive in the area.

Can you recognize the pattern in kehillot? Many of our synagogue buildings are located now in areas where demographic trends make growing the size or diversity of the community, (aka "bringing in young families"), a challenge. I have worked with many, and there's usually a person or two who are sure that one more big marketing push will bring people in the door. Often, there is no marketing committee, and no institutional strength or money to launch a campaign. Even so, this intrepid gardener is sure that one more season of just working harder will overcome the environment.

How do we approach this as kehilla permaculturists? One of the most important things leaders can do is build in ways to step back and realistically assess the lay of the land. This is almost impossible to do in urgent moments. Like gardeners, synagogue board members are most worried in the spring, when they're trying to balance the budget for the upcoming year. Strategic planning is one way to create a process that gathers data and information before digging into decisions. If launching strategic planning is too much for now, there are other ways for professional and volunteer leaders to build time for reflection and analysis together, as part of a leadership learning agenda.

2. Understanding the gardener. 

Permaculture practitioners divide the garden into somewhat circular zones, beginning closest to the house and working outward. Why? One simple principle begins with understanding the nature of human beings: We tend to take care of things best when they're in close proximity. For example, if I'm making a dinner for my friends and family, but I have to walk 200 feet in the rain to get some herbs and salad greens, how often will I bother to use them? And if I have to carry my watering can out there twice a day just to keep them alive, forget it...I'd rather go to the supermarket for my parsley.

The practicality of permaculture, then, tells me to place the things I want to use every day right at my back door. I'll notice when they need water, or some propping up, and I'll take care of it each time I pass by. Continuous, but effortless, maintenance will free up my time and energy so that I can be more intentional about how I tend to the plants that are farther away, in Zones 2 or 3.

What does this have to do with kehillot? We can't map out geographic boundaries and tend to the people who live within them in different ways. But in a sacred community, our "zones" have to do with time. The rhythm and cycle of Jewish life bring people together in different ways at different moments of their lives. What we're growing in the garden of community is relationships; what we're attending to are moments with relational potential.

We have fixed times - daily minyan, religious school pickup and dropoff, Shabbat, holidays - when we know who and when people will be in close proximity. It's during those times that we can predict encounters and look for ways to maximize relationship-building.

  • Do you have a cafe corner on Sunday mornings that invites people to slow down and schmooze, and then go into adult or family learning opportunities? 
  • You'll see coffee corners in some shuls on Saturdays, now, too, for the same reason. Yes, it means people can leave the service and congregate outside the sanctuary. But the alternative has been that they were congregating in their own kitchens, not the shul. 
  • Is your kehilla one of the growing numbers that sponsor a CSA, (community supported agriculture)? Do you just set it up in the parking lot and control traffic as people drive in and out to pick up their veggies? Or do you give people reasons to slow down, park the car and meet one another? I have seen some CSA committees pass out hors d'oeuvres during pickup time that were made from the ingredients in that week's produce. In the best kehilla permaculture strategy I have seen, the religious school was involved, as the curriculum integrated the Jewish values reflected in the CSA movement.
  • Programs continue to be an important Zone 1 opportunity in our kehillot. There are ways to maximize their relational potential as well. United Synagogue has created a Relational Checklist for programs, and we have been distributing it at our district Relational Judaism conferences. (Contact your kehilla relationship manager if you'd like a copy.) 

Building Up the Soil

Permaculturists do one more thing that is critical to the success of their gardens: They don't disturb the natural balance of the soil by digging around, plowing and overturning the earth. Although that tactic will produce one good year of harvest, it depletes energy and nutrients, and takes twice as much effort to build it up again for the next season. It isn't only about planting; it's about nourishment and replenishment of the ecosystem.

For that reason, permaculture gardeners create rich, fertile soil by layering materials on top of the beds that will generate energy, a diversity of organisms, and nutrients. Nothing is overlooked in a permaculture garden, because the gardener knows every tree branch that fell on the property, has collected leaves and grass clippings, and processed every scrap of food waste. What separates a permaculture garden from an ordinary one is the background work of gathering and preparing the raw materials that will continually inject energy into the system.

As for our communities, kehilla permaculture can't only be about making friends. Conservative Judaism's garden only comes alive if we help all people engage with our rich tradition as they walk the path together. How do you continually gather and prepare the raw materials of diversity, meaning and purpose to nourish your community?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Relational Thinking About Quirks of Fate

During a two-day respite from winter, I went to my favorite place - the beach. It has changed since my last visit in the fall. Before the winter storms, the Army Corps of Engineers pumped in sand through huge pipes from hundreds of yards offshore in order to build up the dunes. Whenever they do, it changes the texture of the landscape. Fine, light brown sand is replaced by gray and white shell shards, crushed during their journey from the ocean bottom to the shore.

They crunched as I walked briskly over them, with my attention toward the wind and waves. It wasn't until I sat down and looked closely at what was around me that I noticed how many of the shells weren't crushed at all. For every hundred shards, there were another five fully formed miniature shells - some a bit roughed up and some completely unscathed. 

What quirk of fate would make shells deposited in exactly the same ten square feet of beach wind up in such a variety of states? Enjoy pondering the probabilities if you like that sort of thing -the nanosecond and millimeter that separated one shell from crashing into another one, or the narrowing of its shape that precisely mirrored the narrowing of a neighbor, so they shot past one another instead of colliding and cracking into pieces.

I collected hundreds of them, on my own little adventure of discovery and wonder. As I pocketed each one, my thoughts moved to shells as a metaphor for humanity.

Our lives are launched in one geographic place and family of origin, but our life trajectory lands us in our synagogue communities in a variety of conditions. The DNA of Judaism infuses our communal calendar, ritual and values with an understanding of the continual need to acknowledge the dynamic nature of wholeness and brokenness.We celebrate life cycle moments, we comfort mourners, visit the sick, reach out to the poor. Every year we review our lives; every week we have the opportunity to re-charge our selves.

On Thursday, I will go on retreat with 27 kehilla presidents in our Sulam for Presidents program. I have written before that I am working on developing the habit of relational thinking. It is easy to view people I meet as participants, stakeholders, clients, customers, potential-fill-in-the-blank - (members, colleagues, friends) - and overlook who they are at that moment in my company. One of the luxuries of Sulam for Presidents is that we stay together for three days. We have time and a variety of ways to interact and get to know one another. I am trying to slow down and encounter each person as a whole - with curiosity about the quirk of fate that landed us all on the same ten feet of beach.