Rabbi Sid Message (May)
One of my first jobs in the Jewish community was as the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Washington D.C. I started the job in 1984 (an eerie year, for sure, if you are a fan of George Orwell). The top priorities of the community relations field at that time were: the campaign for Soviet Jewish freedom and emigration; support for the State of Israel; intergroup relations; and combatting anti-semitism.
I was far more committed to the first three issues than to the fourth. In fact, at that time, anti-semitic incidents were declining, year to year, and seen by many law enforcement officials as something that represented a fringe phenomenon in the U.S. While I was very much in favor of educational programs and events to commemorate the Shoah, I thought that too much attention was being paid by the organized Jewish community to the threat of anti-semitism, relying on a narrative that was more true for my parent’s generation than for mine. It struck me more as an unwise strategy to mobilize Jewish solidarity and identity than it was an issue requiring time and resources from the Jewish community.
How things have changed! The ADL reported that in 2022, there was a 36% increase in anti-semitic incidents in the U.S. over the previous year. Campus and school incidents were up by 50%. And there were 91 bomb threats targeting Jewish institutions. There are many ways to explain the phenomenon but, in my view, chief among them was having a President of the United States who played to the most tribal fears of Americans by scapegoating immigrants and non-white Americans. After the Unite the Right Rally, organized by white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, VA in August 2017, when marchers chanted, “Jews will not replace us”, President Donald Trump announced, ominously, that there were “good people on both sides” at the rally!
I hasten to add that Jews are not the only people at risk in America today. One of the seminal commentators on prejudice and intolerance in America is Eric Ward, the executive vice-president of Race Forward. Eric has written and spoken eloquently about the synergy between racism, anti-semitism and xenophopbia in America. They are all of one piece and, because they are, we must respond by forming alliances. No group should face intolerance alone.
History is replete with examples of what happens to societies when major public figures, no less a head of state, gives a wink and a nod to extremist rhetoric and behavior. There is a direct line between Donald Trump’s comments after the Unite the Right Rally and the assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. It is sobering to think how close American democracy came to being undermined on that day. And, despite aggressive prosecution of the January 6th actors by the Department of Justice, the poisonous hatred that long existed on the fringes of American society, is now enjoying unprecedented status, attracting all kinds of individuals who have grievances about their social, economic or political status. Nazi Germany is not the only example of what happens when a dictator suggests that all the problems in a country are the fault of some minority group.
Jews and people of conscience cannot sit on the sidelines in the current environment. There are many efforts underway, both nationally and in communities across the country, to build bridges of understanding across lines of difference, be it religious, racial, ideological or ethnic. America is a pluralistic democracy. Teachers, clergy, elected officials and ordinary citizens must condemn all expressions of hatred and intolerance, whenever it rears its ugly head. We must seek out and/or create settings in which people can discuss hot button issues but do so in a way that is respectful and motivated by curiosity and not accusation. Finally, we must reject anyone running for public office who peddles in divisive rhetoric, pitting one set of Americans against another.
One of the core Jewish values is represented by the work echad, the word at the end of the Shma prayer. The word suggests that we must create a world that reflects Cosmic Unity, another way of speaking about God or the transcendent oneness of the world. It is not dissimilar from the Latin phrase on U.S. currency, E Pluribus Unum, out of the many, we can and must be, One.
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Dr. Erica Brown (May)
The Optimistic Leader
In my experience leading Jewish leadership workshops, I have come across extreme negativity as the silent killer of potentially good leadership. I have watched dozens of people in volunteer and professional leadership positions become exhausted by the demeaning negativity of others. The situations discussed in this chapter are extreme cases of negativity rather than run-of-the-mill issues that come up periodically. It is extreme negativity that is particularly corrosive in volunteer-driven organizations, where a leader may give the equivalent of a part-time job in charitable hours only to spend much of their time dealing with people who have little hope and even less gratitude. In the exasperated words of one ex officio board president: “I never took this one complainer seriously but, at the same time, it wore me down. I just didn’t have the patience. And it was always the same story. Again, and again. It’s like you give a person a bad piece of gefilte fish in 1967, and they just can’t let go.”
I have come to realize that only those individuals who can shield themselves and hover above the negativity can truly influence others.
In Principle-Centered Leadership, Stephen Covey writes that one of the qualities necessary for leadership is the ability to radiate positive energy; the attitude of such leaders, he writes, is…
”Optimistic, positive, upbeat. Their spirit is enthusiastic, hopeful, believing. This positive energy is like an energy field or an aura that surrounds them and that similarly charges or changes weaker, negative energy fields around them. They also attract and magnify smaller energy fields. When they come into contact with strong, negative energy sources, they tend either to neutralize or to sidestep this negative energy. Sometimes, they will simply leave it, walking away from its poisonous orbit…Beware of the effect of your own energy and understand how to radiate and direct it. And in the middle of confusion or contention or negative energy, strive to be a peacemaker, a harmonizer, to undo or reverse destructive energy.” (p. 34-5)
Covey asks us to be mindful of our own energy and aware of its impact on others. If you look around you, you will notice that the best leaders tend to be more upbeat. They may walk with a heightened bounce in their step, smile more often than others, and use humor to bring people out of their negative thinking. They do radiate positive energy, and other people feel good in their presence. They have an aura of specialness, as if God graced them with a different forcefield. They are able to be self-renewing when they do not get the support they need from others. Leaders respond to negativity by increasing this aura so that it is able to neutralize tension and hostility.
We should all be able to identify naysayers in our immediate orbit. I once had a professor in graduate school I referred to as Dr. No. He rejected any idea that did not conform to his recommendations. All suggestions made in class were met with an instant frown. Students learned a lot in his class. They learned that any idea that conflicted with the professor’s should be relinquished. Since saying good-bye to Dr. No, I’ve met hundreds of other such characters: Mr. No and Mrs. No, Rabbi No, Principal No, Executive Director No. They, too, have their own special aura. It says implicitly: No Trespassing. Go away. I’m not interested.
We may pity such people. We may feel compassion for them. We may even try to win them around on a sunny day. But it is best to avoid them wherever possible. Radiate positive energy and surround yourself with others who do the same. Stay strong and be hopeful. Place yourself in locations of peace and beauty. Re-energize yourself by thinking of what inspires you about your volunteer or professional commitment. Be carried by the love of others. Hard-copy e-mails with compliments and keep them in a box of positive letters. Store up the praise because you will need it when the kvetchers come around. I know too many Jewish leaders who burn-out after dealing with an avalanche of negativity. They spend so much time reacting to criticism that they do not do enough to affirm their positive personal or institutional mission.
And here is the line that no leader who believes in change can handle. You will not change the complainers. You can fix the world. You cannot fix them. You should not try to fix them. It’s energy poorly spent. Tell them that you have a different opinion, smile broadly and walk away. Transcend them. As they are speaking, keep a two-word biblical mantra in your mind: ki tov. It will get better. It has to.
In his exegesis of the Exodus story, a Talmudic sage concluded that only one-fifth of the Jews in Egypt left when they had an opportunity to do so. Only twenty percent of a slave nation pursued freedom. How this number was arrived at is pure speculation. We have no idea who stayed and who left Egypt. It is not written in any biblical text. What charged the rabbinic imagination to arrive at this dismal percentage? This sage understood that redemption is not for everyone. Not everyone has the hope that life will change, that it can get better – that it can be good, even very good. There are people who are locked into an abysmal portrait of today and cannot envision a hopeful tomorrow. They are stuck. They are paralyzed by negativity and do not move forward. Moses called to them, but they refused. They paid a price in sweat and tears for their choice. The 80 percent are people we still recognize today. They are not Jewish leaders. In essence, they are not even followers.
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Rabbi Sid Message (April)
The Work of Redemption
How can you not love Pesach? It is true, depending on your level of observance, there can be a lot of hassle, with changing dishes, getting rid of non-Passover foods and stocking your fridge and pantry with all that is kosher for Passover (and fairly pricey, I would add). I still follow those customs, although not to the extent that my parents did in the house that I grew up in. But that inconvenience is dwarfed by the richness of the festival, in particular, the family Seder.
I love hearing about the various ways that people conduct their seders. We have had the custom for years of starting the first hour in our family room to discuss one theme in depth before we take our places around the dining room table with all the symbolic foods and ritual objects. This year we talked about how Ukrainian Jews took part in seders, under the most challenging, wartime conditions. The story about how the Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Federation system as well as Chabad, made Passover foods and seders possible is a story that can and should be told for years to come. Many Ukrainian Jews that never before had a seder made a point to attend one this year—both an act of defiance against their Russian invaders and an expression of their cultural identity.
Of course, the extent to which world Jewry and the organizations that represent it, mobilized to support the Ukrainian Jewish community should be a great source of pride for all Jews. Kol Yisrael areivim, zeh b’azeh, “all Jews are responsible, one for the other” is not only a motto from the Talmud, it has served as a rallying cry for Jews to act on for centuries.
In the late 1980’s, I was at a fundraising dinner in Washington D.C. A civil war was raging in Lebanon between Christians and Muslims and there were thousands of Lebanese dying in the conflict. My tablemate was a Lebanese Christian ex-pat, living in the US. He bemoaned the fact that not a single Muslim or Christian NGO, anywhere in the world, was lifting a finger to help their co-religionists with humanitarian aid. Knowing that I was a rabbi he added with admiration, “Jews would never allow this to happen to their own.”
May the work of “redemption”, that is the theme of Pesach, continue.
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Dr. Erica Brown (April)
The Optimistic Leader
In the second chapter of Exodus, there are two words that sum up Jewish leadership: “ki tov,” – it is good, it will be good. Hope and the ability to see a better future and create it have been the underlying strength of Jewish leadership for millennia. “Hatikva,” The Hope, is the title of the Israeli national anthem. It references thousands of years of Jewish history and a contemporary list of wars and hatred that is transcended by one value that supersedes all others: hope.
To be a Jewish leader means to believe that whatever circumstances befall us, we will endure and, as a result, grow stronger. So sure are we that Jewish leadership is centered on the hope that we will survive, that Mordechai tells Queen Esther at a time of Persian persecution: “If you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from elsewhere…” Mordechai had no doubt in Jewish relief and deliverance; his only question is does Esther wants to be part of the story or not.
Whose story do you want to be in? Are you a Jewish leader or not? Do you have faith in the eternal survival of the Jewish people? Or do you prefer, sitting on the sideline, while someone else makes history?
Mordechai inspires Esther through a series of personal questions that she must confront. One might say that Mordechai used emotional intelligence to frame his argument. Emotional intelligence is a recently coined phrase in psychology that describes the capacity to understand, analyze, and manage one’s own emotions and those of others. In a recent study on the impact of emotional intelligence on leadership, two researchers concluded that hope was one of three key ingredients in resonant leaders. Resonant leaders are those who are able to connect deeply with others through personal mindfulness of themselves, others and situations, compassion and the ability to communicate hope. Such leaders are attuned to their own needs and competencies, are attentive to others and also able to direct them to higher ground through their leadership: “…hope enables us to believe that the future we envision is attainable, and to move toward our visions and goals while inspiring others toward those goals as well” (Richard Boyatzis, Resonant Leadership). At a time of cynicism, corruption and suspicion in the political arena, we know all too well how valuable it is to inspire others with a vision of a better world.
Our two Hebrew words of abiding hope – “ki tov” – were not uttered in Exodus at a time of joy but in the most trying of circumstances. Exodus begins with a tragic pronouncement that can only be mitigated by a completely new vision of Jewish peoplehood. Pharaoh declares that all male children be thrown into the Nile River in an attempt to reduce the number of Jews in Egypt and eat away at the centrality of family in the Jewish tradition. Jewish leadership was critical, but no one was up to the task. Then, Exodus 2 records the birth of a male child, an event that seems only worthy of mourning given Pharaoh’s dictate. But the mother of this child sees what others cannot. She sees hope where others see only despair. She sees new life. She sees a future. She, too, makes a pronouncement about the birth: “Ki tov” – It is good.
That child was Moses, future savior of the Jewish people, who did create a new vision of Jewish life. Through his leadership, Jews moved from being a tribal slave entity to being a free nation with their own homeland. That creation was presaged by two words of hope at a time of persecution: ki tov. Moses’ mother, unnamed in the text, is recognized not by a personal identity but by the small and potent words that she mouths over the birth of her male son. She could have cried. She could have wailed. She could have mimicked the pessimism of other mothers of newly born sons. Instead, she finds pleasure in her young son, a pleasure so profound that she declares against all rational odds that this child will bring good into the world. And he does.
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How We Built This (April)
Orot: Center for New Jewish Learning
Dr. Jane Shapiro & Rebecca Minkus Lieberman
When I bought my first house my father suggested that I live in the house before deciding to make any changes. “You come to know your house once you inhabit it” he’d say. Such a wise realtor.
We launched Orot nine years ago and have inhabited it. Our founding premises have held true. We came together as a group of teachers who felt that Chicago was missing an experimental and creative adult Jewish learning experience. By offering multiple modalities of learning, including text study, mindfulness, embodied practice, and the arts, we hoped to open doors for many types of learners. We wanted to open access to Jewish wisdom with experimentation, multi-vocality, and responsiveness.
At first, we focused on creating community by trying out all sorts of one-time events, as well as multi-session classes. We also studied our practices so we could better articulate what kind of pedagogic approaches were needed to make Jewish wisdom come alive for people in their own self-understanding, their work, and in their relationships. Over the last eight years we’ve assembled amazing examples of how powerful and transformative this learning has been. Jewish sources: Biblical, Rabbinic and Hasidic, when brought into conversation with other contemporary spiritual writing and poetry, can have a profound effect on everyone involved. We can point to a teacher or class and say “yes, that is an Orot-style class.” There is a palpable feeling of something deep and rich in the discourse and how people share thoughts with each other as they probe deeper into their souls and hearts together. Teachers along with students articulate moving, internal growth.
So, now that we have inhabited our home for eight years, what additions do we want to build? The last couple of Covid-challenging years, were a growth opportunity. By pivoting to Zoom we became a national organization. By limiting the classes to “one screen” we’ve maintained the sense of intimacy and personal connection to the teachers that seems to encourage personal growth. This decision, however, has also been a limiting factor, because we cannot serve hundreds of people at a time. Over the next few years, we will reintroduce in-person events and retreats to re-establish a broader sense of community affiliation by our students and, hopefully, grow our base.
Now, we intentionally call our classes micro-spiritual communities. We have found that “work-alike” cohorts, like parents, benefit from the added bonus of peer support. How can a Jewish lens on the art of parenting make a difference? When taught by an expert teacher who weaves Jewish texts, parenting, and mindfulness practices into a holistic learning experience the impact is astounding. “I never thought about the Shma before as a prayer that can help me attune myself to my child more deeply.” “A bracha is a way of signaling to my child that I notice their special qualities each and every week.” “It did not occur to me that as an interfaith family we might want a Jewish community and now I get it.” Research has shown that our unique blend of study has made parents with children, ranging from young children to young adults, feel more confident in their roles. For some, it has been a “gateway” into Jewish community. The need for this type of teaching took on urgency as resilience and wellness rose on the Jewish communal agenda. By identifying national organizations that want to serve parents within a Jewish framework, we anticipate being able to broaden our reach by offering this program, called “Peaceful Parent”, to others.
Currently we are offering classes, retreats, and consulting with other like-minded organizations who want to apply an Orot approach for their constituencies. Peaceful Parent groups have sprung up from San Francisco to Rochester. By being very clear about what it means to be an Orot teacher, we’ve succeeded in growing an amazing faculty.
In this new era, Orot has become more than a Jewish educational project. When goals are about human resilience, interconnectedness, and nourishing spiritual growth, they are larger than Jewish literacy. Orot is using Jewish wisdom, presented in a unique way to help address diverse human needs and support people across the long arc of their lives.
Dr. Jane Shapiro is a co-founder of Orot. She holds a doctorate from the Davidson School of the Jewish Theological Seminary and was a Covenant Award winner in 2017. Rebecca Minkus-Lieberman is a co-founder and the executive director of Orot and she directs its Peaceful Parent Project. She earned an MA from the Divinity School at the University of Chicago with a focus on Modern Jewish Thought and she is also a certified parent educator in Positive Discipline.