Kenissa Konnections

Rabbi Sid Message (January 2023)

When I get asked on how/why I chose to become a rabbi, I always cite a formative experience that I had in the summer between my junior and senior year in high school. I participated in a program sponsored by USY, the Conservative Movement’s youth movement, called Eastern European Pilgrimage. I went in the summer of 1970, the second year the program was run. The primary goal was to make contact with the Jews of the Soviet Union, most of whom were neither free to practice their Judaism nor able to emigrate out of the country. Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War led to a worldwide surge of Jewish pride and it even lit a spark in the heart of Russian Jewry, notwithstanding the Soviet government’s attempt to crush Jewish life and persecute the few Jews who insisted on holding on to their Jewish identity.  

The Jews I met in Russia during that fateful summer inspired me. The risks they took to affirm their Judaism and to agitate for the right to emigrate to the State of Israel seemed like a page out of the most heroic episodes of Jewish history. Like generations that came before them, Soviet Jews refused to let government authorities rob them of their spiritual birthright. Upon my return home to New York, I began, what would become, a lifelong commitment to being an activist for Soviet Jewry and, by extension, for human rights and liberty around the world. The Soviet Jewry part of that story came to a climax when I helped to organize the historic Summit Rally for Soviet Jewry on December 6, 1987 behind the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. It was the day before Soviet Premier, Mikail Gorbachev was to meet U.S. President Ronald Reagan at the White House. At the time, I was the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Washington D.C. and those twin events would put in motion a change in policy that led to more than a million Russian Jews leaving their country to emigrate to Israel and points west.  It would also bring about the total collapse of the Soviet Union.  

About a month ago, I was contacted by the person who led my first trip to visit Jews behind the Iron Curtain, Rabbi Jonathan Porath. “Johnny” as I had always called him, had just published a book about his lifelong crusade to support the Jews of Russia. Here We All Are: 175 Russian-Jewish Journeys tells the story, not only of the five USY summer programs that Johnny led, but of what came next. I have often bemoaned how poorly the Jewish community has told the Soviet Jewry story. For most Jews, who are a generation behind me, the story is hardly known. And yet, the story is filled with heroic Soviet Jewish personalities like Natan Sharansky, Ida Nudel and Yuli Edelstein and of a Jewish community that used political influence, grassroots organizing and thousands of visits into the Soviet Union to, essentially, save Soviet Jewry.  

As for what came next, Johnny’s book tells it beautifully. Johnny made aliya to Israel with his family. When tens of thousands of Jews from the FSU (former Soviet Union) started coming to Israel in the early 1990’s, Johnny organized his community in the Ramot Alef section of Jerusalem to help them. Like in hundreds of Israeli neighborhoods around the country, average citizens helped Russian Jews find apartments, furnish them with appliances and furniture, connect them with jobs and schools and much, much more.  

In 1993, Johnny was invited to join the staff of the Joint Distribution Committee where he became responsible to help build an infrastructure for the Jewish community that remained in the FSU. This is a story that even I, knew only in the faintest of details. Johnny tells the story about how he and the JDC helped to build schools, synagogues, community centers across a territory of thousands of miles. The JDC even helped to create a national office to promote the academic study of Judaism in the FSU called SEFER (the Hebrew word for “book”). In so many cases, Johnny was working with Jews at this stage of his career who he had first met twenty years earlier, when he was leading USY groups like the one I participated in.   

All in all, Johnny’s book tells a tale about the spirit of resilience and fortitude to survive that has been a hallmark of our people’s history for millenia. And it tells the story of one man, Rabbi Jonathan Porath, who made a difference.  


Braver Leadership

Dr. Erica Brown (January, 2023)

Authentic Leadership 

Authentic leadership is the product of introspection and painful honesty about what we want in life, and the sacrifices we are willing to make to achieve it. Leaders who only respond and react to others are not leaders at all. They are either followers with more power than others, or frauds and wannabes. They may have a visual picture of what a leader should look like and try to dress the part. They may have pre-prepared speeches that sound like what a leader should say. They deliver them and find that they get a lukewarm reaction because the words do not ring true. At these moments, leaders defy themselves, and their leadership may be insincere and short-lived. In the words of a writer on leadership: 

Leaders are all very different people. Any prospective leaders who buys into the necessity of attempting to emulate all the characteristics of a leader is doomed to fail. I know because I tried it early in my career. It simply doesn’t work. The one essential quality every leader must have is to be your own person, authentic in every regard. The best leaders are autonomous and highly independent. Those who are too responsive to the desires of others are likely to be whipsawed by competing interests, too quick to deviate from their course, or unwilling to make difficult decisions for fear of offending. My advice to the people I mentor is simply to be themselves (William George, Authentic Leadership, 2003, p. 12). 

How do we measure authenticity? I believe that authentic leadership comes from closeting ourselves in our own inner spaces and working out our needs, desires, deficiencies, aspirations and strategies.  It is not about how others see us as leaders; authentic leadership is about how we see ourselves. Without this self-knowledge, leaders can burn out or find themselves compromising their personal integrity and wondering how it happened, or feel disconnected from their  ideological or emotional core. Sometimes it takes someone else to notice it: “You’re not acting the same, lately. Everything OK?”  

Leaders who are not being themselves may find there are accompanying visceral reactions; they feel anxious, confused, tired or weary. Keeping up appearances can be exhausting. Inauthentic leaders may also show signs of depression: sadness, despondency, unusual weight gain or loss, disorientation. They are compelled to be someone they think they should be rather than answering their inner voices. They are slowly nursing an identity-crisis. 

John Gardner, in his book, Self-Renewal, discusses the importance of self-knowledge and the easy way we run away from it: 

Human beings have always employed an enormous variety of clever devices for running away from themselves, and the modern world is particularly rich in stratagems. We can keep ourselves so busy, fill our lives with so many diversions, stuff our heads with so much knowledge, involve ourselves with so many people and cover so much ground that we never have time to probe the fearful and wonderful world within. More often than not we don’t want to know ourselves, don’t want to depend on ourselves, don’t want to live with ourselves. By middle life most of us are accomplished fugitives from ourselves (John Gardner, Self-Renewal, 1964, p. 13). 

 Are you an accomplished fugitive from yourself? What a terrifying question. We know that self-knowledge may exact a steep price. When I am alone with myself, I may have to ask if I am in the right job, if I am with the right spouse, have the right peer group, or living a life of integrity. We also have dependents and financial responsibilities that we cannot easily avoid. We need not question every aspect of our lives to arrive at authentic leadership. But it does require solitary time to sort through how we lead, how we balance the demands of leadership with our family commitments, how effective we are, what are our leadership weaknesses, and how we invest our time and money. We may not be happy with our conclusions, but the self-awareness is invaluable in forging new directions. 


*Excerpted from Inspired Jewish Leadership: Practical Approaches to Building Strong Communities (Jewish Lights, 2008) by Dr. Erica Brown. Reprinted by permission of distributor, Turner Publications, from which you can also buy the book

Dr. Erica Brown is a prolific author and leading Jewish educator in North America.  She is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Lord Rabbi Sacks-Herenstein Center for Values and Leadership.


How We Built This 

Ariele Mortkowitz, Founding Director, SVIVAH 

In 2018, after a fall full of Jewish holidays, six women sat around a kitchen table in Washington DC to answer two questions: “What does a diverse community of Jewish women need right now in this moment?” and “How do we make sure that “community” is serving its purpose of making individual women stronger by coming together as a collective?”  

These two questions form the backbone of SVIVAH to this day – what are Jewish women* missing and needing in a communal setting most urgently? And how do we use the structure of “Jewish community” as a tool to empower women?  

 We gathered women from across the greater Washington DC area and centered the conversations between the people in the room, using our fantastic educators as connectors and facilitators rather than as centerpieces. We decided that one of SVIVAH’s pillars needed to be a commitment to widening the pipelines of access to communal supports and organizations that make Jewish women’s lives stronger. With a captive audience, we were going to make sure women knew about the communal resources that existed to serve them – and we were going to destigmatize and normalize making use of their services. We created spaces of welcoming and equity, intentionally avoiding traditional Jewish gathering places. We committed ourselves to always compensating our facilitators for their time and talent, a practice that is not yet universally accepted, particularly when it comes to women educators.  

2019 was a year of programmatic experimentation. We hired the fantastic Rabbanit Aliza Sperling and implemented her vision for HerTorah, a monthly diverse beit midrash that gathered women from across the greater Washington D.C. area. HerTorah welcomed women of all backgrounds to learn from diverse educators, using Torah text as a medium for relationship building, delving into topics of personal and communal relevance in a space that felt safe and welcoming and lifted up the lived-wisdom of women as new and precious “oral Torah”. Additional programming addressed issues of empowerment, health, and equity. However, as we closed out our first successful program year, we found ourselves facing a global pandemic and a very shaky future.  

When the pandemic hit, we shifted immediately to a virtual presence which increased our reach and established SVIVAH as an international entity. Our COVID silver lining was accessibility – our programming attracted women who wanted to be part of the conversations we were having, and it allowed us to bring together educators from around the world in teaching partnerships that we could never have created in person. We shifted SVIVAH’s focus: What could our Jewish communities look like if women’s voices were centered, if their Torah was amplified, if their lived-experience was prioritized, and if the traditional fault lines between Jewish communities were erased? After a year of experimentation and evaluation, we focused on building connection and empowerment through four programming areas: Torah learning (HerTorah); pastoral tending (HerSpirit); physical and mental health education (HerHealth/Red Tent); and equity-driven skill-building (HerPower).  

Key elements have evolved our programming into the unique concoction that has become known as “SVIVAH-style”:  

Affinity: We have found that SVIVAH’s affinity space for women allows individuals from all different walks of life to feel welcomed and included. Many spaces in the Jewish community cater to women in relation to others; SVIVAH has instead created a space for women as women – not women looking for partners, or women as parents, or women as volunteers or philanthropists – but simply as the unique women they are. This intentional celebration of individuality offers women an empowering space in community where they can feel fully themselves.  

Authenticity: SVIVAH works to create a space that is conducive to openness and sharing with vulnerability, as well as a commitment to radical acceptance and generous curiosity. When navigating difficult conversations, we take care to ensure that our participants know that when we ask for their vulnerability, we truly value their safety and wellbeing. By acknowledging the sensitivities in the room, we enable participants to show up fully, creating honest conversations that inspire growth and changemaking.  

Urgency: SVIVAH finds itself regularly pivoting to gather women for the conversations that are most of-the-moment, responding to the evolving news cycle or issues that feel urgent and prescient. As collective conveners and with our commitment to authenticity, we could not gather our community and simultaneously ignore addressing an issue weighing on peoples’ minds or acting as the elephant in the room. SVIVAH is the space for the conversations that we should be having in community.  

Amplification: SVIVAH is not a content creator. We are a convener and an amplifier. We want our SVIVAH audience to feel comfortable accessing the diverse teaching voices that we bring into our circle because we believe that there is an evolving season to every pastoral and spiritual connection. We seek out diverse educators and facilitators to teach for us and we amplify the work of our educators in perpetuity. SVIVAH also wants to see more women accessing the communal supports designed to strengthen their lives. By constantly engaging with partner organizations and organically weaving their staff into our programming, we destigmatize accessing these resources and amplify the powerful work they do.  

Diversity: SVIVAH’s community consists of women from ages 12-90, from six continents, from all walks of life and Jewish backgrounds. The diversity in our gatherings is what our audience appreciates the most – a chance to learn with and from women they may never have reason to come into relationship with otherwise. It is not uncommon for our hevrutot or breakout rooms to hold a bubbie and a high school student, pigtails and sheitels, nonbinary folk and university scholars, clergy and non-Jewish halves of interfaith couples. Our facilitated conversations unearth intimate details of our spirituality, our beliefs, our hearts, but may never uncover who is partnered, who is a parent, or how someone is employed. The diversity in our audience is mirrored in the diversity of our 150+ educators and celebrated by our audience and educators alike.   

Where does SVIVAH go from here? We will continue to center womens’ lived-experience and wisdom as oral Torah and treasured mesorah. We will continue to amplify the voices of women scholars and leaders, bringing our educators together into supportive community with each other and creating stronger relationships between Jewish educators and pastoral care. We will continue building rooms that empower, support, destigmatize, celebrate, and connect the beautiful diversity of Jewish womanhood, weaving Jewish texts, tradition, and culture into the fabric of our lives. SVIVAH is revolutionizing the way women come together in community, using “Jewish community” to empower women as individual changemakers in their own lives and in the world. 

 *SVIVAH defines “Jewish woman” as anyone wishing to be included in a circle of Jewish women. If you want to be here, we want you to be here. And, welcome. 

Ariele Mortkowitz is passionate about the ways women interact with their faith and their community and has dedicated herself to the pursuit of fulfilling female spiritual and communal experiences. Before founding SVIVAH, she created the Agam Center in 2016, establishing a Jewish communal home for women’s spirituality, wellness, ritual, and education Ariele has a background in nonprofit development focused on strategic planning, organizational growth, and culture creation. She is also a certified premarital educator and a longtime mikvah ritual guide. Ariele lives in Washington, DC. ariele@svivah.org  


Rabbi Sid Message (December, 2022)

Periodically in this space, I like to shine a light on new books that advance the core mission of Kenissa—creating a Jewish community that not only welcomes but incentivizes new approaches to Jewish life and community. Such is the case with the new book, Awakenings: American Jewish Transformations in Identity, Leadership and Belonging(Behrman House, 2022). Written by Rabbis Joshua Stanton and Benjamin Spratt, Awakenings starts with the premise that many of the institutions that have long been central to the organized Jewish community may be ill suited to engage the next generation of Jews in Jewish life.

The book goes on to articulate certain principles that have informed new and emerging Jewish organizations. Three examples:

  • People-centered Judaism: Jewish organizations are very good at sponsoring good programs. When budgets allow for it, the programs can even feature well known authors, performers and media personalities. But such marquis programs may do nothing to foster community. Key to a vibrant Jewish community are organizations that foster relationship building. We also know that many Jews have felt marginalized by mainstream organizations. Those groups include women; Jews of Color; the intermarried; LGBTQI Jews; converts and potential converts; and Jews who are differently-abled. Those identifying with each of these groups can enrich our communities immeasurably but we need to create settings in which they and their voices are pro-actively invited in.
  • Purpose over Nostalgia: Many Jewish organizations created in the 20th century sought to reinforce Jewish identity even as Jews were eager to integrate into American society. They did so by offering familiar tropes that invoked memories of the Judaism practiced by previous generations which were leveraged to make the case for Jewish “continuity”. Yet we know that younger Jews are looking for a path that might help them derive a greater sense of meaning in life. Knowledge of the Jewish past can and should inform a vision for the Jewish future, but it must be mixed with empowering the next generation to take full ownership of their Judaism and a willingness to innovate with new approaches to Jewish life, Jewish learning and Jewish practice.
  • Beyond Buildings: For previous generations, when a synagogue or a Jewish organization built or acquired its own space, it was a sign of success. But we now live in a time when buildings may not necessarily be the best way to forge community. During the Covid pandemic, Jewish educational organizations and synagogues acquired national audiences by putting their classes, programs and worship services on line. Audiences often bridged urban, suburban and rural settings, in some cases, even crossing national boundaries. Given the lower tendency of younger Jews to feel any commitment to pay for “membership” in Jewish institutions and the ability to convene virtually or in public spaces, it may well be that the future of the Jewish community may no longer require the huge investments that buildings require.

The book includes dozens of examples of organizations that are reflecting these new ways of functioning in American society. Not surprisingly, most of the organizations in our Kenissa Network are case studies of the principles that Stanton and Spratt outline in their book. Awakenings is not only timely, it sets forth an exciting and optimistic vision for the Jewish future which many of us are working to make happen.  


Braver Leadership

Dr. Erica Brown (December, 2022)

Revisiting Vision

Perhaps no single word is bandied about more in discussions of leadership than “vision.” Vi­sion is not only what we see but what we would like to see, a future direction for ourselves and our non-profit institutions. In order for “vision” to be a word of practical importance and not only poetic flair, it should be based first on what we see around us in the moment. Being visionary involves not only reflecting on the future but a sharp, sometimes painful look at what currently exists. One of the leadership lessons in our chapter is that in order for Samuel to change the predominant leadership paradigm was being made brutally aware of the cur­rent state of leadership. In Abraham Heschel’s majestic tome on prophecy, he describes the prophet’s gifts, highlighting these two qualities in this form of ancient Jewish leadership:

To a person endowed with prophetic sight, everyone else appears blind; to a person whose ear perceives God’s voice, everyone else appears deaf. No one is just; not knowing is strong enough, no trust complete enough. The prophet hates the approximate; he shuns the middles of the road. Man must live on the summit to avoid the abyss. There is nothing to hold except to God. Carried away by the challenge, the demand to straighten out man’s ways, the prophet is strange, one-sided, an unbearable extremist.

The prophet as a leader was a lopsided being who saw and heard too much. He was exquisitely sensitive to injustice and did not let crime and inhumanity go ignored. The prophet as a model for Jewish leadership today tells us the importance of speaking truth to power and not turning away from that which we do not want or are afraid to see. This laser vision and honesty is at the heart of seeing a community for what it really is, rather than as an idealized portrait. In Samuel’s first encounter with revelation, God forced him to confront all that was wrong with his mentor.

In Good to Great, Jim Collins creates a leadership ranking of the kind of qualities that make for outstanding leadership of companies. He contends that level five leaders—his highest level of leadership—are individuals who can face the “brutal truths” of their institutions. See what lies before you; only then can you envision what lies ahead of you. In Heschel’s terms, “In speaking, the prophet reveals God. This is the marvel of a prophet’s work: in his words, the invisible God becomes audible.” Sound and sight are heightened in the prophet’s experience of the world. He uses these senses to see and hear what others shut out and then inspires changes that allow others to open their senses. This ability is a hallmark of prophetic leadership.

Vision and attentiveness—hearing and seeing—form the foundation for strong biblical leader­ship. As we move from text to life, we find that the same criteria apply.  John Kotter, in writing about why transformation efforts in business fail, acknowledges the importance of vision and the difficulties that arise without it:

Without a sensible vision, a transformation effort can easily dissolve into a list of confusing and incompatible projects that can take the organization in the wrong direction or nowhere at all…In failed transformations, you often find plenty of plans and directives and programs but no vision.

Vision might be the basis for strong leadership, but to make good on the vision the leader must be attuned to the complexity of the situation and the possibility of crisis. In a seri­ous attempt to understand the needs of leadership today, one contemporary writer on leader­ship suggests that “…in a crisis we tend to look for the wrong kind of leadership. We call for someone with answers, decision, strength, and a map of the future, someone who knows where we ought to be going—in short, someone who can make hard problems simple.”

Strength and direction seem to be good leadership qualities on the surface. But we have to be wary of opting for simple answers to escape confronting complex problems. Sound-bytes and slo­gans are just that- words. They should not be mistaken for problem-solving.


*Excerpted from Inspired Jewish Leadership: Practical Approaches to Building Strong Communities (Jewish Lights, 2008) by Dr. Erica Brown. Reprinted by permission of distributor, Turner Publications, from which you can also buy the book

Dr. Erica Brown is a prolific author and leading Jewish educator in North America.  She is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Lord Rabbi Sacks-Herenstein Center for Values and Leadership.


Rabbi Sid Message (November, 2022)

Soon after graduating from rabbinical school in the mid-1980’s, I was hired to serve as the Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington D.C. The agency I headed up was charged with representing the Jewish community on all matters of public policy, from support for Israel, to the campaign to free Soviet Jews, to social justice issues at home. Having spent over 20 years as an activist for Soviet Jewry, it was a position that allowed me to combine my commitment to the Jewish community with my deep interest in advancing causes for peace, justice and equity for all, both at home and abroad. My book, Judaism and Justice: The Jewish Passion to Repair the World (2006), offered a history, sociology and theology of how Jews can engage in social and political affairs.

So, I observed the recent elections in Israel and the U.S. with more than passing interest. The Israeli election was the fourth in two years, a function of the fact that election results have been so close that the slim Parliamentary majorities have not been able to survive the defection of only a handful of members of the coalition when they are unhappy with a given policy decision of the government. The governing coalition of Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid was notable for the broad range of its governing coalition including, for the first time, a Palestinian-Israeli, Mansour Abbas of the United Arab List. What united these disparate parties more than anything else was the desire to end Benjamin Netanyahu’s 15 years tenure as Israel’s Prime Minister.  

Yet, on the morning after Israel’s November 1st election, Bibi again emerged as the likely new head of the Israeli government. All governments in Israel need to partner with other parties to acquire a majority in the 120 seat Knesset. It is virtually guaranteed that Bibi will include in his new coalition Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, each with a disturbing history of anti-democratic and racist speech and actions. Their Religious Zionism party secured 15 seats, assuring that it would become a major power broker in the new government. Their agenda of further restricting the rights of Israeli Arabs and limiting the ability of the Israeli Supreme Court to review government policies, had great appeal to an Israeli electorate that has been moving further to the right in recent years. It is inevitable that the new Israeli coalition government will put greater strain on U.S.-Israeli relations and drive an even greater wedge between Diaspora Jewry and the State of Israel as the gap between liberal Zionist ideology and the facts on the ground in Israel become wider and wider.

Meanwhile, in the U.S. elections, despite President Biden’s low approval ratings, the expected mid-term red wave did not happen. While the House may, indeed, flip to Republican control, it will be by a very slim margin and the Democrats will retain control of the Senate. But the bigger news of the election is that the public seemed to really care about the future of our democracy. There have been so many indicators of how the fabric of our democracy is currently at-risk. The two largest indicators of this dangerous trend were the assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6th and the widespread embrace of “election denial” by Republicans. As the January 6th Congressional hearings made clear, both of these phenomena were seeded by Donald Trump and his close circle of advisors. 

That dangerous trend was clearly repudiated by U.S. voters. In Michigan, Arizona and Nevada, the Republican party fielded candidates for their respective, state secretaries of state who themselves, claimed that Joe Biden’s ascension to the U.S. Presidency was based on fraud even though no evidence of such fraud has ever been produced.  These positions oversee the election apparatus in each state, raising fears that we would not have impartial oversight of the 2024 Presidential election. In all three states, those candidates lost their races. In Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, Republican gubernatorial candidates who were also “election deniers” and who would have had the power to appoint a state, secretary of state, also lost their races.

There remain many things about the conduct of today’s U.S. politics that are of concern. But the just-concluded election in the U.S. does provide good reason to believe that a majority of Americans care deeply about safeguarding our democracy and will express that commitment in the voting booths. Given how democracies seem to be under assault in so many parts of the world, that is no small thing.


Braver Leadership

Dr. Erica Brown (November, 2022)

The Role of Mentorship

Mentoring is a serious business. The responsibilities of taking someone under your wing and supervising him or her to achieve personal growth are great. Mentoring takes time. John Gardner in his well-regarded book, On Leadership, likens the mentor to the farmer:

Mentors are “growers,” good farmers rather than inventors or mechanics. Growers have to accept that the main ingredients and processes with which they work are not under their own control. They are in a patient partnership with nature, with an eye to the weather and a feeling for cultivation. A recognition that seeds sometimes fall on barren ground, a willingness to keep trying, a concern for the growing thing, patience – such are the virtues of the grower. And mentor.

Notice the emphasis Gardner places on being watchful, not domineering. The mentor nurtures the ripe conditions for growth without coercing change. In “Mentoring as Partnership,” Chip Bell argues that the traditional definitions of a mentor as a person of seniority conversing with a young recruit is insufficient:

A mentor is simply someone who helps someone else learn something that he or she would have learned less well, more slowly or not at all, if left alone. Notice the power-free nature of this definition! Mentors are not power figures. Mentors are learning coaches—sensitive, trusted advisors…Mentoring from a partnership perspective means, “We are fellow travelers on this journey toward wisdom.”

Very few people seek out mentors in either their professional or volunteer commitments. Yet those who do often describe a pivotal relationship and credit much of their accomplishments to someone who pushed them beyond what they thought themselves capable of achieving.

 Gardner also mentions the importance of novices being exposed to “…seasoned lead­ers and exemplary figures so that they can perceive and understand those dimensions of lead­ership that cannot be put into words.” Not every aspect of leadership is spelled out clearly; since so much of good leadership involves good judgment, it is important to observe the sub­tleties of leadership up close. Laurent A. Daloz, in his book, Mentor: Guiding the Journey of Adult Learners, suggests three main purposes of mentoring: 1) offering support, 2) creating challenge and 3) facilitating vision.

Offering sup­port for a disciple or novice creates a firm relationship of caring but does not necessarily ad­vance someone. A mentor has to take active steps in helping his or her charge develop a personal vision and take steps, even risks, to reach an objective.


*Excerpted from Inspired Jewish Leadership: Practical Approaches to Building Strong Communities (Jewish Lights, 2008) by Dr. Erica Brown. Reprinted by permission of distributor, Turner Publications, from which you can also buy the book

Dr. Erica Brown is a prolific author and leading Jewish educator in North America.  She is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Lord Rabbi Sacks-Herenstein Center for Values and Leadership.

Rabbi Sid Message (October, 2022)

Sukkot: The Power of Cooperation

Jews ascribe a lot of value to meritocracy and competence, sometimes, obsessively. It might be for that reason that I so look forward to Sukkot. It gives me a chance to revel in my incompetence.

I built my first sukkah when our three children were young. It would not have happened without the help of a friend named Kevin, whose three children were about the same age as ours and who was a fellow parent at our local Jewish day school. We agreed to do build two identical sukkot, with each of us helping the other, channeling a bit of Amish ethic. Kevin was clearly the brains of the operation. He was both architect and engineer. I offered a bit of sweat equity but I emerged with a lovely, sturdy, if heavy Sukkah which served our family for well over 20 years.

When we became empty nesters, I knew that I needed to move to a lighter sukkah. I no longer had my kids to help me move the large, 4×8 wood panels with lattice from my garage to the backyard. I was thrilled to “gift” our sukkah to a single mom who was a member of our synagogue and her teenaged daughter, where it got a second life. When I helped Cheryl and Eliana build that sukkah in their backyard, I felt like a million bucks. Me, who finds a trip to the hardware store very intimidating, giving direction on the construction. Who would have guessed!

Our new, lightweight sukkah, came in a kit. It still requires a few people to assemble but it is far easier than my original one. But I did not buy the bamboo roof add on, assuming that I could rig something up on my own. On the front end, I saved $65. I have now spent hundreds of dollars and untold hours over several years to figure out a good way to hold the schach on the sukkah roof. I am too proud to now buy the $65 bamboo kit. This week I came up with my third design in five years, weaving twine between the roof poles. I thought it was a brilliant solution until I discovered how quickly 300’ of twine can get knotted. So, I spent several hours with my daughter, Jenny, unknotting twine, again and again, until we finished our twine weave.

It never fails. Each year that I assemble my sukkah, I am reminded of one of Mordecai Kaplan’s lesser-known books called The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion. In it, Kaplan has a chapter on each Jewish festival, and he brilliantly builds a case for each holiday without centering God’s supernatural powers, which he did not believe in. He titles the chapter on Sukkot, “God as the Power that Makes for Cooperation”. Indeed, it is impossible to build a sukkahby yourself, as I have learned the hard way over many years. 

I see Kaplan’s insight manifested when I join together with other members of our congregation who come together to build our congregation’s sukkah. When I was growing up at our Conservative synagogue on Long Island, I’d join my Dad to help build the congregational sukkah. It was sponsored by the synagogue’s Men’s Club and it was, definitely, a male-only affair. When we founded Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, MD in the late 1980’s, we intentionally avoided creating a Sisterhood and Men’s Club. The community, since its founding, has had a strong volunteer ethos including weekly, volunteer-led shabbat lunches, with each member being required to prepare and serve several onegs a year, often with 100-150 people in attendance. Sure enough, each year, women, men, teens and children turn out to build our communal sukkah. Is it heretical for the founding rabbi of a congregation to admit that he enjoys building the sukkah more than Sukkot services?

We live in a society that has automated almost everything. The explosion of on-line shopping has even toppled one of the iconic symbols of American society, the shopping mall. Similar to the argument made by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone that the decline of bowling leagues is a metaphor for the breakdown of America’s social fabric, everywhere we look we see reasons why we have become such a polarized society. There are fewer and fewer places where we come together, meet our neighbors and learn how to live cooperatively. America’s pluralistic democracy was built on the strength of the “public square”, where people from different ethnic, religious, political backgrounds could come together, see each other as human beings and, together, work to advance the common good. That public square has all but vanished in American and we are much poorer for it.

Increasingly, I like to describe Judaism as radically counter-cultural. My parent’s generation, many of whom were immigrants to this country, were eager to talk about how Judaism and Americanism were in harmony. It suited their need to fit in and feel like “real” Americans. My generation, and certainly that of my children, no longer has to prove that we belong in America. We are, however, challenged to make the case that Judaism has a place in our lives.

The case is simple. No society can long endure if it cannot find ways to bring people together to do something constructive for the common good. Judaism starts with community. It cannot be done alone. Just try to build a sukkah, and you will see why.

Moadim l’Simcha


Braver Leadership

Dr. Erica Brown (October, 2022)

Leadership as a “Calling”

Leaders can sometimes identify the moment when a sense of urgency moved them to get involved with an organization or make a personal contribution to a cause. Some feel an affinity toward a move­ment or group of people who are trying earnestly to effect changes through their non-profit work. They experience an ah-hah moment and know they must respond to their inner voice. Others are drawn in by an alternative feeling. They look around at the indifference, the materialism or the cynicism that surrounds us all and decide they cannot sit on the sidelines any longer.

Take Jonathan as an example. Jonathan was explaining to a classroom of like-minded Jewish communal professionals that he reached a turning point in his arid law career after a series of visits to a senior partner in his firm. Before computer-generated billing tabs, this elderly partner recorded all of his billable hours in thick, bound books. Proudly, he dis­played his life’s work in 45 books of billable hours. Surveying the monotony of those bindings, Jon concluded that his life was going to record something else, something more personally meaningful and colorful than professional “receipts.” Jonathan was able to hear the still, small voice inside and magnify it until it led him to different professional choices. He remembers the exact moment the shift in perspective took hold of him. If we tap into these moments of transformation, we can begin to understand the significant role that inspiration plays in au­thentic leadership.

Religious thinkers and spiritual texts sometimes refer to this experience as a “calling” or a “vocation.”  The word “calling” used within a religious context signifies a specific moment when an individual has been summoned to exhibit leadership. This term has enjoyed more se­rious regard in Christian literature than in Jewish writings. It is common for an individual to describe a mid-life change to take a leadership position within the church as answering “the call.” However, the term “calling” has a more formal definition in the scholarship of religion, as this definition from the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics indicates,

A divine call or election, of a revelatory character, [is] addressed to religiously gifted or charismatic personalities. It forms the first phase of their initiation into an often unwillingly accepted intermediary function between human society and the sacred world.

The rabbis understood the significance of call texts and drew our attention to them in a fascinating midrash, or rabbinic teaching, dating from the first centuries of the Common Era. It shows the connection that calling has as a literal or symbolic communication between humans and the divine.

The rabbis said: You find that when God gave the Torah to Moses, He gave it to him after “calling.” How do we know this? Since it is said, “And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mount; and Moses went up” (Exodus 19:20). Also Moses our teacher, when he came to repeat the Torah to Israel said to them: “Just as I received the Torah with ‘calling’ so too will I hand it over to God’s children with ‘calling.’ From where do we know this? From what is written in the context: “And Moses called to all of Israel, and said to them.” (Midrash Rabba, Deuteronomy, 7:8.)

Moses received the Torah “with calling” (in fact, the book of Leviticus in He­brew is “Vayikra,” “And he called,” referring to God’s calling of Moses) and decided that the children of Israel should share this important preliminary stage of responsibility. What the midrash conveys between the lines is that, just as an outstanding leader experiences a call to leadership, so, too, should s/he inspire others to hear this call. In other words, the preparation for the receipt of a mission, be it individual or collective, is in both hearing the call and generating the call for others. The midrash communicates a sense of personal invitation to the Torah and its demands. As we discuss mentoring later, we will return to the importance of personal invitation in shaping the leadership of others. Great leaders invite people into responsibility, imparting both the warmth of communion and belonging with the confidence in another that they may not have in themselves. When God invited Moses up the mount, Moses understood that he was to give the Torah by imitating the same method: calling.

A calling is not always comfortable. Notice the powerful symbolism in the midrash that likens a calling to an invitation to scale a mountain. A calling is an upward propulsion that requires great inner and sometimes physical strength, endurance and perseverance. We may feel impelled to do something for which we have no formal training or experience. We may feel guilt-tripped into taking a role. Compulsion can generate a calling; it is rare for guilt to create a calling because with guilt, we often hear someone else’s voice in our heads rather than our own. What makes a responsibility a calling is that we can intuit it – it comes from deep within, not from without.

Kenissa Konnections-September, 2022

Rabbi Sid Message

Message from Rabbi Sid

So many individuals in our Kenissa Network are making important contributions to North American Jewish life. Many of those contributions often manifest in programs on the ground. Once in a while it comes as an intellectual contribution in the form of a book. For that reason, I want to highlight the new book by Rabbi Natan Margalit, the founder of Organic Torah. His book, published this past spring, is The Pearl and the Flame: A Journey into Jewish Wisdom and Ecological Thinking(Albion-Andalus, 2022). It is a great Elul read, in preparation for the yamim noraim.

Reb Natan uses a systems theory approach to applying core Jewish values to the world. The book is built around three such “mem” values:

  • Minyan-the quorum of ten which is an example of how the whole is greater than the sum of the parts;
  • Mikdash-sanctuary, which is an example of nested structure in which holiness is contained in nested patterns;
  • Mitzvah-small actions which can have huge consequences.

I particularly appreciated how Reb Natan focuses on the need for us to build holy communities as a response to the breakdown of the social fabric in our world today. In my work, I like to use the term “covenantal communities” for what Reb Natan describes so beautifully. In addition, Reb Natan pays close attention to how we can build these communities with a consciousness about the preciousness of the natural world, which is also at risk today.

The big question that jumps out at me from the book is one that I have thought about for a long time: Can individuals surrender some level of autonomy for the well-being of the larger social system? I believe that covenantal community is the antidote to a society in which every individual and every interest group seeks advantage over their competitors as if we were in some giant, zero-sum game. Such a zero-sum game is, I believe, un-Jewish, un-American and, ultimately the very opposite of the kind of world that Reb Natan’s book holds aloft.

I highly recommend getting a copy of the book and consider bringing it with you when you attend services during the coming High Holyday season. Wishing you and your families a healthy and happy New Year.


Braver Leadership

Dr. Erica Brown 

Leadership and the Jewish Community

The Problem with Peoplehood

Recent sociological studies of the American Jewish community have found, not surprisingly, that community takes a second seat to individuality for many Jews today. This is not a Jewish problem alone but is endemic to Western culture and worth investigating. Some sociologists credit the American emphasis on diversity and pluralism with slowly pulling individuals away from the expected conventions of community living…

…In The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America (Steven M. Cohen and Arnold M. Eisen, Indiana University Press, 2000), qualitative interviews led Steven Cohen and Arnold Eisen to come up with some defining characteristics of American Jews today. They term these characteristics “the sovereign Jewish self.” The term implies a certain distance from communal obligations. Here is some of what they found:

  • A sense of inalienability (I’m Jewish regardless of what I do or do not do)
  • An orientation toward volunteerism
  • A supposition of personal autonomy
  • A highly-developed sense of personalism
  • An aversion to judgmentalism
  • A sense of journey without commitment to a particular stance or belief

Think about how each of each of these statements influences notions of community. While an orientation towards volunteerism is critical in maintaining vibrant communities, virtually every other aspect of the sovereign Jewish self can have a negative impact on Jewish peoplehood. For example, a sense of inalienability is a paramount break from Jewish tradition where religious authorities were charged with determining membership and preserving a shared language of ritual and law. If anyone can be Jewish by feeling and not necessarily by birth, deed or commitment, then the parameters of Jewish peoplehood may become stretched beyond recognition. While Cohen and Eisen conclude that modern American Jews loathe judgmentalism, it does remain an important mechanism for keeping people within a set of collectively accepted boundaries and shared norms. Personalism and autonomy are, obviously, individually determined and, when regarded as supreme Jewish values, diminish from the impact of a collective Jewish inner language. The glue that held the Jewish community together historically – shared language (Hebrew, Ladino, Yiddish), shared texts and shared practices – has lost its hold without any replacement.

It is not surprising that people, both Jews and non-Jews, have often regarded anti-Semitism as a means to create a sense of Jewish peoplehood. Sadly, this leaves our unity to the random whim of those who hate us. The ramifications are enormous.

The shift from reliance on religious authority to personal authority means that individuals are no longer dependent on the writings or pronouncements of a religious hierarchy, either for their spiritual interpretation of Scripture or for guidance on the right way to live. The resulting individualistic approach to religious practice and belief makes it much more difficult to achieve and sustain a shared understanding of what it means to be Jewish.

What does all of this mean for Jewish leaders today? For starters, those who were charged in the past with raising funds for communal projects or maintaining high levels of social or educational services must add a preliminary step to their engagement. They must convince non-affiliated and moderately-involved Jews that they need to be part of the Jewish community. We can no longer assume membership or a sense of belonging and communal obligation. Where once the pillars of the Jewish community were involved almost exclusively with Jewish concerns, today’s strongly-committed Jews often spread their allegiances and charitable giving across multiple overlapping communities, be they political, environmental, educational or civic. Notions of community have changed dramatically, and we ignore those changes at our own peril.


Dr. Erica Brown is a prolific author and leading Jewish educator in North America. She is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Lord Rabbi Sacks-Herenstein Center for Values and Leadership.


How we Built This

Elana Frank-Jewish Fertility Foundation

I am Mom to three rambunctious and adorable boys whom I love more than life itself. All were born via the miracle of in vitro fertilization, or IVF. Significantly, the first two were born in Israel.

The judgment and pressure to launch a Jewish family is crushing, perhaps even more so in Israel where large families are common. Like all who struggle to conceive, the angst of trying and failing month after month is crushing. At the religious non-profit (in the Galilee) where I worked, my colleagues wondered why I’d been married for over a year and did not have kids.

“It’s time you started trying.” “You don’t want to be old parents!” (I was 31 years old.) They began saying tehillim (psalms) for me. My typically blunt Israeli family peppered us with questions. “Don’t worry, we are trying,” I’d say. Then I’d go home sobbing.  

And yet, living in Israel, made all the difference. Israel’s socialized medicine system afforded me the opportunity to visit my doctor after only four months of trying to begin to get some answers. When, after five years we made our way back to America with two young kids, my husband was not on the same page about my obsession to have a third child.

How could I quit when we had six extra embryos in Israel? I flew back and forth to Israel to transfer them, which was significantly less expensive than starting from scratch in America. But none of the remaining embryos took, and no one could answer why. It took us another five years of marital stress, judgment (mostly from myself), more failed IVF cycles, and unsuccessful attempts at adoption to have our third child through embryo donation — a form of third- party reproduction.

Launching the Jewish Fertility Foundation.
Over time, I learned that I wasn’t the only one in the world who had a hard time conceiving and that for others, it takes years of miscarriages, unbearable debt, and oceans of tears before finally giving birth, if at all. With the cost of IVF ranging on average from $14,000 – $25,000 in America, many women cannot access the IVF process at all. I knew that there was an urgent need for funding, support, and enhanced awareness of this devastating and often “unspoken” issue in the Jewish community.

After experiencing the pain and loneliness of infertility, and realizing how lucky I was to have my infertility experience begin in Israel where treatment is free, I rallied people behind me and, in 2015, created the Jewish Fertility Foundation (JFF). JFF provides financial assistance, educational awareness, and emotional support to Jewish people with medical fertility challenges. It is our vision that every Jewish person in America should be able to afford fertility treatments, be emotionally supported, and have access to educational resources while building their family. We have come a long way since 2015 and are actively scaling our organization. We currently have five offices: JFF-Atlanta (2015), JFF-Cincinnati (2019), JFF- Birmingham (2021), JFF-Tampa (2021), and JFF-Pittsburgh (2022).

Here are a few JFF milestones that we are particularly proud of:

  • 137 fertility grants valued at $1.165 M grants, loans, and clinic discounts
  • 99 babies born to those receiving emotional and/or financial support
  • 49 babies on the way
  • 150 + Educational events with 1,000+ attendees
  • 200 + Fertility Buddies / 600 + Support Group Attendees
  • 12 Partner Fertility Clinics  
  • Over $3.015 M Foundation partners include The Marcus Foundation, The Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati, The Zalik Foundation, The Natan Fund, and the Jewish Federations (Atlanta, Tampa, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati)

I have learned so much as a CEO and founder. Here are some quick takeaways:

  • Separate personal from professional — Grow a thicker skin, not everything is personal.
  • Find coaches and mentors —I was fortunate to launch JFF with a 20+ year background in nonprofit management including a Master’s from NYU. All these experiences and engagements exposed me to best practices and incredible mentors. I deeply believe the adage, k’nai lecha chaver (acquire for yourself, a friend/partner).
  • Learn, grow, collaborate — I’ve actively pursued fellowships and innovation cohorts to help JFF adopt best practices and scale up nationally.
  • Support your staff — Given our mission, most of our staff have been, and likely will continue to be, women. I am committed to addressing the impact of gender differences on everyone associated with JFF. I want to ensure that employees don’t need to rely on a partner for benefits. I am developing a compensation policy using the gender lens to address the systemic inequalities that exist against women.
  • Pilot and pivot — Don’t be afraid to try something new, and pivot when necessary. After the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision on abortion, JFF is facing tremendous uncertainty about the future legality of assisted reproductive technology, pregnancy terminations, and contraception. We will be relentless in learning what is legally possible to advocate for our families.

Living in Israel not only made me a mother, it taught me to stand up for myself, try new things, and embrace discomfort. I took those strengths home to Atlanta to build an organization where distinctly Jewish values align with internal operations and culture. Because so many of our fertility grantees are interfaith or unaffiliated, I love the way JFF is often the first “hug” from the Jewish community a Jewish individual or couple experiences as an adult. We serve as an extension of the Jewish community, welcoming those who are struggling to become parents, and creating an on-ramp into the Jewish community for generations to come.  

________________

Elana Frank, mompreneur to 3 boys through IVF and embryo donation, helps intended parents navigate becoming parents through her non-profit that she leads, the Jewish Fertility Foundation. She has trained 500+ community and healthcare leaders infertility sensitivity, matched up hundreds of people with “fertility buddies”, “birthed” 100 babies, and given over $1 million in fertility grants.

Kenissa Konnections-June, 2022

Rabbi Sid Message

About a year ago, I was contacted by Warren Hoffman, a career Jewish professional who currently is the executive director of the Association for Jewish Studies about a book he was putting together with Miriam Steinberg-Egeth, a member of the Kenissa network who does great work bringing Jews together in Philadelphia under the auspices of the Center City Kehilla and now works for Hadar. Warren told me that he hoped to put together a book that would build on the analysis of the American Jewish community that I developed in Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future, the book that actually gave birth to the Kenissa initiative.

Warren’s idea was to approach a dozen or so individuals who were leading relatively new, innovative Jewish organizations, many of which are part of the Kenissa network, and ask them to write essays on how the Jewish community can be more open to an increasingly, diverse Jewish community. The organized Jewish community pays a lot of lip service to its desire to be inclusive but not every legacy Jewish institution knows how to accommodate the growing identity-diversity of next generation Jews. Warren asked if I would agree to write the Foreword to the planned book.

I happily agreed to take on the assignment. In the ensuing months, I was able to read and comment on the essays that eventually became Warm and Welcoming: How the Jewish Community can Become Truly Diverse and Inclusive in the 21stCentury (Rowman and Littlefield).

Among my many observations, I wrote in the Foreword: “The Jewish community still has both religious and communal leaders who expect (a) top-down model of leadership to work. It doesn’t. One of the positive consequences of the internet age that we live in is that the voices that once were silent can now be heard. It is a new and challenging terrain for would-be leaders because, with so many voices in the mix, building consensus can be very hard. But with open minds and open hearts, I believe that when leaders both encourage and pay attention to all of those disparate voices, something better can be created. Warm and Welcoming provides a platform for much wisdom from a wide array of innovative voices. If the stewards of the Jewish community take in that wisdom with open minds and open hearts, we can build a more vibrant Jewish future together.”

Warm and Welcoming is an important contribution to opening up the Jewish community in ways that are so essential. It offers concrete ideas and strategies that Jewish communal professionals can and should implement. The book also advances the very mission of Kenissa: Communities of Meaning Network. I strongly encourage you to buy the book and read it during the upcoming summer break. As a member of the Kenissa network, you can take advantage of a 30% discount by using this link and including the discount code of: RLFANDF30.  


Braver Leadership

Dr. Erica Brown 

Leadership and the Jewish Community

We can only move people and change the culture of institutions that we understand, and the Jewish community today is extremely complex. Membership is more permeable than ever before: Being Jewish for some is a matter of birth; for others it is a matter of choice. For some it is about feelings, while for others it is about obligation. Some link their Judaism to their ethnicity, for others the link is to personal history. If our tasks is the management of a non-profit entity that serves the Jewish community, then engagement must begin with a firm understanding of today’s Jewish community. But defining and understanding community is never easy.

 “Community” is an “essentially contested concept.”[i]  In the words of one educator: “The idea of community is…elusive. There appears to be no clear consensus as to its central meaning.”[ii] Is it a moral entity or does it have geographic restraints? Some thinkers believe that the word “community” is used to divert attention from the schisms within a group and present a more unified picture than really exists. [iii] In addition to these problems, today’s media capabilities have changed the way that we think about communities. Internet chat rooms, university courses, and even religious services have raised new questions about what constitutes true communal membership.

A popular exercise in our leadership classes is to ask people to come up with a list of their positive and negative associations with the word “community” encapsulated in a words or phrase. I’d like to share some of the words I’ve collected over the years with you.

Positive Associations: shared values, unity, membership, support, safety-net, understanding, laughter, education, activities, mutual fund, peoplehood, belonging, familiarity, pride, trust, guidance, responsibility, obligation, networking, friendship, history, empowerment, comfort, sharing, continuity, commitment, traditions, closeness, ritual, togetherness, communication, roots, cohesion

Negative Associations: exclusiveness, convention, stifling, friction, gossip, segregation, tribalism obligation, responsibility, prejudice, pressure, judgment, barriers, expense, cliques, politics, rules, forced membership, lack of privacy, guilt

For many Jews, community may mean a limited population such as their neighborhood or the individuals they regularly pray with at synagogue. But community can also extend to those we do not normally encounter face-to-face, such as Jews in distress in other parts of the globe to whom we feel a responsibility and a sense of collective destiny. In this sense the word “peoplehood” may be substituted for “community” since it extends beyond the boundaries of those in our immediate geographic or historical reality.

 Peoplehood may describe a group of individuals who share a sense of history and fate expressed as culture, faith, language, law, customs, goals and obligations. In the case of oppression or racism, it may also be externally determined by those outside such groupings.

[i]. For a list of such ideas, see W.B. Gallie, ‘Essentially Contested Concepts” in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (1955).

[ii]. Joel Westheimer, Among School teachers: Community, Autonomy and Ideology in Teachers’ Work (Teachers College Press, 1998).

[iii]. Andrew Mason, Community, Solidarity and Belonging: Levels of Community and their Normative Significance(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).


Dr. Erica Brown is a prolific author and leading Jewish educator in North America.  She is the new Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Lord Rabbi Sacks-Herenstein Center for Values and Leadership.

Kenissa Konnections-May, 2022

Rabbi Sid Message

If you get this newsletter, you were likely part of one or two national Kenissa convenings from 2015-2020. During that period of time, we built a database of some 400 new Jewish initiatives all across North America, distributed across six sectors that we identified: Jewish learning; spiritual practice; social justice; eco-sustainability; arts and culture; and new spiritual communities.

As luck (or Divine intention) would have it, the last planned gathering for this phase of our work took place in early March of 2020 at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, CT. Approximately 75 Jewish creatives attended. We had no cancellations even though the week before the gathering, news broke of a highly contagious virus coming out of Wuhan, China. Suffice it to say, by the final day of our 3-day gathering, the Covid pandemic became very real in the U.S. and our participants were anxious to return home.

For the past two years, we have moved into Phase 2 of Kenissa. Our primary goal during this phase is to work with some 20 major Federations around North America to incentivize more of the creative Jewish energy that we uncovered during Phase 1 of the initiative and, where there are new initiatives already in operation on the ground in these communities, to catalyze mutually beneficial partnerships between them and legacy Jewish organizations in those respective communities.

Setting the stage for this important work is to assemble data on the phenomenon of emerging Jewish communities of meaning. While hundreds of new Jewish initiatives have been created in North America in the past 20 years, there remains a data vacuum when it comes to understanding and describing this ecosystem. The last comprehensive study of the Jewish innovation ecosystem was conducted by Jumpstart Labs in 2009. For the past two years, Kenissa has worked in partnership with Jumpstart Labs to plan a new continental-wide study.

Truth be told, the process was slowed down by Covid. Many of our institutional partners were struggling (along with everyone else) to navigate the new landscape that Covid required. But within the next two weeks the 2022 Survey of Contemporary Jewish Initiatives (led by Jumpstart Labs in partnership with Kenissa: Communities of Meaning Network) will be launched.

Everyone in the Kenissa Network will be receiving the survey at their email of record with us (as will hundreds of other organizations that we have identified in tandem with a host of organizational partners). It will come from an independent company called Evitarus that administers and crunches data for such wide-ranging surveys. The survey will appear in your Inbox as: noreply@qemailserver.com. We urge you to watch for the survey and fill it out at your earliest convenience.

Finally, if you are aware of recently created Jewish organizations that you believe are part of the Jewish innovation ecosystem, you can help our effort by sending them this link to register themselves. It will result in them getting the same survey that you will be getting.

Thank you in advance for your cooperation on this initiative. We will keep you informed of our progress.  


Braver Leadership

Dr. Erica Brown 

Servant-Leadership: A Model of Non-Profit Leadership

            Moses and Joshua, his successor, were called God’s servants in the Bible and personify servant leadership This was not a demeaning title suggesting a subordinate position. This was high biblical praise; it meant that the leader in question was filled with humility and valued a lifetime of service to others. It meant that rank was not about ego, power or authority. It was about generosity, modesty and giving…

            …Servant Leadership is the name of a popular theory of non-profit leadership coined by Robert Greenleaf in his 1970 essay, “The Servant as Leader.” Greenleaf had a lengthy career in management research that took an unusual turn in the 1960s. After reading Hermann Hesse’s novel Journey to the East, the story of a mythical, spiritual journey, Greenleaf came to consider that great leaders are primarily great servants.[i] Great leaders have a deep desire to help others. Greenleaf’s model became very influential precisely because it tapped into issues of personal inspiration. For Greenleaf, servant leadership:

“…Begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant—first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test is: Do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”[ii]

One of Greenleaf’s disciples, Larry Spears, developed a list of ten qualities embodied by a servant-leader based on Greenleaf’s writings. They are:

  1. Listening: The servant-leader seeks to identify the will of a group and helps clarify that will. He or she seeks to listen receptively to what is being said.
  2. Empathy: The servant-leader strives to understand and empathize with others…He or she assumes the good intentions of co-workers and does not reject them as people, even while refusing to accept their behavior or performance.
  3. Healing: One of the strengths of servant-leadership is the potential for healing oneself and others. Many people have broken spirits and have suffered from a variety of emotional hurts.
  4. Awareness: General awareness, and especially self-awareness, strengthens the servant-leader.
  5. Persuasion: The servant-leader seeks to convince others, rather than coerce compliance.
  6. Conceptualization: Servant-leaders seek to nurture their abilities to “dream great dreams.”
  7. Foresight: Foresight is a characteristic that enables the servant-leader to understand the lessons from the past, the realities of the present and the likely consequence of a decision for the future. It is also deeply rooted within the intuitive mind.
  8. Stewardship: “Holding something in trust for another,” servant-leaders play significant roles in holding their institutions in trust for the greater good of society.
  9. Commitment to the growth of people: Servant-leaders believe that people have an intrinsic value beyond their tangible contributions as workers…The servant-leader is deeply committed to the growth of each and every individual within his or her institution.
  10. Building community: The servant-leader senses that much has been lost in recent human history as a result of the shift from local communities to large institutions as the primary shaper of human lives.[iii]

            The servant-leader model has been adopted in many different leadership circles but has particularly resonated within religious communities because its principles reflect values that are central to faith-based communities.  The New York Times noted that, “Servant leadership deals with the reality of power in everyday life – its legitimacy, the ethical restraints upon it and the beneficial results that can be attained through the appropriate use of power.”[iv] A careful review of the ten characteristics of the servant-leader suggests major adaptations in our views of power and authority. The servant-leader model can help us reconsider uses of power and influence.

[i]. Larry C. Spears, “Tracing the Growing Impact of Servant-Leadership” in Insights on Leadership: Service, Stewardship, Spirit and Servant-Leadership (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1998), pp.2-3.

[ii]. Robert K. Greenleaf, The Servant as Leader (Indianapolis: The Robert Greenleaf Center, 1970), p.7.

[iii]. Larry Spears, pp.4-6.

[iv]. As cited in Spears, p.3.


Dr. Erica Brown is a prolific author and leading Jewish educator in North America.  She is the new Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Lord Rabbi Sacks-Herenstein Center for Values and Leadership.

Kenissa Konnections-April, 2022

Rabbi Sid Message

It is impossible to think about the message of Pesach or plan for Pesach Seders without considering the horrific invasion of Ukraine by Russia. The Exodus from Egypt is the master story of the Jewish people. It features an arch villain—Pharoah; and a hero-Moses. The theme of Pesach, “from slavery to freedom”, we have lived out again and again in the course of our people’s history. 

In the Ukrainian story, still unfolding as I write, Vladimir Putin sets a new standard for evil as his troops ruthlessly target schools, hospitals and train stations for shelling; hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are being marched into Russia, to be held as future hostages; and civilians who remain behind are tortured and massacred. Volodymyr Zelensky has emerged as an unlikely hero. The comedian turned successful Presidential candidate, was getting mixed reviews in his early tenure as Ukraine’s President. But since the start of the invasion, he has been a source of inspiration for Ukrainian citizens and a prick on the conscience of the world.

It is sobering to consider that, notwithstanding severe economic sanctions being levelled at Russia, the world is capable of standing by while an entire people is being systematically destroyed. As a people who coined the term, “Never Again”, we have seen the world allow genocides again and again since the end of World War II. Cambodians, Rwandans, Darfuris in Sudan, Rohingyas in Burma come to mind, to name just a few.

I was in Israel at the very start of Russia’s invasion. Not surprisingly, columnists and Israelis on the street, of all political persuasions, commented on the lessons Israel must take from the events in Ukraine. Alliances mean little; if your country cannot defend itself, it is “at risk”. For many of us who are uncomfortable with how much money countries spend on their military—certainly true in the U.S. and in Israel—while a wide array of social needs are left unaddressed, it gives some pause.

I spent over 25 years as an activist for Soviet Jewry. It was one of the most formative engagements of my life and it led me both to my career in the rabbinate and to my lifelong commitment to human rights. For that reason, one of my personal heroes is Natan Sharansky. If you haven’t read his book, Fear No Evil, how one man took on a totalitarian regime, you must add it to your “must read” list. Sharansky has been preaching for years: One cannot negotiate with dictators nor cower from their threats.

It seems to me that Pesach teaches a similar lesson. There is evil in the world and “we cannot avert our eyes.”–lo tuchal l’hitalem(Deut. 22:3).  This is the language our tradition uses to teache that we must confront evil head on.  It reminds me of another morally persuasive saying that came out of the civil rights movement-“freedom is never free”.

May the coming Pesach festival give us the courage to advance “liberation” (cherut) for all human beings who, today, suffer at the hands of tyrants. Chag sameach.


Braver Leadership

Dr. Erica Brown

Excerpted from Inspired Jewish Leadership

…In On Becoming A Leader, Warren Bennis suggests that we are all “creatures of our context” and that understanding and mastering context is essential to being effective.[i] Subsequently, we have to understand ourselves within that context and through consultation with the team of people who help us run an institution. Non-profit leadership and certainly Jewish leadership never takes place in a vacuum. To create long-lasting social change in an institution, or even to function capably every day, requires a team of committed individuals. Leadership conversations take place with other people. One problem with the contingency theory of leadership, according to Robert Goffee and Gareth Jones in “Leadership: A Small History of a Big Topic,” is that, “…given that there are endless contingencies in life, there are endless varieties of leadership…the beleaguered executive looking for a model to help him is hopelessly lost.”[ii] Contingency theory as a model of leadership must be based on enduring but flexible principles to sustain the permutations that situational leadership presents.

The biblical model for the contingency theory lies in the “career path” that almost every significant biblical leader assumed, from Abraham to Rachel to King David. Each of these leaders, along with Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and his brothers, Moses and onward, spent time as a shepherd before or parallel to having a leadership role.

The shepherd is an outstanding metaphor for the leader because of the skills required, the tasks and responsibilities undertaken and the nature of the flock. In order to be a shepherd, you need to be flexible and adaptable to changes in terrain and weather. You need to be possessive and territorial to protect your sheep from enemies and account them – each of them – at all times. And you need to be nurturing.

As a successful shepherd you need to be comfortable wandering in search of better pastureland and unafraid of the unexpected. You also need the inner resources to cope with solitude and isolation. Ideally, and in keeping with the biblical model, you use your time alone to contemplate the world, to feel your insignificance in the universe and to praise God for the majesty of your natural surroundings. Your solitude is not a source of angst but a font of spirituality.

The contingent leader, like the shepherd, has both the skills and the fortitude to cope with change and even welcome the unexpected. He or she has no “manual” to follow but allows the exigencies of leadership to sculpt a way forward. Contingent leaders learn from their mistakes and their successes, crafting their leadership role on the run. In the Bible, our most famous leaders were shepherds not because their followers were empty-headed flocks who went wherever directed. The Jewish people are called a “stiff-necked” nation precisely because they did not follow aimlessly or without question.

If you have ever watched a shepherd and his flock you probably noticed that the shepherd leads from behind, standing at the rear of his flock. This counterintuitive position actually allows the shepherd to see his entire flock clearly. From this vantage point, he can gauge the direction and external conditions that will determine the course. He can see which sheep require added vigilance and protection. Most importantly, it prevents the distance that many leaders have from their followers. Those who lead from the front often don’t turn around to see who is behind them. They are so remote or their ideas are so distant from their constituents that they fail to service the very people they lead. If a shepherd did that he would not only endanger his flock, he would risk losing them altogether.

The shepherd is such an important biblical metaphor for leadership that one of our most famous psalms describes God as a shepherd:

The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me to waters in places of repose. He renews my life; he guides me in right paths as befits His name. Though I walk in through a valley of deepest darkness, I fear no harm, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff comfort me.[iii]

In this psalm, because God is a shepherd, we, his flock, have nothing to fear. We are directed to places that benefit and renew us. We are protected and, even in our darkest hours, we are comforted by the shepherd’s tools of authority and leadership: the rod and the staff. From the perspective of the flock, the shepherd keeps everyone alive.

This powerful metaphor indicates, along with the skills required for contingent leadership, just how responsible a leader has to be for – and to – his or her followers. If a flock is entirely dependent on the shepherd for life and protection, then the shepherd must be fully accountable for his sheep. Many leaders want power. They want to lead from the front. They desire followers and want control without ultimate responsibility for those they lead. Leading from behind offers a complete perspective on the role of everyone within an organizational structure.

[i].Warren Bennis, On Becoming a Leader (New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1989), pp.13-37.

[ii].Robert Goffee and Gareth Jones, “Leadership: A Small History of a Big Topic,” Harvard Business Review, September-October 2000, p.21.

[iii] Psalm 23:1-4.

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*Excerpted from Inspired Jewish Leadership: Practical Approaches to Building Strong Communities (Jewish Lights, 2008) by Dr. Erica Brown. Reprinted by permission of distributor, Turner Publications, from which you can also buy the book. Dr. Erica Brown is a prolific author and leading Jewish educator in North America.  She is the new Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Lord Rabbi Sacks-Herenstein Center for Values and Leadership.


Kenissa Konnections-March, 2022

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Rabbi Sid Message

Re-Thinking Religion

About a year after I published Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future (2013) I began to look for some non-Jewish partners that might be interested in joining me on my exploration of the future of religion in America. In the course of researching and writing the book, I became convinced that we were entering a period where more and more explorations of faith and spirituality by Americans would have a multi-faith cast. New expressions of faith and spirituality would not necessarily follow the organizational models created by the national umbrellas of the Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim (and other) faiths communities.  

I spent over a year in meetings with an array of national religious organizations during which I shared my analysis and inquired about the way they saw the future of faith in America. I left each of those meetings more than a bit disappointed. Despite the fact that I was meeting with people in senior leadership of national religious groups, I did not find that they were ready to ask hard questions about the way their organizations were functioning nor why they were experiencing a significant loss of market share.

That changed when I read a report, published by two students from Harvard Divinity School—Casper terKuile and Angie Thurston. The report was called How We Gather and it was asking the exact kind of big questions about the future of faith and religion that I was asking. In a matter of weeks, I was in touch with Casper and Angie and was soon on a plane to Boston where we spent a day in deep conversation about these big questions. For the next few years, as I was building out the Kenissa project and they were building out the How We Gather project, (recently rebranded as Sacred Design Lab), we attended each other’s national gatherings and benefitted from a rich thought partnership.

Among the many fruits of that collaboration was meeting the senior leadership of the Fetzer Institute, which was a lead funder of Casper and Angie’s work. For the last two years, the Fetzer Institute has been bringing together faith leaders and spiritual innovators who are witnessing the same phenomenon I wrote about in Jewish Megatrends: both a decline in religious participation and an increase in spiritual seeking. These gatherings led to the writing of a report, Sharing Spiritual Heritage, which asks: How will we hold onto the rich teachings of our historic faith and wisdom traditions while applying them creatively in today’s time?

Given the financial resources of the Fetzer Institute and their effectiveness as a convener of spiritual innovators, I see the beginnings of the kind of large-scale collaborations that might effectively change the conversation about the future of religion in America. I feel fortunate to be part of those conversations and will share developments with the Kenissa community as they develop.   


Braver Leadership

Dr. Erica Brown

Excerpted from Inspired Jewish Leadership

To be a member of the Sanhedrin, the highest legislative court in Jewish law during the Talmudic era and earlier, the Talmud came up with certain criteria. Maimonides codified these in one of his books of law:

Every conceivable effort should be made to the end that all members of the Sanhedrin be of mature age, imposing stature, good appearance, that they be able to express their views in clear and well-chosen words and be conversant with most of the spoken languages, in order that the Sanhedrin may dispense with the services of an interpreter.[i]

These requirements may be regarded as ancient image management. How others view leaders is a significant factor in Jewish leadership. There are harsh Talmudic words reserved for Sages who had stains on their clothes, tattered sandals or appeared in public with people of dubious character.  These requirements beg the question of what role internal values play in grooming a leader if external factors are so strongly considered? In the very next set of laws, Maimonides points us to these requirements for every judge, in a small or large court:

…it is essential that every one of its members possess the following seven qualifications: wisdom, humility, fear of God, disdain of financial gain, love of truth, love of people and a good reputation.[ii]

These seven values are distilled from the mitzvot or commandments in the Torah which require a highly developed allegiance to God and to humanity. For Jewish leaders, they are essential requirements. These are more than seven “habits;” they are qualifications and standards of excellence and integrity.

Returning to the question we asked earlier – are leaders are born or made? – we find that this list of qualities is not innate. You can be smart, but it is life experience rather than pure intelligence that makes you wise. Humility, fear, disdain of financial gain, love of truth and love of people are all “acquired” behaviors. We are not born humble. Our attitudes to money, truth and people develop over time and through experience. The love of truth and love of people sound like natural and obvious qualities. Yet, when you pause to think about it, people who love truth are often impatient with human fallibility. They are exact, precise and unbending. People who love people are often just the opposite. They negotiate and bend because human happiness and relationships are more important than being “right.” The fact that Maimonides did not separate these qualities means that leaders must find a balance between being principled and being compassionate, being driven and being patient, being honest and being forgiving. There is nothing easy about this balancing act, and just like a scale, it is all too easy to become lopsided and weighted to one side.

It is this careful calibration – am I being fair, am I being honest? – that generates the good reputation that concludes Maimonides’ statement. It is hard to know if Maimonides saw this last quality of a good reputation as something distinct from the others and causally related or another behavior in and of itself. The creating of a reputation is essentially dependent on other people. Others will comment, observe, praise and share our reputations. We cannot control how others see us. But we can care about the way that we present ourselves. Great leaders are exquisitely careful about the way others see them and are attuned to the need to create and sustain an image of integrity.

[i].Maimonides, Mishne Torah, “the Book of Judges” 2:6.

[ii].Ibid, 2:7.

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*Excerpted from Inspired Jewish Leadership: Practical Approaches to Building Strong Communities (Jewish Lights, 2008) by Dr. Erica Brown. Reprinted by permission of distributor, Turner Publications, from which you can also buy the book. Dr. Erica Brown is a prolific author and leading Jewish educator in North America.  She is the new Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Lord Rabbi Sacks-Herenstein Center for Values and Leadership.


Kenissa Konnections-February, 2022

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Rabbi Sid Message

When Anti-Semitism Strikes Close to Home

 On January 15th, not more than five minutes after shabbat was out, I got a call from a rabbi in Boston who is an alumnus of my Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI) rabbinic fellowship program. She was in the same cohort as Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker who, at that time, was being held hostage along with several other members of his congregation by a man with a gun and explosives who entered Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, TX, during shabbat morning services.

The assailant was Malik Faisal Akram, age 44, a resident of the United Kingdom who came to Texas where a convicted terrorist named Aafia Siddiqui, a female Pakistani member of Al Qaeda who had killed U.S. servicemen in Afghanistan, was serving an 82-year prison sentence. During the 11-hour siege, Akram’s demand was the freedom of Ms. Siddiqui. Thanks to a well-coordinated law enforcement effort led by the FBI and the calm demeanor of Rabbi Charlie, who engaged with the intruder throughout the day, the siege ended with the killing of Akram and the freeing of the remaining three hostages, including Rabbi Charlie, without any bodily harm.

Having a personal relationship with someone who was in a life-threatening hostage situation is deeply unsettling. One becomes aware of how vulnerable we all are from random acts of violence. Sadly, this is not the first time that we have seen houses of worship targeted by people who are driven by ideology, blind hatred or mental illness. It would be wrong to think that violence inside a synagogue is any worse than violent acts that have taken places in Christian, Muslim and other sacred spaces. But it does hit far closer to home when it does. I certainly feel that way given that I worked closely with Charlie for the two years that he was in a program that I direct. And it is hard to fight back thoughts of a similar intrusion by an armed gunman during a shabbat morning service at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh in 2018 that ended with the killing of 11 Jews at worship.

Our country is suffering from a perfect storm of hatred and violence. There has been no meaningful legislation to curtail the use of guns in our country. Even the shock of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, in which a young intruder shot and killed 20 six and seven year-old schoolchildren, was not enough to get Congress to pass meaningful gun control legislation. Add to that, Donald Trump’s tenure in the White House, which gave unparalleled legitimacy to the expressions of hatred targeting people of color, immigrants, Jews and others. As has been said repeatedly, words have consequences and, as a society, we are paying a high price for this coarsening of public speech. Even Members of Congress are facing a dramatic increase in the number of threats targeting them.

If faith and ethnicity represent one of the most frequent fault lines in the growing partisanship and divisiveness plaguing America, faith communities are in a position to change the narrative. Ironically, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who was held hostage at his synagogue in Colleyville, TX, was known in the community as a champion of interfaith collaboration. For some years he was the driver of an annual Peace Together walk and communal meal that brought together Jewish, Christian and Muslim congregations in his community. 

We need to re-double our efforts to stand in solidarity with members of all faith communities who become targets of expressions of hate and acts of violence. Evil and hatred are part and parcel of the world we live in. But that does mean we need to resign ourselves to the phenomenon.  Cross-cultural solidarity is a powerful act that can strengthen the forces of goodness and light in a world that desperately needs it.


Braver Leadership

Dr. Erica Brown

Putting the Jewish in Jewish Leadership

Ideally, leadership is taught from a Jewish perspective for the following five compelling reasons. Please feel free to add your own reasons:

  1. We are blessed to have a textual tradition with leadership wisdom spanning thousands of years. From the legendary tales of King David to Talmudic advice and medieval legal treatises, our Jewish scholarly tradition is replete with discussions of leadership. 
  2. Jumping out of the texts are the chronicles of Jewish history. They demonstrate our ambitious will to survive in the face of persecution and the vicissitudes of everyday living. This proud history of survival was contingent upon effective leadership. Whether we read historical testimonies of medieval rabbis and community leaders or the biographies of early Zionists, we are aware that we must honor the leadership of the past by becoming the Jewish leaders of the future. Jewish historical sensitivity leads us to the conclusion that mastery of leadership is pivotal for tomorrow.
  3. We expect our political leaders to master the language, history, values and cultural traditions that formed their respective countries. It is time to expect that Jewish leaders also possess basic knowledge of their own religious and ethnic traditions and history. Today, perhaps more than in any other period of Jewish history, there are so many educational outlets for Jewish adult education that Jewish literacy should be a requisite  for Jewish leaders.
  4. The study of Jewish texts and values can provide a wonderful template for leadership development. The study of a complex biblical narrative can help forge a safe passage through group discord. I know of a board that studies two laws of lashon ha-ra before each meeting to elevate their discourse. Some institutions have extensive rules of ethical governance or mission statements  that emerge out of Jewish values. Judaism informs, frames and guides leadership documents and decisions.
  5. Many leadership courses and readings often fail to inspire. Their sole focus is practical outcomes. They rarely ask participants to reflect on why they aspire to positions of leadership and how that core motivation can be inspiring in moments of despair and conflict. Religion has been a traditional source of inspiration since the dawn of humanity. When people study Jewish texts or participate in Jewish rituals, they feel connected to a past and future greater than themselves. It is this powerful sense of belonging that inspires them to lead. Tapping into that inspiration energizes people to sustain high levels of leadership and to motivate others.

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*Excerpted from Inspired Jewish Leadership: Practical Approaches to Building Strong Communities (Jewish Lights, 2008) by Dr. Erica Brown. Reprinted by permission of distributor, Turner Publications, from which you can also buy the book. Dr. Erica Brown is a prolific author and leading Jewish educator in North America.  She is the new Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Lord Rabbi Sacks-Herenstein Center for Values and Leadership.


Kenissa Konnections-January, 2022

Rabbi Sid Message

Democracy at Risk: A Jewish View

Note: This was a dvar torah I gave on the shabbat after January 6th at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation (Bethesda, MD) where I am the founding rabbi. It appeared in the Times of Israel as an op-ed on January 7, 2022.

To me, the wisdom that a Biblical text can impart always resides between the words in the scroll and the life and times of the reader. For that reason, I was struck this week by the juxtaposition of Parshat Bo, which sets the stage for the story of the Exodus from Egypt, the master-story of political liberation, and the anniversary of the January 6th assault on the U.S. Capitol and on American democracy.

With the Department of Justice in the midst of its largest ever investigation and prosecution of a single incident and a Congressional inquiry still ongoing, there are still many details of the January 6th assault that have yet to be revealed. But at this, one-year anniversary, at least four major contributing factors can be identified.

  1. Xenophobia (fear of strangers, foreigners, the “other”): White America feels itself “at risk.” By 2045, Whites will be less than 50% of U.S. population. Hispanics, Blacks, Asians and multi-racials are seen as threats by many White Americans. Those fears are easily exploited by politicians who feed such fears and generate legions of followers through the politics of hate. The origins of racism in this country was rooted in the desire to keep “the other” –in this case, Africans brought to this country in chains and sold into slavery–economically and politically impotent. Think about the chant that was heard at the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA: “Jews will not replace us”.
  2. The appeal of autocrats: Globalization has upended the economies of the world. There is much economic dislocation afoot, as whole industries are threatened. It paves the way for autocrats who prey on people’s fears, paint complex issues in black and white, and position themselves as “saviors”. Donald Trump may be the highest profile example of the rise of authoritarian heads of state but we can easily add to the list Vladimir Putin in Russia, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Victor Orban in Hungary and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, pundits predicted that we were entering an age when democracy would be ascendant throughout the world. Thirty years later, we are witnessing democratic systems and values under full assault all over the globe.
  3. Assault on truth: Tom Nichols’ 2017 book, The Death of Expertise, portrays how we have levelled the playing field in such a way that people with knowledge, degrees and credentials are dismissed as “out of touch” elites and anyone with access to a computer and a bit of social media savvy can build an audience for “alternate facts”, whether it is about climate change, vaccinations or who won an election. The New York Times review re-titled the book, “How Ignorance Became a Virtue”.  Credentialed news media gets labelled “fake news” and internet platforms like Facebook make money by developing algorithms that privilege posts that polarize and perpetuate conflict between groups. Donald Trump’s new social media outlet is called “Truth”, taking a page out of the Soviet playbook that called the State controlled newspaper, Pravda!
  4. “Fixing” Elections: Some say that the January 6th assault on the U.S. Capitol was an aberration and can never happen again. But not 24 hours after this country was a hairbreadth away from overturning the election of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States, the bulk of the Republican party rallied around some “alternative facts” about what happened. Since then, in dozens of states, laws have been passed that will deny the vote to hundreds of thousands of, mostly, people of color that vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. And in dozens of swing districts around the country, pro-Trump Republicans have taken over election commissions that are supposed to be non-partisan bodies used to guarantee free and fair elections.

What is the Jewish stake in all of these developments? I would suggest they include Jewish values, Jewish history and the Jewish future.

Jewish Values: It would be an overstatement to claim that democracy, as it developed in England (the Magna Carta), France (the French Revolution) and America (the American Revolution), originated with the Bible. And yet the intellectual and political leaders in all three countries were mostly people of faith who sourced many of the values informing democratic principles in the Bible. The protection of the stranger (ahavat ger), the rule of law (din and mishpat), the commitment to truth (emet one of the names of God) are all deeply rooted in Jewish sources.

Jewish history: I don’t like to overuse references to the Holocaust. Yet Timothy Snyder’s short masterpiece, On Tyranny, is now a “must read”. In the book, he draws numerous parallels between the rise of Donald Trump and the rise of Nazism and Facism in Europe in the 1930’s. He wrote the book after one year of Trump’s Presidency. Since then, the dozens of parallels he cited could be multiplied many times over. Every one of the four factors I cited above, were building blocks of Hitler’s Nazi Germany that ended with the murder of one-third of the Jewish people in the world.

The Jewish future: The Jewish love affair with America pre-dates Jewish economic success here. It was rooted in a recognition that America’s commitment to democracy and cultural pluralism was unprecedented in any other country on earth and, those two principles, were a guarantee that Jews could not only survive, but could thrive in this country even though our religious/cultural identity was not rooted here. That confidence, built over the course of more than three centuries, has eroded in the space of five years! Just in the last few months, in numerous social gatherings, the conversation has turned to: Where will you move to if Trump wins the Presidency in 2024?

***
Writing this message on January 6th, the first anniversary of the storming of the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to reverse the outcome of the election of Joe Biden as the President of the United States, I am thinking about one of Mordecai Kaplan’s least well-known books. In 1951 he published The Faith of America, a book that took all of the principles of American democracy, liberty and pluralism and re-cast them in a sacred key. He understood that cultural values needed a “container” if they would survive. Aware that Judaism provided that sacred container for Jews, allowing Jews to perpetuate a group identity during almost 2000 years without political sovereignty, Kaplan sought to do the same thing for American values. The book created a “religion” of American values.

Of course, Kaplan could not have forseen how much democracy stands, “at risk” in the first part of the 21st century. But if Kaplan were alive today, I feel certain that he would propose that we create of January 6th something akin to an American Tisha B’Av, commemorating a day when the most sacred building in America was attacked and desecrated by people who put blind loyalty to a demagogue above a commitment to the U.S. Constitution and the lawful transfer of power. He would have created a liturgy, songs and poems that would be read in churches, mosques, synagogues, schools, city halls and civic arenas all across the country. It would be a solemn day of learning and reflection to remind Americans, for years to come, what happens when we don’t safeguard the principles that have made America a beacon of democracy for people all over the world since its founding in 1776.

What a powerful day such a new American “holiday” would be! Maybe, we need to create such a commemoration ourselves.


Braver Leadership

Dr. Erica Brown

Putting the Jewish in Jewish Leadership-A*

In a recent class, I asked this question, and a woman shot up her hand instantly. “So what makes yourleadership Jewish?” I asked as I turned to her. “Guilt,” she answered with confidence. The class laughed, but then quieted down as she explained herself. “I’ve always associated guilt with being Jewish. When you’re in school, your grades aren’t good enough. When you’re a parent, you never feel that you’re doing enough. When you give charity, it’s never enough. Even when you do something good for someone else, it’s not enough. Maybe Jewish leadership is about saying it’s never enough.” Around the room, there were nods of recognition, as if a group of engaged participants all felt the same way…

…In other words, even when guilt is a constriction in the chest, it still speaks to our hearts. Guilt is often the symptom, not the problem, of the high expectations we have of ourselves. Without question, the Jewish leaders I have studied with feel a deep sense of personal responsibility for others that is often driven, in part, by guilt. Here is a sample of the “guilty” questions they ask themselves:

  • If I do not take this leadership role, who will?
  • What is my responsibility as a role model?
  • What is the right thing to do?
  • When will I get this done, if I do not do it now?

For those of us who read Ethics of the Fathers, a book of rabbinic wisdom in the form of wise and pithy sayings, we hear resonances of the great Hillel’s words: “If I am not for myself, who am I? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” These self-reflective questions force us to look carefully at our responsibilities to ourselves and to others. These are not questions to generate guilt as much as they are questions that help us shape our lives with intentionality.

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*Excerpted from Inspired Jewish Leadership: Practical Approaches to Building Strong Communities (Jewish Lights, 2008) by Dr. Erica Brown. Reprinted by permission of distributor, Turner Publications, from which you can also buy the book. Dr. Erica Brown is a prolific author and leading Jewish educator in North America.  She is the new Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Lord Rabbi Sacks-Herenstein Center for Values and Leadership.


Jewish Megatrends and Responses

Jakir Manela

Editor’s Note: Jakir Manela wrote this in 2016. We are re-posting it the week of Tu B’Shvat and in honor of Jakir’s recently being named CEO of Hazon, which merged with the Pearlstone Retreat Center (Reisterstown, MD) which Jakir led, as well, as the CEO.  Jakir founded Kayam Farm at Pearlstone in 2006, before he was promoted to the position as CEO. Among his other projects, he is building on Kayam Farm to establish a Jewish Eco-Village at Pearlstone.

Wisdom/Chochmah Proposition 1: In an age of globalization, Jewish institutions need to offer multiple avenues to explore chochmah, the wisdom of our sacred texts put into the context of the world’s religions and in the language of contemporary culture.

Pearlstone is one of the national leaders of the JOFEE movement, pioneering a new avenue with great success so far in bringing to life the immense wisdom of Jewish tradition in relation to land, agriculture, and sustainability. We do this through experiential field trips, hands-on gardening and animal care, DYI farm to table workshops, and much more. Our most text-focused program is the Beit Midrash, an eco-Limmud of sorts where we attract well over 150 participants from all walks of Jewish life—young and old, orthodox and reform, institutional leaders and unaffiliated millennials—to engage with primary Jewish sources and their relevance to the pressing environmental issues of today. 

Social Justice/Tzedek Proposition 2: At a time when our political culture seems so dysfunctional and the social and environmental threats to the planet grow exponentially every year, the Jewish community needs to provide ever more ways to advance tzedek in the world.

We aim for every Pearlstone experience to educate, inspire, and motivate retreat guests and program participants to create a more just sustainable world. From food choices to energy consumption, our goal as a Green Center is to consistently model active steps that maximize our institutional sustainability, while making these steps accessible and attractive to individuals, families, congregations, and institutions. This is also equally relevant and true for our non-Jewish clients as well.

Community/Kehillah Proposition 3: At a time when technology has made meaningful social intercourse much harder to come by, the Jewish community must offer places where people can find support in times of need, communal celebration in times of joy, and friendships to make life fulfilling.

Jewish intentional community is a natural outgrowth of the JOFEE movement, where deep relationships are formed in seasonal fellowship programs that transform young adults’ lives through land-based Jewish community life. From the time my wife Nets and I moved to Pearlstone in order to start the farm here, it has been our most important ongoing goal to build upon our Teva/Adamah experience in order to create an ongoing, residential Jewish intentional community. We are now on the cusp of doing just that, and if it actually does manifest here than we are likely to raise our kids here for a long time.

Lives of Sacred Purpose/Kedushah Proposition 4: In an age when we better understand the shortcomings of capitalism and the culture of consumerism, the Jewish community must offer a glimpse of kedushah, experiences that provide holiness, transcendent meaning, and a sense of purpose.

This vision of kedushah experiences, transcendant and holy, is what inspired the creation of the retreat center in the first place. It is absolutely fundamentally true that Jews—and Americans in general—need sanctuaries and oases where screens are not central and real relationship and connection allow our true nature and spirit to rise and flourish. At its core, that is the work we do here—whether it is through retreats, farming, education, or building intentional community—at our core we aim to cultivate connection.

Kenissa Konnections-December, 2021

Rabbi Sid Message

A Stain on Rabbis and Jewish Communal Leadership

I recently read, with shock and horror, the Morgan Lewis report commissioned by HUC on “misconduct” at the Reform movement’s four seminary campuses going back to the 1970’s. The report got extensive coverage in the press. It comes on top of previous press reports about “misconduct” by rabbis and staff members in both the Orthodox and Conservative movement’s institutions and programs. I know people on both sides of this story. Those who were victimized and those who were either perpetrators or who failed to act aggressively to stop this pattern of abuse. We now know, sadly, that the Jewish community has as much work to do as does the Catholic Church in taking responsibility for past violations of power and trust.

To me, the rabbinate is a sacred calling. Despite all of the challenges to the future vibrancy of Jewish life, Jews continue to look to rabbis for wisdom, moral guidance and communal leadership. When rabbis violate that trust, not only are the victims traumatized, sometimes for life, but the entire fabric of Jewish communal life is weakened.

I urge all members of the Kenissa Network to familiarize themselves with the work of Sacred Spaces and the SRE Network, both of which are doing pioneering work in the areas of gender-based abuse, harassment, and discrimination by colleagues and lay leaders in Jewish workplaces and communal spaces. We have become used to seeing signs in public spaces saying “See Something, Say Something”. It was a warning, developed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. to keep us safe from potential terrorist threats. The saying is just as appropriate to this pattern of abuse that, unfortunately, is at much at play in the Jewish community as in other sectors of our society.

*      *     *

We are delighted to welcome Dr. Erica Brown as our new monthly columnist for the “Braver Leadership” column. Erica is a good friend and one of the leading Jewish educators in North America. As you will see from her bio, she is about to take on the leadership of a new institute at Yeshiva University dedicated to promoting the teachings of Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, z”l. We are grateful to Arinne Braverman for being our leadership columnist for the last year and we are excited to start learning from Erica. 


Braver Leadership

Dr. Erica Brown

Leading and Meaning*

Great Jewish leadership has helped us survive slavery, guided us to the Promised Land, given us hope through exile and oppression, helped us enjoy membership in a nation of overachievers and given birth to the State of Israel. Great Jewish leadership generates vision and, as a result, followers. It inspires us and helps us stretch higher, see further and reach deeper.

 But the converse is also true. Failed leadership causes any number of problems, missed opportunities and crises. Professionals and lay leaders within Jewish non-profits complain bitterly of a lack of vision, strategy, warmth, and guidance from those at their helm. A recurrent theme in failed Jewish leadership today is mediocrity. When did we become satisfied with so little when our history should point us continually in the direction of excellence?

These are not new problems. Just as a Jewish tradition has left us with a legacy of outstanding leadership, so, too, has it left us with a past riddled with leadership failures and mismanagement. The very last words in the biblical book of Judges – a tome about idolatry, political insurgency and civil war – are: “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes, since there was no king in Israel.” The many problems recounted in Judges are attributed to an astonishing lack of leadership.

These haunting words repeat themselves in a strikingly modern context. After Israeli novelist, David Grossman, lost his son in the final battle of the 2006 war in Lebanon, he gave a memorial speech for former prime minister Yitzchak Rabin on the anniversary of Rabin’s assassination. Listen to the ancient resonances in his words:

One of the toughest issues that the recent war has sharpened is the feeling that in these days, there is no king in Israel. That our leadership is hollow, our military and political leadership is hollow. I’m not even talking about the visible failures in the conduct of war…not about corruptions large and small. I am talking about the inability of Israel’s current leaders to connect Israelis to their identity…to those parts of our identity, memory and founding values that will give us hope and strength. That will serve as antibodies to the weakening of mutual responsibility and connection to the land; that will give some significance to the exhausting, despairing struggle for survival.[i]

Grossman is not only talking about strategic planning and tactical maneuvering. He refers to the most primal aspects of great leadership: the ability to shape and inspire values and generate conversations about identity. The national exhaustion reflected in his words reveal the true ingredient behind extraordinary leadership – the power to communicate hope and purpose and to inspire mutual responsibility, particularly at times of crisis and vulnerability. Strategic planning and tactical maneuvering are relatively easy to manufacture in a leadership landscape. The human touch and ability to muster genuine optimism in others and faith in the future are harder leadership characteristics, but arguably, more important…

…Wilderness is an excellent metaphor for leadership because it takes us to the heart of a difficult place and asks us to find a way out. The wilderness itself was not our destination; it was a place of transition and transformation. Leaders traverse the wilderness when they run non-profit institutions and movements. They may know the desired outcome – the promised land in their own minds – but then have to strategize, plan and inspire others to share their vision.  To get there, leaders need skills, a moral compass of values, knowledge and diverse followship to guide and advise.

[i] Reprinted in an article by diplomatic editor of Ha’aretz, Aluf Benn, “Israel’s Gloomy Winter,” World Jewish Digest(January 2007), p.9. Benn cites Grossman to support findings in Israeli polls that found close to 60 percent of the country fearful of Israel’s future and insecure about its national leadership.


[1] Reprinted in an article by diplomatic editor of Ha’aretz, Aluf Benn, “Israel’s Gloomy Winter,” World Jewish Digest(January 2007), p.9. Benn cites Grossman to support findings in Israeli polls that found close to 60 percent of the country fearful of Israel’s future and insecure about its national leadership.

*Excerpted from Inspired Jewish Leadership: Practical Approaches to Building Strong Communities (Jewish Lights, 2008) by Dr. Erica Brown. Reprinted by permission of distributor, Turner Publications, from which you can also buy the book. Dr. Erica Brown is a prolific author and leading Jewish educator in North America.  She is the new Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Lord Rabbi Sacks-Herenstein Center for Values and Leadership.


Kenissa Konnections-November, 2021

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Rabbi Sid Message

One of the primary goals of Kenissa was to bring to the attention of the mainstream Jewish community the tremendous well of talented individuals who were creating new models of Jewish life and community all around North America. We believed that, notwithstanding some of the foreboding numbers in the Pew reports on Jewish life in America that led to “doom and gloom” predictions about the future of American Jewish life, there was a very different reality taking place that was not adequately understood or taken seriously.

Sure enough, as we engaged in an effort to map the Jewish innovation landscape, we realized that even we had underestimated the phenomenon. Year after year, we found more and more social entrepreneurs who were coming up with novel ways to engage with Jewish life. The “creatives” behind these efforts were the individuals who we brought together for our national Kenissa Consultations. The excitement of these gatherings lay in the Kenissa “creatives” coming to realize that, not only were they not “alone”, but that they were part of an emerging phenomenon to re-invent Jewish life in North America.

In 2019 and 2020 we invited a select group of professionals working in major Jewish Federations around North America to join us for our Kenissa Consultations. Our hope was that they would see the creativity that we were seeing and consider ways to encourage more of this experimentation in their own communities. Among the Federation pros who attended other national Kenissa gatherings was Kim Newstadt, the Director of Research and Learning at the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati. Kim has now brought to our attention a new initiative that can and should be emulated by other Federations around North America.

Reflect Cincy is designed to spark new experiences and thinking around Jew-ish connection in Cincinnati for those who feel disconnected from current offerings and fall into the following demographic sectors: Young adults without children; interfaith families with children; and families with children, ages 0-5. Generously funded by the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati, Reflect Cincy is specifically trying to encourage new programmatic alternatives that can serve under-represented segments of the community who currently feel disconnected from Jewish institutions

What is most exciting about the approach of Reflect Cincy is that they are eager to fund new initiatives that are not part of the existing organizational infrastructure of the Jewish community. This is not to say that legacy Jewish organizations are not capable of developing new programs to engage under-engaged Jews. But within the Kenissa universe, we have seen, time and time again, that those organizations that have had the most success in attracting under-engaged Jews are developed by individuals who might be positioned at the margins of Jewish communal life. We believe that this kind of investment will stimulate just the kind of creativity that is essential to create a vibrant Jewish community for Next Gen Jews. The leadership of the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati should be applauded for modeling an approach that we hope will be emulated by other communities around the country.


Build and Raise

Ephraim Gopin

More money over a longer period of time.

Is there a nonprofit CEO who wouldn’t sign up for that deal?! Which is why I’m always shocked when I look at the donor retention data in our sector:

  • The average retention rate is 45%.
  • The average first-time donor retention rate is 18-20%.

I’m always at a loss to explain why retention takes a backseat to acquisition. If your organization retained more of its donors, you’d bring in more funds for more years!

Let’s talk retention. The most important thing I can share with you is that every donation is not the end of the road. It’s just the beginning! The goal must be to build relationships with donors, to strengthen the connection, to maintain constant contact. Providing them with a steady stream of information to help them understand how your organization is impacting their community will keep them giving and giving.

But if your attitude is bottom line driven, then a donation is the end of the game. You’ll stop corresponding with your donors until the next time you make an ask. Your supporters will come to feel like cash cows and they’ll stop giving. That doesn’t help your service recipients. It doesn’t further your mission. Your organization stagnates and doesn’t grow.

As Giving Tuesday and year-end fundraising approaches, time to put an emphasis on donor retention. You can do that with digital outlets. You can use phone calls. You can ask for in-person meetings. Whatever method you use, your thinking and actions have to be long-term oriented.

Acquire new donors this year? Create a plan for keeping them in 2022 and way beyond.

Stop thinking money. Think relationships. You’ll raise more over a longer period of time.


Braver Leadership

“Let there be light”

Herut Admasu Sanderson (Guest columnist)

In the opening verses of the Torah, God fashions the earth out of a dark and chaotic void. Then, God creates the light by saying, “Let there be light”. The Torah tells us: “God saw that the light was good.”

Across cultures and religions, light is a symbol of life and clarity. Darkness is positioned as the opposite: in the dark we literally can’t see. Darkness is often associated with bad situations (i.e. a dark place) and that which we cannot understand (i.e. being “in the dark” about a situation).

The Jews of Color Initiative recently published the Beyond the Count study which illuminated the need for more Jewish communities and organizations to question our culturally ingrained biases to create more direct and effective ways to engage with Jews of all hues: light, dark, and in-between.

As a Jewish woman of color navigating the American Jewish professional world for the past several years, I haven’t encountered a single POC/JOC in a senior leadership role, serving as ED/CEO, COO, Vice President, etc. Entry level positions, where many Jewish professionals begin their careers, also fall short of reflecting the racial diversity of American Jewry today.

Although the Jewish community has recently benefited from an increased interest in diversity and inclusion initiatives, there is still much work to be done. It is important to note that many different approaches are being explored by organizations, offering a range of outcomes, with individual success impacted by a wide range of variables. I want to highlight three constructive approaches to address this issue.

The first step an organization can take is to examine its current budget and policies to determine whether diversity and inclusion initiatives are truly a priority. Organizations first have to be willing to invest their time and resources to making change, or the stated desire for change amounts to little more than wishful thinking.

Second, organizations need to be proactive about expanding their hiring searches for candidates to recruit diverse candidates.

Third, organizational leaders need to invest time in creating an organizational culture that reflects their commitment to inclusion. The most obvious benefit to this approach is that it widens the pool of potential staff people. Secondly, having a more diverse staff allows an organization to see needs in the community that might otherwise be overlooked when a staff is more homogenous.

I will be graduating with an MA from a Jewish Professional Leadership Program in December, having been invited to consider applying for graduate school while still working for Hillel. Had I not been encouraged to apply by my employer, I would not have known about this program. Moving forward, I hope to be part of building a more equitable, and inclusive Jewish community, expanding the diversity of leaders charged with co-creating our Jewish future.


Tzedek Lab

Helen Bennett

Tzedek Lab is a national multiracial network of Jews and allies, political educators, organizers, spiritual leaders, and cultural workers, established to build collective competency to better politicize, transform, and inspire the Jewish community into collective action against racism, antisemitism, and white supremacy. Co-founded in 2018 by Helen Bennett, Koach Frazier, and Dove Kent, and later joined by Shirly Bahar, Tzedek Lab emerged in a heightened political moment of unprecedented precarity as well as movement building, interconnectedness, and hope.

The idea for Tzedek Lab came from discerning the increase in overt antisemitism, racism, Islamophobia, and white nationalist activity, along with the increase in individuals politicizing their Jewish communities around these issues. During our initial listening campaign, we heard that these educators, organizers, spiritual leaders, and cultural workers were working in isolation and yearning for more connection and support, and for a strategizing space to share resources and develop analyses. We built Tzedek Lab to be a network of key Jewish leaders – often unaffiliated with legacy institutions – who were responding to dynamics of antisemitism, racism, and their intersections within and beyond the Jewish communal landscape at a national scale. Before Tzedek Lab existed, there had not been intentional space for unaffiliated educators, organizers, spiritual leaders and cultural workers to come together to know each other, share their learnings, or build a robust and shared perspective and education materials around antisemitism and racism as entwined entities. There was not a space for cultivating a healing-oriented movement culture and spiritual support for Jewish leaders of all racial backgrounds. We built Tzedek Lab to be that container and living laboratory, for sharing experiments, professional development around racial justice and addressing antisemitism, and as a space to collectively imagine and embody interdependence, trust, reciprocity, and solidarity.

Our sustaining activities include national and regional convenings, monthly full network calls for spiritual care and cross-pollination, racial/ethnic identity-based caucus groups, bi-monthly calls for communities of practice, and member-initiated working groups around topics of relevance to our mission. The communities of practice nourish skill building based on roles members hold in the Jewish community as: a) political educators; b) community organizers; c) spiritual leaders; and d) cultural workers. The communities of practice are co-facilitated by rotating teams of 2-4 of our members, with each team consisting of a majority members of color and/or Mizrahim or Sephardim. Members join the calls that resonate with their roles and identities, often joining multiple calls per month.

Tzedek Lab exists to support over 250 member-practitioners, for the Jewish communities that can be taking action against racism, antisemitism, and white supremacy and their intersections, and for the communities with whom we are collectively building a multiracial, multiethnic, multiclass, and multifaith democracy. Tzedek Lab is a living laboratory of individuals, catalyzing the emergence of strategic power building on the Jewish Left.

Our network model is based on the fractal, rooted in intentional steady growth in alignment with surrounding needs and available resources. Our collective experience with the life cycles of social movements and the abundant tools for civic engagement led us to this model specifically because it holds an inherent capacity to scale, while maintaining integrity and relational culture. In just under two years, our network has grown like a fractal, starting with a 40-person national gathering, growing by 40 members with each of our three regional gatherings that followed, and then welcoming 100 new members at our second national gathering. We continue to grow by holding more gatherings, strengthening our existing communities of practice, and facilitating more coordination and cross-pollination between them.

Helen Bennett provides coaching, training, culture and infrastructure support for Kavod House in Boston and for IfNotNow at the local and national levels. Helen organizes a transformative workshop for Jewish young adults on the Intersections of Antisemitism and Racism which is building a community of young Jews with a vision and tools for reclaiming trust, connection, and resilience. Helen organizes trainings with the Ayni Institute/Momentum Community and has worked with JOIN for Justice, in addition to founding and facilitating four iterations of the Lefty Shabbaton. Helen speaks and consults nationally on decentralized organization, leadership development, and liberatory movement culture and is featured on the Healing Justice Podcast. Helen grew up in Seattle, WA where she studied Community, Environment, and Planning at the University of Washington with a focus on cooperatives. Her ancestors came from Romania, Russia, Lithuania, and Poland.

Kenissa Konnections-October, 2021

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Rabbi Sid Message

Eleh Toldot: These are the Generations*

*Delivered this year as the Kol Nidre sermon at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation, Bethesda, MD where Rabbi Sid is the Founding Rabbi.

I like funerals.

Don’t get me wrong. I know that funerals represent loss. I feel deep empathy for the mourners. And death can also be tragic, especially when disease or tragedy cuts short a life precipitously. But even though the loss of a loved one leaves an emotional hole in one’s soul that may never fully heal, uplifting the accomplishments and values of the deceased never ceases to inspire me. I like funerals because they teach me a ton about life.

Sometimes, when I know the deceased well, I wonder why, in all of our previous interactions, I never learned about the many things that got revealed by the eulogies. I accept some of the blame for that. But I would also fault the widely accepted social convention that too much probing in a social situation is not polite. And then there is the converse problem, even more common. Being in a conversation where your counterpart does not ask you a single question about you at all.

We are left in a situation where we know a lot of people. We even call them “friends”. But we don’t know much at all about what is really important to them or what makes them tick. Sounds a lot like Facebook. But the problem preceded the launch of Facebook and exists independent of that platform.

There is a version of this problem within family systems that is a bit more complex. How well do those of us who are parents, succeed in conveying to our children who we are and what matters most to us? And conversely, how often do children ask their parents about these life questions, when they are teenagers; when they are young adults; or when they themselves become parents?

I was recently part of a memorial service for a Jewish communal professional who worked on a national level and who made enormous contributions to adult Jewish education and to a vibrant Jewish community. Several prominent rabbis spoke at this memorial service and offered a teaching in memory of the deceased. The final speaker was the son of the deceased. An articulate young man in his 20’s, the son said that his father was a great Dad. He had wonderful memories of going to ball games with him, family vacations and just hanging around the house. Then the son added: A lot of what I just heard about my father from the previous speakers was new to me. I really didn’t know what my Dad did when he left the house on Monday morning.  

I felt sad thinking of how much the son could have learned from his father had he shown an interest in the way that his father impacted the wider world. The accomplishments, the failures, the lessons his Dad learned in the course of his professional work. And I also felt bad for the now deceased father. How he would have loved to share more of what made him want to get out of bed in the morning, with his son.

This phenomenon is not unique. I have officiated at many funerals when the surviving children have regrets about not knowing more about the lives of their recently deceased mother or father. Often, death is the impetus for an adult child to want to learn more about the parent who has just passed away.

Judaism puts a high priority on our linkages to past generations. One of the most common phrases in the Bible is “Eleh toldot…” “these are the generations of…” The phrase sets up a story and it ties that story to a generational chain that may go back several generations. Those long lists of genealogies in the Bible are not just “filler”. They make the point that so much of what we do is built into our DNA based on who has raised us and the generational legacy that has been passed down to us. Even the form of our names in Hebrew, link us to previous generations. Hebrew has no surnames; my name is Shalom Hanoch ben Avraham and Yehudit. This connects me to my parents, Allan and Judy, and, by extension, to the generations that came before them.

But modern society has weakened the link between children and parents considerably. The emphasis on identity formation privileges the autonomous self. More and more parents feel that they should not impose their values on their children.  As children mature, they want to become masters of their own destiny. Many young adults, either consciously or sub-consciously, find that both geographic and emotional distance from their parents is necessary for them to fully mature and create a life that is not tied to the wishes of their parents. For parents, knowing how and when to “let go” may be the single most challenging part of parenting.

I recently became more attuned to how difficult navigating the parent-child bond is from the child’s point of view. This summer a friend of mine, Ethan Davidson, published a memoir about his relationship with his father. Ethan is the son of William Davidson., the one-time owner of the Detroit Pistons and a nationally prominent Jewish philanthropist who died in 2009. I got to know Ethan because the Davidson Foundation is one of the major funders of my national work with rabbis and Jewish social entrepreneurs. Ethan heads up the foundation’s grants committee. Ethan left Detroit as a young man and travelled the world. His primary professional pursuit was as a singer-songwriter and he supported himself by playing gigs all over the United States in bars and restaurants. During that time, he was pretty much estranged from his family.

This is an excerpt from the book:

“Through all my changes, all the different identities I took on, I was struggling to individuate, to get as far away from (my father) as possible. Nothing grows in the shade of a big tree…I tried on a lot of different faces; I was a lot of different people; (my father) wasn’t always comfortable (with the identities I was trying on), but, if I was playing in Detroit, he always came. Eventually, I had to tell him not to come anymore….I don’t think (my father) ever was able to understand the degree to which I really needed to individuate myself from him.”

Reading this, my heart was breaking. For both Ethan and for his father, who I did not know. But here is the remarkable thing. Not only did Ethan come back to Detroit in his early 30’s, he came back to all of the things that his father most deeply cared about. He became a very serious student of Judaism. He built a small bungalow behind his house where he retreats every shabbat with his three sons, Asher, William and Levi now ages13, 12 and 8. He spends each shabbat studying Jewish themed subjects with them, going on walks and observing shabbat. Ethan has taken over the family foundation with great seriousness of purpose. And the book he just published is a form of reconciliation with his, now deceased, father.

Such are the mysteries of life and of families. “Eleh toldot”; “this is the true, unsanitized story of generational transition”. Let’s remember that in the first case of individuation in Jewish history, Abraham decides to smash all of the idols in his father’s idol-making shop. It was Abraham’s way of saying: “This cannot be my path”.

I suspect that the reason funerals often trigger the beginnings of a grown son or daughter wanting to know more about their mother or their father is that there is no longer a need to individuate, to protect the space between parent and child. The parent is now gone. And ironically, what was once a need to separate, so as to establish one’s own identity, evolves into a desire to understand and pass on the values that the previous generation represented.

A few years ago, I had the chance to meet Marshall Duke, a professor of psychology at Emory University. His life work has been about exploring how we pass down family legacies. His 20-question, “Do you know?” questionnaire provide prompts that offer a simple way to start the practice of family story telling. Professor Duke’s most important finding over 25 years of research is that the more an individual knows about her or his family, the more resilient he or she becomes. Giving our children deep roots, is a pre-requisite to giving them the wings to be who they are meant to be.  

Every family has its own approach to how parents continue to exert influence over their children, even as they become adults. And every parent struggles with how to give their adult children enough room to make their own decisions. But I do believe that we all stand to benefit by putting this issue on the table for more open discussion between the generations.

Here are three ideas I’d like to offer you on this Kol Nidre:

  1. Judaism has a tradition of Ethical Wills in which parents write down the values and aspirations that have been central to their lives and that they hope might be embraced by their children. There are several books on the subject that offer guidance on how to write an ethical will. If you do write an ethical will, you should not stash it in the safe deposit box with your other will. Find a way to share it with your grown children and set aside some time to talk about it.
  2. Create a special time when you can tell family stories to one another. Maybe it is on Chanukah, or at the Passover table or at Thanksgiving. For many years, when our family came back home after Kol Nidre services, we sat in our living room with our children and pulled out letters that grandparents wrote to us and to them. We never got through the letters without crying. I don’t know how much of those letters my kids remember. But I know that they remember the sacred time we set aside for the transmission of generational memories. And they got the message that family stories matter.
  3. Validate the path chosen by your children. Honor and respect their decisions, even if,–no—especially if, it would have not been the path that you would have chosen for them. Don’t just think it. Tell them. A little validation goes a long way. And it will make it safer and more likely that they will, in turn, reach back to you for generational wisdom that can be so important in their own life journey.

In Midrash Tanhuma, there is the following passage: “There are three names by which a person is called. One is the name that parents determine. One is the name that the public gives a person based on what they do in the world. And the third name, is the name one gives to him or her, self. The last one, is the most precious name.”

The midrash is teaching parents a lesson. Your work is never done but it changes over time. The “name” that you give to your child is precious but, in the end, your grown child writes his or her own name by the person they want to become.

Honor that third “name”. Respect the path that your adult children have chosen. And, for heaven’s sake, do everything in your power to keep the lines of communication open, even if it means eating some, undeserved, “humble pie”. Eleh toldot. This is how we pass a legacy on, m’dor l’dor, from one generation to the next.

Wishing you and your extended families, a shana tova umetukah.


Build and Raise

Ephraim Gopin

You are busy working on your year-end appeal. Writing, editing, rewriting, considering every single word and how readers will react to it.

Fundraising copy is an artform. There are rules and best practices you should be following. Your goal?  Ensure that your appeal will stand out from the plethora of letters and emails that people will be receiving during the last six weeks of the year.

At its core, your fundraising appeals should share with readers a problem in their community that they can solve. To mobilize them to take action, you should use what I call the “story of one.” Share the story of one of your service recipients and the obstacles they face which prevents them from moving forward.

(As my friend Beth Ann Locke says: “Don’t create space between the donor and the service recipient.”)

The solution to the problem you’ve spelled out? A donation. Their gift will impact the person featured in your letter.

Storytelling sits at the heart of all fundraising and marketing. I know that some of you are dealing with difficult subject matters but you can still use stories to inspire, to connect, to build relationships with supporters.

Please keep in mind that direct mail isn’t the only way to reach people. Email is a fantastic one-to-one communications tool. When used properly, you can convert subscribers into donors.

Wishing you best of luck with your year-end appeal!


Braver Leadership

Arinne Braverman

Don’t Meet for the First Time at the Negotiation Table

My nonprofit was recently curating an Israeli Art Lending Library, when the funder invited me to consider including artwork curated by Valeria Geselev, for a project called 100 Sunrises a Day, itself co-sponsored by a mutual funder. As this was a very welcome introduction, arranged by two trusted partners, which stood to directly benefit my project, I didn’t invest the same strategy in structuring the first meeting that I otherwise would have. Even with a “friendly” negotiation, I should have taken the initiative to reach out to Ms. Geselev through a partner, for a 1:1 meeting in advance of our formal business negotiation.

As Jeswald Salacuse shares in his Harvard Law School blog, The Importance of a Relationship in Negotiation: “The reciprocal nature of trust reinforces the value of taking time to get to know the other party and build rapport before you begin to negotiate. Don’t assume that you can form a bond simply by exchanging a few friendly e-mails before meeting in person.” 

In a follow-up email sent after our meeting, the talented Geselev shared her fascinating 2021 Street Vis Conference talk, “We Do Hug the Mona Lisa” (start at 24:04). Hearing Valeria explain her project at length radically shifted my understanding of her project’s approach, missed during my advance review of the 100 Sunrises website and during our brief elevator pitch exchange at the negotiation table.

I share the video of her talk with you above as well, as I believe Kenissa’s artists and activists, in particular, stand to benefit from Ms. Geselev’s creative examination of how artists can reclaim public space through grassroots urban renewal projects, expand narratives within a city, and facilitate a conversation on diversity and inclusion with the public.

As a non-convener of our negotiation, I “coasted” on the leadership initiative I normally would have assumed when meeting a potential partner for the first time. As a result, even though we successfully closed the deal, I missed out on the opportunity to “expand the pie” during our first formal discussion. While we’ve exchanged a flurry of e-mails since our first meeting, I’ll hopefully have the opportunity to meet Valeria soon, “again for the first time.”

Taking short cuts in preparing for negotiations often comes at a significant cost: both to the parties and to their shared outcomes.

Arinne Braverman is a Kenissa Network member, Jewish Organizing Initiative alumna, and currently serves as the Executive Director of Returning the Sparks and President of From Strength to Strength.


Living with a Christian, a Muslim and a Baha’i, I learned to share Judaism with the World

Hadar Cohen

I was born in Jerusalem, a city that is the pinnacle of multi-faith expression. Yet instead of growing up with a sense of co-existence, I was surrounded by segregation both politically and communally. I did not know what truly living together in unity with other practitioners of Abrahamic faiths would be like.

When I was 10, my family and I moved to New Jersey. This transition to a new place was when I first learned to see and build bridges starting with myself– between my American and Middle Eastern identities. Bridging these cultural differences internally has become a lifelong project.

My Jewish identity has greatly shaped who I am. I was born into a Mizrahi and Sephardic home where prayer and devotion to God were core to our practice. I was in love with my tradition at an early age, learning the wisdom of the Torah and practicing Judaism like my ancestors did.

Gradually, I became a Jewish educator, sharing my love and wisdom of Judaism. For me, Judaism was never separate from values of justice, feminism and spirituality. Yet I found that for many, it was challenging to integrate these values with the ways they learned about Judaism. I sought to teach Judaism in a different way — a way that would integrate my devotion to God, my principles of justice and my honoring of tradition to life.

I worked with various organizations and communities and even started my own projects. One of them wasFeminism All Night, a project that designs feminist festivals of learning based on Jewish holidays.

Through all this, I felt that I was fulfilling my mission in life. But I also felt that something was missing. My Judaism wanted to be expressed not just to Jewish communities, but to the entire world.

That’s when I found out about the Abrahamic House, an initiative that brought people of different faiths together to share a home and create events. I was instantly intrigued. What was not possible for me in Jerusalem perhaps would be possible for me in Los Angeles, in this group experiment in co-living and coexistence. I immediately applied and was so excited to be accepted as the inaugural Jewish fellow, joining fellows who were Christian, Muslim and Baha’i.

I did not grow up doing multi-faith work, so I did not know what to expect. I was nervous as a Mizrahi Jew, knowing that the widespread understanding of Judaism largely comes from an Ashkenazi perspective. I was scared to be judged and misunderstood for the ways I practice, for my values and for my culture.

I remember the first evening. We were all so tired from moving that we could barely speak eloquently. But even so, I felt what united us was greater than what would separate us. Particularly, I was awed by the love of Spirit that was pervasive through our identities and faiths.

Living in the Abrahamic House was full of joy, learning and connection. We shared with each other not just our practices of faith, but also our upbringings, our adventures throughout the world, and our work and passions. The strength of our diversity was enlivened by what we did share. This was a main point of learning:  how unity does not erase difference but actually strengthens it.

We did not know that we would spend this fellowship during a pandemic. This reality challenged us but it also invited us to deepen our relationships with each other. Instead of inviting guests into our homes, we enjoyed being with each other, sharing rituals, adventures, and dinners.

I particularly loved sharing holidays together, both bringing my Jewish traditions to a multi-faith community but also learning about Christian, Muslim and Baha’i holidays. In the beginning of our fellowship we held a Religion 101 course. Each of us had a two-hour block to share about the tenets of our faith, how we personally connect to our religion, and answer any questions the others might have. Towards the end of our fellowship, we engaged in diversity training, learning about Anti Semitism, Islamophobia, Anti-Blackness and how to show up as better allies for one another. We hosted a public event on allyship and solidarity to share our learnings with the wider world.

One of the most profound moments for me was inviting Jo Kent Katz, a Jewish healer, to one of our public events. The event was titled The Depth and Mystery of Jewish Healing and in it we engaged in a conversation about Jewish trauma and healing. I was so moved by how my housemates showed up for this conversation and supported it every step of the way.

Jewish trauma is a deep vortex of pain that can separate us from the world. It can teach us that the world isn’t safe for Jewish people, that we need to be isolated to protect ourselves and that we need to be careful when connecting with the outside world. But one of my greatest hopes through participating in this fellowship is learning to lean into multi-faith solidarity. It isn’t always easy, and requires work to engage and process all that has been separating us. But for me, it is a process that is filled with God’s light in connecting us through faith.

As the fellowship neared its end in January, I turned to Maya Mansour, my housemate, and said, “You know, I think I am learning that I am meant to teach Judaism not just to Jewish community but to the world.”

She responded, “Yes, I see that and I see you.”

In that moment, I felt overwhelmed by the connection I felt to myself, to my housemates, and to the wider world. This is the teaching I carry with me: how we as a world can learn to embrace one another again through our traditions.

____________

Hadar Cohen is a Mizrahi feminist multi-media artist, healer and educator. She served as Kenissa’s program associate for several years. You can find out more about her work at hadarcohen.me. This article first appeared in JTA on Sept. 7, 2021.

August 2021

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Message from Rabbi Sid

When “Work” Becomes Unhealthy

The decision made by Simone Biles, America’s premier gymnast, not to compete at the Tokyo Olympics in most of the events that she trained for, set off a firestorm of commentary. We are a country that lionizes our athletes. The better the athlete is, the greater the pressure exerted on them to compete and to win. Again, and again, and again. So, it was not surprising that initial reaction to Biles’ decision was shock and disappointment. Pundits predicted that Biles would win, not just one, but several gold medals. More than one commentator noted how Kerry Strug won an Olympic gold medal at the 1996 games in Atlanta, completing her final jump on a broken ankle!

To her great credit, Biles explained to the press that she has been battling with some mental health issues and a specific condition—the twisties—which rob gymnasts of their ability to control their aerial rotations. Given the heights and difficulties of the jumps at this level of the sport, Biles would risk serious injury if she competed. Within a matter of days, commentary on Biles’ decision went from critical to laudatory.

I work with many rabbis and Jewish communal professionals who are physically and mentally exhausted from their year-long+ attempt to work in the midst of the Covid pandemic. Many eagerly looked forward to a summer break. Now these professionals return, only to find a Delta resurgence of the virus.

Of course, Covid is an extraordinary event. Nobody could have predicted it. But America’s addiction to work is a well-documented phenomenon. Studies show that Americans work more hours than any other nation in the world. We are the only industrialized country that does not have a law requiring a minimum amount of annual leave. And Americans take less vacation time than any other industrialized country in the world.

To state the obvious—this is not healthy. Judaism introduced to the world the idea of shabbat, a day of rest that mandates that we abstain from work and all commerce so as to learn the value of nature, friendships, conversation, reading, community and much more. Next month we usher in a shmita year, a year when the Bible tells us that even the land must rest and not be planted. Both concepts embody the notion of a healthy work/life balance.

In recent years, we’ve seen the start of some long overdue conversations in Jewish communal organizations about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) as well as the hostile work environment that women often face and which has not been adequately addressed. Let’s add to the list the unrealistic expectations set by Jewish organizations on their employees, from the executive suite to the maintenance staff. Employees who are able to spend time with their families, pursue leisure time activities, volunteer with civic organizations, spend time in nature, read a book, etc. are happier and more fulfilled people. Their productivity in the workplace will be far greater than if they regularly work until 10pm or get in the habit of working through an entire weekend just to finish off a given work project.  

We pay lip service to the idea that every person is to be respected as an image of the Divine. It is time that we put that principle into practice.


Build and Raise

Ephraim Gopin

I have a longstanding personal tradition before I begin to say the shmoneh esreh prayer on the first night of Rosh Hashana:

I say, “thank you”.

I thank God for three wonderful children. I thank God for my health. I thank God for everything that happened in the previous year.

We spend a great deal of the High Holiday season asking. We pray for our families, for sustenance, health, money, happiness, heal the sick, livelihood and much, much, more. When God sits in judgment and makes decisions about the coming year for each individual, it is the right time to ask for whatever we need and want.

Unfortunately, I know that each year I spend more time asking for things than I do in offering gratitude. Each year I try my best to be thankful for what I have, but I know it’s not enough. Hence my personal ritual. I start off the new year with a heartfelt thank you.

Please do me a favor and check your organization’s communications over the last year. Compare the number of fundraising asks (via email, direct mail, social media and website) and the number of times you said thank you to supporters (by email, phone call, direct mail, video chat). If the asks outnumber gratitude by a wide margin, it’s time to change the equation.

Have first time donors? Their average retention rate is 20%. Saying thank you can raise retention to 60%! Your fundraising goal should be to build relationships. A constant stream of donor love and gratitude will help make that a reality.

Incorporate thank you into all your appeals. Calendar a time each week to simply pick up the phone, call a donor and thank them for nothing else other than being awesome. They will appreciate it and you’ll walk away with a smile as well.

When gratitude leads, good things happen.

Wishing you and your family a shana tova. A year of good health, joy, financial success, blessings and good news, rest and relaxation, happiness, quality time with family and friends. Most important, a year of constant gratitude for all that we have.


Braver Leadership

The ADL’s annual Audit of Antisemitic Incidents shows that 2019 and 2020 were the highest and third-highest years for cases of harassment, vandalism, and assault against US Jews since the audit’s inception in 1979.

To be a leader of a Jewish organization in 2021 means that you need to think about how anti-Semitism might impact your community…even if it’s not part of your formal mission statement.

It’s been said that the best defense is a good offense. The ADL’s Pyramid of Hate shows that when acts of Jew-hatred lower on the pyramid are allowed to continue unchecked, and anti-Semitism becomes normalized, the conditions are created for escalation to increasingly violent levels. The ADL instructs: “When we challenge those biased attitudes and behaviors in ourselves, others and institutions, we can interrupt the escalation of bias and make it more difficult for discrimination and hate to flourish.”

In his Nobel prize acceptance speech, Dr. Eli Wiesel famously reminds us: “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

So why have so many of us been silent during this surge of anti-Semitism? I suspect we collectively may suffer from a version of the “bystander effect,” and assume erroneously that anti-Semitism is being handled by those people and institutions more qualified to do so.

Yet, it is worth considering: Who better to engage in fighting anti-Semitism proactively in a given community than those who have deep roots there and who are engaged in cultural, educational, religious, and social Jewish community efforts? Sure, it makes sense to join efforts being led by organizations with experience fighting anti-Semitism. But sometimes it’s the grass-roots efforts, like the response to hate in Billings, Montana, that make a real difference locally. One wonderful resource on how communities can respond to hate is the website, Not In Our Town.

The most powerful responses to hate speech and actions against any group reflect the strength of diversity: they are made up of people of different ages, faiths, races, socioeconomic backgrounds, abilities, sexual orientations and gender identities, etc.  All groups need to stand together against hate.

There are actions we can each take to fight anti-semitism locally that are aligned with our existing goals and mission statements.

To quote feminist Grace Lee Boggs, speaking at age 91: “We are the leaders we’ve been looking for.”

__________________

Arinne Braverman is a Kenissa Network member, Jewish Organizing Initiative alumna, and currently serves as the Executive Director of Returning the Sparks and President of From Strength to Strength.

 

Kenissa Konnections-July 2021

click here for the July PDF

Message from Rabbi Sid

Just before the last Shmita year (2013) I had the privilege of speaking at and attending the first ever Jewish Intentional Communities Conference (JICC) at the Pearlstone Retreat Center outside of Baltimore, MD.  Some 200, mostly young, leaders came to that conference to dream together what an emerging movement of new communities could look like.

A few Israelis came as well, veterans of the well-established Israeli movement of intentional communities (AKA Garinim).

Many things were inspired by this inaugural JICC. One of them was Kenissa. Another one was Hakhel, the Jewish Intentional Communities Incubator. Hakhel started in 2014, a year earlier than Kenissa. The fact that both were housed at Hazon made it natural that Aharon Ariel Lavi, Hakhel’s director, and I would become colleagues, thought partners and good friends. There is some overlap between Kenissa Network organizations and the organizations in Hakhel. Because Aharon is based in Israel, it was natural that Hakhel took on a strong Israel focus, sponsoring annual trips to Israel for its member organizations. In 2018, Hakhel partnered with the Israeli Ministry for Diaspora Affairs and expanded globally as well.

Fast forward to 2021. A global movement of Jewish Intentional Communities is now a solid fact. Hakhel is now over 130 communities strong, in 30 different countries and all continents (well, except Antarctica). Hakhel believes that second only to the nuclear family, the Jewish community has been what binds us Jews to our identity. However, like Kenissa, Hakhel also identified that a paradigm shift is emerging as a growing proportion of young adults do not identify with traditional Jewish structures even as they are committed to being Jewish.

I am telling you this because it’s always great to celebrate our partners’ successes. But Hakhel also brings into the mix the relationship with Israel. It is a complex one, for sure, even moreso after the recent upheaval with Hamas and Jewish-Arab conflict within the borders of Israel itself.  Hakhel’s long-standing policy is to talk about things, as difficult as they may be, and to this end they are organizing a unique opportunity to meet and talk with both residents of Gaza and Israelis living on the Gaza border. There aren’t too many opportunities like this to get first-hand insights of what is happening on the ground from the people who actually live there.

Lavi, who lives with his community on the Gaza border himself, is warmly inviting all members of Kenissa to join an upcoming webinar to take place on Monday, July 12th, 1:30pm EST. And, if you are interested, Hakhel is also launching a 3-part Beit Midrash about the upcoming Shmita year and how you might fully engage with that ancient Jewish practice. All the details about the July 12th session and the Shmita Beit Midrash are here. Aharon is also open to direct discussions on the complex situation and you can reach him at: lavi@hazon.org.


Build and Raise

Ephraim Gopin

It’s July. Time for some summer fun- vacations, beach, rest, sun, traveling.

I hate to spoil the party but let me ask you a question: Have you started working on your year-end fundraising appeal yet? If not, better get moving.

Although there’s online donations, giving via text, Facebook fundraisers and other methods, direct mail is still king. Your organization’s end-of-year appeal takes on greater importance not only for your 2021 budget but can help propel you forward in 2022 and beyond.

Crafting a successful direct mail appeal is an art form. There are numerous fallacies out there that some bosses still believe in and can sink your campaign. Two of the most common:

  • Writing for you and not the donor. Your job is to produce copy that a donor can read, learn about a problem in the community and easily understand how their donation can solve the problem. Avoid using jargon that might be common around the office but would confuse the average reader. Your potential donors will throw away the appeal. Remember KISS: Keep It Simple Silly! Short paragraphs. Sixth grade level writing. Bold text where appropriate. Make it easy for supporters to skim and take action.
  • Committees are where good fundraising goes to die. When too many people are involved in the copywriting and editing, the project will take forever and your original vision for the appeal will probably end up on the cutting room floor. Minimize the people involved in the overall process.

As you start to consider your letter, keep in mind that you also have to plan the outer envelope (it can make a HUGE difference in the number of people who open the packet), the reply card and the thank you letter you’ll be sending donors.

My suggestion? Read this post and learn 26 direct mail ideas and tips from one of the best direct mail teams out there. They’ve produced hundreds of year-end appeals and conducted tens of tests. They have the data to know what works and what doesn’t.

Plan now so you’ll see success in a few months.

Ephraim Gopin is the founder of 1832 Communications, an agency which helps nonprofits build relationships and raise more money by connecting their fundraising and marketing strategies. You can subscribe to Ephraim’s free daily enewsletter which includes relevant content for any NPO role you fill. 


Braver Leadership

Have your supervisees been surprised and defensive when you’ve raised performance issues? In Harvard Business Review’s “The Power of Listening in Helping People Change,” authors Guy Itzchakov and Avraham N. Kluger emphasize that “…listening to employees talk about their own experiences first can make giving feedback more productive by helping them feel psychologically safe and less defensive.” 

Itzchakov and Kluger confirm that their research supports earlier research that found that leaders who listen are trusted more and have more creative teams with higher job satisfaction. So, what manager would possibly resist investing in becoming a better listener? Apparently, the majority of leaders who claimed in a 2000 HBR leadership study by Daniel Goleman that they didn’t have time “for the slow and tedious work of teaching people and helping them grow.”

If you want to listen better, but you’re afraid that the approach feels too amorphous or passive to be productive, check out the structured GROW (Goal/Reality/Options/Will.) method, highlighted by Herminia Ibarra and Anne Scoular in HBR’s “The Leader as Coach: How to Unleash Innovation, Energy and Commitment.”

If you think you’ve already got the coaching style down, you might be chastened to learn that almost 1/4 of executives who rated themselves “above average” in this skillset were ranked by their colleagues as being in the bottom 1/3 of the group!

It’s time to start listening up—for everyone’s sake.

__________________

Arinne Braverman is a Kenissa Network member, Jewish Organizing Initiative alumna, and currently serves as the Executive Director of Returning the Sparks and President of From Strength to Strength.

 

June 2021

Kenissa Konnections-June 2021

Message from Rabbi Sid

I carry a memory from the very first national gathering of Kenissa back in March of 2016. On Day 2 of the program, we had a general session about the objectives of the project and someone asked this question: “If you aren’t going to be giving us money, then what is the purpose of this network?”

For the life of me, I can’t recall my response. What I hope I said is my belief that if you can convene talented people and provide a platform through which people can: a) meet and engage with others on a deep level; b) be meaningfully challenged to stretch beyond their comfort zones; and c) enable people to speak their truth as they see it without fear of being shamed or silenced, amazing things can happen. And they have. Not that I was able to anticipate all of the outcomes. But I have been re-affirmed, again and again, in the belief that when creative Jews are brought together with good facilitation, they are more than capable of advancing worthy aims.

One example of such a Kenissa outcome is an emerging national Jewish Culture Network. The truth is that, in year 1 of Kenissa, we did not even identify Arts and Culture as a sector. The conversations among participants during our first two national gatherings convinced us that we needed to correct for that oversight, and we did. It was not the first time, and it will not be the last time, that arts and culture got overlooked by people who care about the future strength of the Jewish community. Some may be aware that the umbrella agency for Jewish arts and culture in North America, originally named The National Foundation for Jewish Culture (founded in 1961))—closed due to lack of funding in 2015.

By year 2 of Kenissa, I became fully “woke” to how essential Jewish arts were to the Jewish community. In addition, Kenissa began to use our December gatherings to strengthen each of the sectors that we were working with. So typically, we would have separate tracks for Jewish learning, spiritual communities, social justice, Boomer engagement and more. In December 2019 we had a track for Jewish arts and culture, chaired by David Jordan Harris (Rimon, Minneapolis, MN) and Anne Hromadka (AMH Art Advisory, Los Angeles, CA). It didn’t take long for that track to focus on the fact that there was, at the time, no national body that could convene, raise visibility, and provide funding for the extensive and impressive network of Jewish artists and arts and culture organizations that were functioning throughout North America.

Along with three other participants at that December 2019 gathering—Susan Bronson (Yiddish Book Center, Amherst, MA); Carla Friend (Tkiya, Brooklyn, NY); and Bob Goldfarb (Jewish Creativity International, New York, NY)—Anne and David began to strategize how to build on the good energy and enthusiasm of their Jewish arts and culture track at that December convening to build a larger, national platform to advance Jewish arts and culture. Eighteen months later, some significant progress has been made. In a very intentional way with a goal of creating systemic change, the five organizers have reached out to several dozen leaders in the arts and culture arena.

At a recent meeting convened in April 2021, the group set up three task forces, each charged with building out an area of activity that will strengthen Jewish arts and culture in North America. One task force is developing a national membership directory; the second will work on data and research, with the goal of mapping the presence and impact of arts and culture on Jewish life; and the third task force will be thinking about arts advocacy, considering the most effective strategies for lifting up Jewish arts and culture.

If you have questions regarding the emerging Jewish Culture Network, please be in touch with Anne (anne@jewishculturenetwork.org) or David (david@jewishculturenetwork.org). Needless to say, we at Kenissa could not be more thrilled with this development. It is precisely the kind of development that we hoped Kenissa would help to catalyze.


Build and Raise

Ephraim Gopin

Your monthly givers are some of your most valuable donors. Their retention rate and lifetime value are much higher than one-time givers. The lifetime value of recurring donors is 440% higher than one-time donors. The problems start when you take them for granted. “We have their credit card number. They never told us to stop charging it. Best possible scenario. Am I right?” Ummm no.

Your goal is not only to keep your monthly givers happy and informed but to make them feel special. Email is a great way to build a long-term relationship with recurring givers. You should also offer them value, provide perks, send special reports, early event access and more, so they feel they’re getting added value for their donations.

Monthly giving should be marketed to current and prospective donors. It should be listed in your direct mail appeals. The monthly giving option should be prominently featured on your online donation page. Your website should list it as a donation option and mark the benefits of signing up to become a recurring donor.

The benefits of monthly giving:

  • Steady stream of revenue for your organization;
  • Easier to create your budget and financial plan because you know in advance how much will be coming in via monthly giving;
  • Donors like it because it allows them to make a “stretch” gift. Instead of donating X dollars in one-shot, they can spread it out over twelve payments.

Billions of dollars are raised online each year. Yet only 19% of 2020 online revenue was monthly giving! Time to change that.

Start asking your donors to consider monthly giving. Offer them incentive to do so. Your donors benefit and so does your organization. A win-win.

P.S. I know how many hats you wear at your organization and how stressful it can be. I’d like to introduce you to Meico Marquette Whitlock, a work-life and tech-life balance expert. Listen/read/watch this podcast episode as he discusses: how to deal with an endless stream of email, reclaim your commute time, apps you can use to lessen stress, how to deal with IDD (check out the podcast to learn what IDD is), why you need a real alarm clock and much more. Time to relax more.


Braver Leadership

The recent Pew Survey, “Jewish Americans in 2020,” released last month, provides an opportunity for leaders of Jewish organizations to reflect on a snapshot of Jewish Americans mostly pre-pandemic. Are you prepared to answer staff members’, board members’, funders’ and other stakeholders’ questions about how your organization is responding to the data the Pew study provides?

If you haven’t had time for a deep dive, you can read this article by Dr. Steven Windmueller, or explore this summary by JFNA, for a quick overview.

In these eJP articles by Lindsey Bodner and Dan Elbaum, the authors do an impressive job of incorporating Pew data to make their organizations’ case for increasing relevance, and allocation of future funding. The conclusions they reach may or may not resonate with you, depending on your alignment with each author’s organizational agenda. However, we all stand to learn from replicating their approach. If you want to explore effectively sharing your organization’s priorities using data, you can gain helpful tips from Jim Stikeleather’s Harvard Business Review article.

Rukhl Schaechter also provides a helpful illustration of how even a lack of visibility within the Pew’s Study can be leveraged to advocate for the continued relevance of your mission. “Jewish Americans in 2020” is a helpful tool that will be talked about for years to come. However, many other tools exist to inform strategy, policy, and funding decisions in the Jewish community. For additional insight, you can start by reviewing annual reports from The Jewish People Policy Institute and register for access to view the American Jewish Population Project from the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University. You might consider weighing the pros and cons of engaging organizational staff and/or volunteer resources in assisting with additional research efforts. Involving others in understanding the rationale behind potential future organizational changes from the outset stands to both invest in their professional growth and also lays the groundwork for involving them in brainstorming meaningful organizational opportunities later.

“Jewish Americans in 2020” provides an invitation to reflect and to strategize regarding how your organization’s actions can have the greatest impact on our Jewish future—until the next Pew study provides a new snapshot in time.

__________________

Arinne Braverman is a Kenissa Network member, Jewish Organizing Initiative alumna, and currently serves as the Executive Director of Returning the Sparks and President of From Strength to Strength.

 

May 2021


May 2021

Click here for the May PDF.

Message from Rabbi Sid

We want to let you know about GrantED: Stronger Relationships, Greater Impact, an exciting new project jointly launched by one of Kenissa’s organizational partners, Upstart, and the Jewish Funders Network.

Designed to strengthen relationships between Jewish philanthropists and the Jewish nonprofit sector, GrantED produces and curates articles, tools, and other materials to inspire and inform grantmakers and grantseekers in the Jewish community, and it also offers workshops, facilitated conversations, and other programs.

GrantED’s resources and case studies are selected with an eye toward sharing best practices, showcasing success stories, and equipping funders and nonprofits with the tools to improve how they function. Users are encouraged to rate and comment on the resources, not just so we can all learn what resources are most useful, but to promote conversation and dialogue. GrantED is not just about giving people skills and training, but also about promoting empathy and building effective, harmonious, and fruitful partnerships.

The resources on GrantED are organized around four themes: sustaining impact; relationship building; communication; and power dynamics. I was particularly impressed that, for each theme, there is a Jewish text source sheet, developed by the Hadar Institute, another Kenissa organization partner, related to the topic. So, for example, in the section on sustaining impact, there is a source sheet called “The Holy Work of a Balanced Budget”. In the section on power dynamics, there is a source sheet called, “Speaking Up or Remaining Quiet”. 

I encourage you to visit the GrantED site , where you can learn a lot about the skills necessary to lead a successful non-profit. You will also find announcements for periodic professional webinars. This is a resource well worth visiting often. 


Build and Raise

Ephraim Gopin

Direct mail is king. Want to grow your nonprofit and service more people in your community? You’re going to have to up your direct mail game.

There are a lot of questions you’ll need to answer before embarking on a direct mail campaign. Who’s the intended audience? Who’s in charge of copywriting? Which printer will you use? are just a few.

Where does success start? The outer envelope. Think about it: If the envelope doesn’t stand out, it goes into the trash. Lost opportunity.

But now let’s say you’ve piqued someone’s curiosity and they open the envelope. Your letter will have to contain a great offer to persuade someone to become a donor. Using storytelling, tell donors about a problem that is easy for them to understand and take action to solve (donate!).

Writing that letter is almost a thankless task. You’ll spend hours poring over each word to make sure you’ve got the messaging right for the target audience. Of course, all of that hard work and effort feel useless once you’re forced to send it to everyone on staff and everyone chimes in with their edits and changes.

A piece of advice from sector expert Mike Duerksen: Writing by committee is where fundraising goes to die.

For your direct mail appeal, your staff should appoint one person to write the appeal and one person in charge of editing. Big time saver!

One other tip from me: For a long time, the conventional wisdom in the development world was to keep the overhead number low and to boast in appeal letters how much was being spent by the organization on program. There is now emerging a more mature approach to the talking about overhead and I endorse it. Here is an article that makes the case

Finally, make sure your reply card follows all the best practices. Once a person has opened the envelope and skimmed your appeal, make sure your reply card converts!

P.S. In this monthly column I introduce you to top sector experts and pros. In an effort to help you learn from more people, I compiled this list of 7 e-newsletters and 2 podcasts I feel you should subscribe to. I’m a big fan of #AlwaysBeLearning and everyone on the list will provide you best practices and expert advice you can implement at your organization.

Ephraim Gopin is the founder of 1832 Communications, an agency which helps nonprofits build relationships and raise more money by connecting their fundraising and marketing strategies. You can subscribe to Ephraim’s free daily enewsletter which includes relevant content for any NPO role you fill.


Braver Leadership

Arinne Braverman

In his recent eJP article, Kenissa Network member, Dr. Bradley Caro Cook, shares hacks to make Clubhouse (CH) more inclusive and accessible for the Jewish nonprofit community. He highlights the potential for engaging thousands of unaffiliated and non-normative Jews through this new platform, sharing his success in leading a weekly Jewish mysticism room through which he reaches hundreds of people in the course of a couple of hours.

Nobody in the Jewish community was a Clubhouse expert 6 months ago. Today, Bradley speaks from a place of learned expertise because he engaged this new technology as an early adopter and invested hundreds of hours moderating “dozens of Jewish learning and culture rooms.” Those with large followings on Jewish Clubhouse have earned followers through their contributions in countless CH interactions, building trust along with social capital. 

Clubhouse leaders have also made mistakes in the process: in handling challenging situations, both in-room and off-app. After encounters with trolls, anti-Semites, and stage guests unexpectedly disclosing trauma or personally attacking one another, the best Clubhouse moderators have reflected on how they could lead more effectively, gathered advice from leaders they respect to improve their skillset, and have re-engaged. As a result, there is valuable advice available for the rest of us today. 

Jewish Clubhouse rooms are like sukkot— fragile spaces of temporary dwelling, welcoming guests with the potential for greater connection and personal and communal elevation. Just as we might consult a seasoned host before hosting sukkah guests ourselves for the first time, articles like Bradley’s offer standing invitations for a better hosting experience. The advice offered in such articles, and in trainings offered daily on CH, not only stands to benefit future participants, but also their future co-moderators, stage guests, and audiences. 

Perhaps Clubhouse’s greatest value lies in the ease with which strangers and colleagues participate in meaningful conversation, with folks they might not even know. Jewish educators, artists, clergy, innovators, etc. who haven’t previously enjoyed a national platform, stand to contribute equally to conversations alongside Jewish conference regulars. With new voices and perspectives entering co-created Jewish CH spaces daily, we collectively stand to benefit most from new participants investing the time upfront to establish a Clubhouse baseline, maximizing the experience for everyone.

Arinne Braverman is a Kenissa Network member, Jewish Organizing Initiative alumna, and currently serves as the Executive Director of Returning the Sparks and President of From Strength to Strength.


April 2021


April 2021

Click here to download the PDF

Message from Rabbi Sid

Last month I provided a link to an article that appeared in JTA featuring the work of Kenissa, authored by Gary Rosenblatt. Subsequent to its publication, one of our Kenissa members, Kohenet Keshira haLev Fife, published a letter to the editor that appeared in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle. It raises a critical issue that faces so many Kenissa organizations: how shall we position ourselves vis a vis the mainstream Jewish community? Keshira points out, rightly in my view, that notwithstanding the flattering coverage of Kenissa in the article, the headline of the article undermined the very mission of Kenissa. I not only want to give a shout-out to Keshira here, but we are also reprinting her Letter to the Editor. Tell us what you think about the point Keshira makes here.

Headline misrepresents intention of innovative groups
This letter is in response to “Don’t call them ‘fringe’: Innovative groups seek respect from the mainstream” (online, Feb. 19, 2021). While the article itself did a wonderful job lifting up the work of Sid Schwarz and Kenissa, it seems to me that the headline of this article is not only inaccurate, it also undermines the article itself. The article primarily focuses on Kenissa, demonstrating that its network of 400-plus “fringe” organizations is having a significant impact on many parts of the Jewish community across the country.

As a member of the Kenissa network, I can attest that there are some on the fringe who are working toward strengthening relationships, or collaborations, with legacy institutions. However, there are also plenty who recognize that being on the fringe sometimes requires a willingness to lead without the respect or validation from those in the seat of power. In fact, some would even say that until the legacy institutions are willing to forgo the paternalism that holds old structures in place, it’s almost guaranteed that any tight association will suffocate any effort of fringe organizations to be innovative.

The recent announcement of the Jewish Community Response and Impact grant fund invites innovative ideas which can transform the future of Judaism — it explicitly invites proposals to support new and innovative projects. At the same time, legacy institution leaders are asking those of us on the fringe for insights and ideas of what might be next.

Nowhere in the article do I see organizations on the fringe seeking the respect of the mainstream; to the contrary, I see an argument for why legacy institutions might look to innovative groups and individuals for inspiration and vision. The headline as written inverts the intention of the movement and plays into old power structures that are precisely what many fringe groups have been founded in response to. A more apt headline would have been “Don’t call them ‘fringe’: The mainstream seeks inspiration from innovative groups.”

Kohenet Keshira haLev Fife
Kesher Pittsburgh


Build and Raise

Ephraim Gopin

Plan. It’s a 4-letter word which many nonprofits fear. Who has time to think about tomorrow when we’re dealing with 1,001 things today? Word to the wise: That’s the mindset that prevents you from growing. Which means less revenue rolling in. Which means servicing fewer people in your community.

You should be thinking about tomorrow today. Consider your long-term vision and then build a strategy to meet the goals you’ve jotted down.The overall goal? Not survival. Thrival. (And yes, it’s a word I made up.) Having a thrive attitude means that when the next rainy day comes, you’re fully prepared to meet the challenge.

Part of your strategy includes planning how you’ll fundraise over the next 3-5 years. Understanding fundraising principles and knowing your donors are critical to success. That includes:

I am well aware of the day-to-day grind and the difficulties that you face just keeping up with today’s tasks. But before you know it, it’s December 2021 and you haven’t met your yearly goals. And 2022 is right around the corner…

Craft a strategy. Plan ahead. You and your organization will be better off for it.

P.S. Two bonus links that will interest you:

1) Listen/watch as the author of the book Robots Make Bad Fundraisers discusses how to boost your donor retention rate; turn first time donors into recurring donors; two “weird” groups of people you should be fundraising from; and what donors want to know when you communicate with them.

2) Storytelling is central to fundraising. I encourage you to take two minutes and watch the creators of South Park explain the ‘but’ and ‘therefore’ rule of storytelling.

Ephraim Gopin is the founder of 1832 Communications, an agency which helps nonprofits build relationships and raise more money by connecting their fundraising and marketing strategies. You can subscribe to Ephraim’s free daily enewsletter which includes relevant content for any NPO role you fill.


Braver Leadership

Arinne Braverman

According to the Society for Human Resources Management, employee quit rates reached their lowest level in 9 years in 2020. Unfortunately, rather than reflecting an increase in job satisfaction, this was indicative of employees staying put to ride out the uncertainty of a global pandemic. Increased workloads, blurring of work-life boundaries, Zoom fatigue, and greater social isolation due to working at home are among the many factors that subsequently contributed to increasingemployee burnout. As we emerge from the pandemic, and the fear of economic insecurity decreases, organizations should anticipate an increase in employee turnover.

Burnout is routinely identified as a major reason that employees leave jobs. While the usual burnout prevention recommendations (i.e. meditation, yoga, therapy, etc.) are focused on aiding an individual employee, leaders need to recognize that burnout is not an “individual” problem when it impacts a majority of employees. In a study conducted by Limeade of companies with 500 or more employees, a shocking 72% reported feeling burnt out in August of 2020. A HubOne survey of 88 non-profit organizations in Michigan similarly reported staff stress levels at nearly 7 out of 10.

If you heard of an employee benefit that was being described by employees as “the best benefit I’d ever had,” a benefit that would increase employees’ mental and physical health, and cost your organization nothing to implement, would you be interested in learning more? What if research confirmed that the practice reduces burnout, increases well-being and creativity, and leads to happier and more productive workers?

For a win-win analysis of the merits of giving your team a day off once every other Friday, check out this Fast Company article by Jake Goldwasser.

Far better than an email reminding overextended employees about using their banked Paid Time Off, consider implementing an alternating 4-day work week to normalize a healthier environment within your organization.

As a leader, you can proactively implement policies now to help strengthen employee resilience, and hopefully employee retention.

Arinne Braverman is a Kenissa Network member, Jewish Organizing Initiative alumna, and currently serves as the Executive Director of Returning the Sparks and President of From Strength to Strength.


March 2021

Click here to download the March 2021 Kenissa Konnections.

Message from Rabbi Sid

It feels like a time of great promise. Living in the Washington D.C. area, there is a sense that there are now people of experience and competence taking charge of the levers of government. Attendant to that, the commitment to use all available resources to beat the Covid pandemic has everyone hopeful that, by the summer time, our society can begin returning to normal. And, of course, in the Jewish calendar, we are approaching Pesach, the festival celebrating our redemption from slavery. May it be a metaphor for a larger redemption that our world desperately needs.

There are some exciting developments in our Kenissa world as well. A couple of weeks ago, JTA ran a feature storyabout Kenissa by Gary Rosenblatt, the editor emeritus of the New York Jewish Week and the dean of Jewish journalism. Gary joined us for our fifth Kenissa National Consultation last March at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in CT. We met right on the eve of the pandemic, with over 70 people in attendance (and no cancellations!). As we had done the previous year, we had a small delegation of senior professionals from major Jewish Federations around the country. Their presence was part of our strategy to give more visibility to the creativity of so many of the organizations that we have brought together under the Kenissa umbrella. The JTA story gave our effort wonderful visibility and also helped us advance this important agenda.

One of the organizations highlighted in the story was TischPDX of Portland, OR. Started and still led by Eleyna Fugman, who joined us for a Kenissa National Consultation in 2019, TischPDX was just selected by Slingshot as one of “10 organizations to watch” in 2021. This is a huge honor and is the result of the old “inspiration/perspiration” success formula. You need a solid concept that meets a need and then you need to work your tail off to make it happen. Sound familiar? We send our congratulations to Eleyna. And like my grandmother used to say: “soon by you”.

Finally, we want to invite you to participate in a new offering that you may find interesting and of value. For the last few years, every Kenissa gathering offered the chance to be part of a Peer Consulting Protocol. Used extensively in many leadership settings, it allows you to get some valuable advice for your organization without incurring the significant costs of hiring a professional consultant. Peer consulting is based on a solid design and the theory of crowdsourcing—there is significant wisdom in the group itself if properly tapped.

For the last four months, Kenissa hosted follow up webinars with one of our two columnists, Arinne Braverman or Ephraim Gopin. Starting this month, specifically, Wednesday, March 17th at 1pm (Eastern), Arinne and Ephraim will join me in facilitating a peer consulting session for members of the Kenissa Network. Anyone getting this newsletter is welcomed to join the Zoom call. If you do, you will be in the role of advisor/consultant. We will feature two case presentations by members of the Kenissa Network. If you would like to be the recipient of some guidance, both from a peer group as well as from a 3-person Kenissa team of experts, send me the situation that you would like to workshop (rabbisid@hazon.org). I will work with presenters on their presentation. The details and link for the March 17th peer consulting are in the shaded box in the newsletter. I hope you will choose to join us.

Rabbi Sid


Build and Raise

Ephraim Gopin

How are you incorporating email into your fundraising, marketing and storytelling mix?

Like me, your Inboxes are probably overflowing. Many organizations, in place of in-person meetings, have used email to solicit, solicit, solicit. But the fact is that email should be used for a lot more than just asking for a donation.

What’s important to understand is that when someone subscribes to your emails and eNewsletter, it’s a very big deal. They’re saying that they want to create a relationship with you. They want to learn more about your organization, be educated about your mission and potentially become a partner in helping you solve a problem in the community.

However, if you treat subscribers like a cash cow, if all you’re doing is asking them to ‘buy your product’ like you were an eCommerce company, your efforts will fail. Email is a two-way street and you need to provide in order to get. Sending impact updates, educational pieces, emotional stories which connect the subscriber to your service recipients- that’s how you build a relationship.

The average donor retention rate is an abysmal 40-45%. Inviting people to subscribe to your emails and then utilizing the platform correctly and smartly will have great benefits for your organization. And yes, when the time is right, subscribers who feel connected will step up and donate.

P.S. Looking to get started with your email marketing and fundraising? That begins with encouraging people to sign up via your website. Click here to learn how to successfully onboard people and grow your list.

Wishing you and your family a happy- and YUMMY- Passover!

Ephraim Gopin is the founder of 1832 Communications, an agency which helps nonprofits build relationships and raise more money by connecting their fundraising and marketing strategies. You can subscribe to Ephraim’s free daily enewsletter which includes relevant content for any NPO role you fill.


Braver Leadership

Arinne Braverman

In this KelloggInsight article, Carter Cast advises against getting “stuck” in our career by encouraging us to continue to invest in professional development. He recommends “testing your provisional self” with suggestions for self-reflection through journaling to identify motives, interests, and blind spots. Once one’s direction is clear, he encourages testing out new roles in low-risk and low-cost ways, like volunteering or serving on a task force.

One additional low-cost option not addressed in the article is virtual or in-person job shadowing. Job shadowing often is well-utilized by students and recent graduates at the beginning of their careers, but woefully under-appreciated as a professional development opportunity. Just as an organization would invest in proper preparation to recruit the best talent, those looking to use this tool for professional development should create a schedule to maximize the experience.

You can anticipate needing time “off” to respond to emails or to take closed-door meetings. After some initial shadowing, you can plan a few projects to give your shadow to work “on” during such times. For instance, a Development Director or Executive Director might invite her shadow to write a major donor thank you letter, using a sample she provides, based on a recent program or experience the shadow has personal knowledge of.

Be sure to leave time for a virtual lunch and coffee break to process observations and projects, and consider arranging for a colleague from another nonprofit, operating in a similar role, to join you. If your job regularly requires less-glamorous-but-essential tasks (like data entry for program tracking, donor tracking, expense reports), you can incorporate a taste of the software by sharing your screen as you make updates. If significant travel is required for your job, share how often and some advice on how to make the best use of the commute.

Employees who invest time in hosting a shadow observer stand to benefit as well. A shadow’s questions and feedback may lead to fresh thinking and identifying opportunities for improving inefficiencies. You can encourage such exchanges by asking a shadow what approach they might anticipate taking before you share standard operating procedure and the rationale behind a given existing process.

Done right, providing job shadowing opportunities for staff can help improve productivity by increasing communication and collaboration among employees. It might even aid with employee retention–providing opportunities for growth within your organization.

Arinne Braverman is a Kenissa Network member, Jewish Organizing Initiative alumna, and currently serves as the Executive Director of Returning the Sparks and President of From Strength to Strength.


February 2021

Click here to download the February 2021 Kenissa Konnections

Rabbi Sid Message

Upstart, one of Kenissa’s five organizational partners, recently announced the creation of four Change Accelerator cohorts.

The Reimagining Institutions cohort will focus on redefining the purpose of Jewish institutions in a post-COVID world and weaving innovation into the framework of institutional operations.

The Deepening Connections and Thriving Communities cohorts will focus on exploring new ways to meet constituents’ needs, deepen relationships across their communities, and create more inclusive institutions.

The Power in Partners cohort will focus on fostering meaningful partnerships among stakeholders and creating a coalition of leaders who share a commitment to community success.

A total of 52 Jewish communal professionals were accepted into these four cohorts and that included several Kenissa Network members and over a dozen organizations that were represented at a Kenissa Consultation by someone else on staff. This Upstart initiative builds upon and deepens the work of Kenissa in equipping Jewish pros to reimagine the Jewish community. We are thrilled to see this initiative launched. Aliza Mazor, a senior member of the Upstart staff and a member of Kenissa’s Steering Committee, is confident that there will be another round of the Upstart Change Accelerator in the near future. When it is announced, we will feature it in this newsletter.


February 2021

Build and Raise

Ephraim Gopin

Americans watch 84 minutes of video per day. That does NOT include Netflix, streaming or cable TV. Let me repeat that stat: Americans watch 1 hour, 24 minutes of video DAILY. Whether it’s via Instagram Stories, their Facebook or Twitter feed or they fell down a YouTube rabbit hole, people are watching endless amounts of videos.

The implications for your charity? You had better be recording and posting videos in order to engage your online audience. They’re looking for it- give ‘em what they want!

There are plenty of different types of videos you could be sharing: Testimonials, introducing staff and volunteers, highlighting impact stories about service recipients, a “behind the scenes” look at how your organization operates. Obviously, professionally made promo videos highlighting your mission, work and impact should be shared. But those videos probably weren’t shot in one take. Have B-roll? Have funny bloopers and outtakes? Share that as well. People want to smile and laugh. Give ‘em what they want!

Important: Don’t forget user generated content videos. If your followers post a video about your organization, share it with your entire audience. Give a shoutout to the creators of the video. Gratitude goes a long way to building relationships.

And it’s not just on social media. Video should be part of your email marketing strategy. Including a thumbnail and link to a video in your email is a great way to drive eyeballs to your site. Once they’re on your site and watching the video, use that opportunity to drive them to take action: Sign up to volunteer, participate in an advocacy/awareness program, subscribe to your eNewsletter. And yes, donate online.

This month I have two video related links that will help you understand why video is central to your marketing and fundraising efforts:

  • My podcast episode with nonprofit digital marketing and video strategist Taylor Shanklin. Listen/watch/read and learn how your nonprofit can use video as part of your storytelling, marketing and fundraising efforts.
  • Watch this Charity: Water video. It’s longer than your regular 3-minute video. But it’s an excellent example of using video to tell your story. Even better is how they utilize what I call the “story of one”- the story is told from the perspective of one person, connecting the viewer to that person. Watch till the end and see their call to action (CTA). It’s not the biggest ask, but it has a very high upside.

Braver Leadership

Arinne Braverman

Since the first COVID-19 lockdown, I’ve seen more articles on professional growth and development aimed at supervisees than supervisors. In her article, 9 Ways to Keep Growing in Your Career During Covid 19, Meredith Galante recommends multiple paths to ensuring that professional growth continues, even given the social distancing and budgetary constraints faced by many organizations in 2021.

Galante offers practical tips, recognizing that many professionals are feeling burned out due to increased demands at the office and at home, and may be reluctant to take on more. One suggestion she makes embracing the current reality: “If you’re feeling too busy, make a commitment to listen to a podcast that will help with your growth for five minutes a day.”

There are other ways that you can help people on your team advance their professional growth. While some organizations can afford to hire consultants and coaches, organizations on a tighter budget can consider encouraging a barter system for skills, whether done through an organizational platform like CatchAFire.org, individual platform like Simbi.com, or arranged informally through networking with colleagues.

Supervisors can work with self-motivated learners to identify mutually agreed upon professional development topics “on the clock.” Beyond suggestions that you might each identify, reference librarians at local public libraries or through the career development center of the employee’s alma mater can help kickstart an employee’s exploration for free by diversifying resource recommendations or by helping to pare down a longer list.

To connect with relevant leadership and professional development opportunities, including online conferences and webinars in the Jewish community, check out the JEDLAB page on Facebook, Jewish Educators Portal through The Jewish Education Project, and the JPro.org website.

As a supervisor in 2021, it’s important to initiate the supervision conversations that will create the foundation for sustained organizational success by investing in employees’ learning, adaptability, and professional growth.


January 2021

Click here for January 2021 newsletter

Message from Rabbi Sid

I’m an old-fashioned news hound. I can’t start my day without reading the newspaper. The Washington Post is my paper of choice. And I read the hard copy that gets thrown on my lawn every morning around 5am. But then, as I start my workday, I work in a professional bubble of my own creation. I get no news feeds at all. Given how upsetting the news has been for the past four years, putting the news out of sight and out of mind once my day gets going has been an act of self-preservation.

On January 6th, I had a 4pm call with a rabbinic colleague. It started with him asking me: “Have you seen the footage of the U.S. Capitol being overrun by Trump supporters?” I was incredulous. My friend filled in a few more details, we agreed to proceed with our business and, when the call ended around 5pm, I left my study to watch TV for the next few hours.

It has taken a few days for some of the details to get filled in. The colossal failure of the Capitol Police to heed the warnings from the FBI about the threat posed by those who came to Washington to stop Congress from ratifying the election of Joe Biden as our next President. The heroism of many police who, badly outnumbered, tried to protect the Capitol and the legislators inside from an angry mob. The complicity of other police who aided and abetted the insurgents. The courage of members of Congress to come back that same evening to finish the business of certifying Joe Biden’s victory. The craven actions of other legislators who, even after living through an attempt to sabotage a democratic election through violence that cost five lives but could have taken many more, still voted to reverse the outcome of the election.  

Donald Trump’s culpability for, what can only be called, an insurrection, is beneath contempt. From the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville in 2017 to the sacking of the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, he has given Presidential sanction to White Nationalists, Neo-Nazis, racists, anti-Semites and other purveyors of violence and hate. What has long lurked on the peripheries of American society has now been given a national spotlight. Who would have ever thought that these dark and evil forces would be championed by a sitting U.S. President?

I, like many Americans, find myself deeply rattled by the events of January 6th.  Is America a land of equal opportunity for all? Does the American justice system treat all people the same? Do we welcome to our shores, (in the words of Emma Lazarus, carved on the Statue of Liberty) “the huddled masses, yearning to breathe free?” Black Americans, living a totally different reality than White Americans, have long despaired of these American myths. For the rest of us, this new consciousness creates a crisis of faith.

The Talmud tells the story of Elisha ben Abuyah. Born to a prominent Jerusalem family, Elisha earned a reputation as a most promising, young, rabbinic scholar. It is told that he witnessed a young boy climbing a tree to take some eggs from a bird’s next. Following Jewish law, the boy chased away the mother bird before taking the eggs, showing a concern for the feelings of the mother bird. And yet, when coming off the tree, the boy was bitten by a snake and died. Having fulfilled a mitzvah for which the Torah promises a long life, Elisha witnessed the opposite and he suffers from a crisis of faith. Elisha abandons Judaism, becomes an apostate and from that time forth, is only referred to in the Talmud as Acher, “the other one”.

So much of our faith in America has been shaken. It is easy to despair. We could take Elisha’s path—by becoming cynical; by disengaging from politics; by demonizing all those who don’t agree with us. And each of those options will accelerate the erosion of America’s democratic fabric. No. Despair is not an option.

The Jewish community has a large stake in what is unfolding in Washington D.C. A significant number of Jews turned a blind eye to manifold examples of Donald Trump’s assault on truth and alleged criminal behavior because he was “good for Israel”. It is no different than Evangelical Christians who ignored the many ways that Donald Trump’s ethical behavior violated core teachings of the Church just because he could deliver a few, reliable conservative justices for the Supreme Court. The Jewish people paid a heavy price when a previously democratic country came up with all kinds reasons to allow a demagogue called Adolf Hitler to take over Germany. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s powerful video this week draws the obvious parallels between the rise of Nazism in Europe, which his family lived through, and the behavior of Donald Trump.

After four years of Trump’s Presidency, we have suffered tremendous damage to our country’s democratic institutions and principles. Within days of this writing, we will have a new President and a Democratic-led Congress. What is certain, is that the road back to an America that is worthy of cherishing, will require the commitment and energies of every person who cares about liberty, tolerance and justice.  May we be equal to the challenge.


Diversify Your Development Program

If you had money to invest, would you dump it all into Tesla stock? Or would your investment advisor tell you to diversify your portfolio- maybe some stocks, some real estate, some mutual funds. And, of course, today’s hottest investment–Bitcoin.

Fundraising is no different. If a gala event was your main source of revenue, you may have had quite the rough year in 2020. But if you “invested” in raising money via direct mail, email marketing, corporate partnerships, gifts in wills and more, then you’re set up for success. A diversified fundraising portfolio for your organization is an absolute must.

How about monthly giving? Recurring givers have higher retention rates and a higher lifetime value. Do you offer this option to your current and potential donors?

How’s your phone call game? Calls are a great way to stay in touch with supporters and donors. It’s a one-to-one conversation and helps build stronger relationships. My advice? 2 calls a day, 10 minutes each. Do the math: That’s 10 calls per week, about 500 calls over the year. If fundraising is about building relationships and finding shared values with your donors, 500 calls to say hi and thank donors for their support will help your long-term fundraising efforts.

Foundation giving should also be part of your fundraising portfolio. Though here I caution: Just because a potential funder is offering money doesn’t mean you should submit an application to get it! Donations from certain funders or foundations come with a lot of strings attached. Which is why it is imperative you ask yourself two questions before approaching a funder/foundation. If the answer to either question is “no,” walk away.

Finally, here’s one many organizations forget about: Lapsed donors. They don’t have to be gone forever. They’ve already given to you. At the time they felt connected to the mission. Lately, they haven’t donated but that’s not a reason not to reach out to them. Lapsed donors were once donors. Remind them why.

Your website, online giving, email marketing, social media engagement, direct mail, events, foundation giving, monthly giving and more should all be part of your nonprofit’s diversified fundraising portfolio. Plan for success!

Ephraim Gopin is the founder of 1832 Communications, an agency which helps nonprofits build relationships and raise more money by connecting their fundraising and marketing strategies. You can subscribe to Ephraim’s free daily enewsletter that includes relevant content for any NPO role you fill. 


Braver Leadership

January is the first month of a leaner, new fiscal year for many of us.  As we go about the difficult business of trying to decide what to trim from budgets that may have been strained even before the pandemic, it’s important to continue to invest in our people. If you are your organization’s only employee, you may need to self-advocate to ensure that your board understands that targeted professional development produces significant organizational return on investment.

In his Gallup article, 4 Ways to Continue Employee Development When Budgets Are Cut, Vibhas Ratanjee points out that it’s important not to cut learning opportunities that ultimately can help increase productivity and adaptability.

The article quotes a Gallup study that found that organizations that made a strategic investment in employee development reported greater profitability and were TWICE as likely to retain their employees. With the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reporting that it costs employers an average of 6-9 months’ salary to replace a salaried employee, it’s wise for nonprofits to invest in this proven strategy to boost employee retention.

If you’ve ever benefited from having been mentored, you already know how transformational the experience can be.  For many small non-profit founders, however, mentoring may seem like a luxury you cannot afford, in terms of time or money. While there is no way to expand time, the good news is that there are places where you can get mentoring for free. SCORE Association is a wonderful resource, supported by funding from the U.S. Small Business Association. Not only can you find a mentor through the site but SCORE Association also provides a range of free workshops. Some are live and others can be accessed through their library of previously sponsored webinars.  

A more modest and fun new resource is LunchClub. Here you can be matched with another professional who will offer free advice in a single online session, based upon interests you identify in your profile and your availability. With any session with a mentor, don’t forget to do your homework. You will get more from the experience by spending time upfront creating a list of questions related to the skills you want to develop.

Arinne Braverman is a Kenissa Network member, Jewish Organizing Initiative alumna, and currently serves as the Executive Director of Returning the Sparks and President of From Strength to Strength.


Click here to download the December 2020 Kenissa Konnections

Message from Rabbi Sid

One of the great joys of our national Kenissa gatherings was bringing together creative individuals who were pioneering new forms of Jewish life and community all over North America and having them discover that they were not alone. Innovators often work at the margins of a community; it is among the many things that distinguish innovators from the mainstream. Even as the work can feel lonely at the margins, we know that change in society almost always gets catalyzed from the margins.  Kenissa gatherings always generated a unique energy in that innovators were meeting and connecting with other innovators; even as their methods might have been different, there was electricity in the air, knowing that new forms of Jewish life and community were being seeded. We are hoping this newsletter will continue that process for folks in the Kenissa Network. Drop me a note (rabbisid@hazon.org) about developments with your respective organizations and we will find ways to share it.

Meanwhile, we always celebrate when some of our Network members get some public recognition. Such was the case in a recent article in JTA about the Jewish Co-housing movement.  We were pleased to see four Kenissa members mentioned: Roger Studley of Urban Moshav in Berkeley, CA; Jakir Manela of Pearlstone Retreat Center in Reisterstown, MD; Sephirah Stacey Oshkello of Living Tree Alliance in VT; and Aharon Ariel Lavi who runs the Hakhel initiative from Israel. Thusfar, only Living Tree Alliance has actual residents but all the communities mentioned are well on their way to making this vision a reality. At a time when there is heightened awareness about lifestyles that are environmentally sustainable and supportive of the development of strong personal connections between residents, we should cheer on those who are committed to this residential model of intentional community.

A Chanukah Present for You

Kenissa is partnering with Days of Gratitude, a six-month journey to notice and give gratitude for the unnoticed blessings in our lives. By clicking here to join Days of Gratitude (for free), every month between December 2020 and April 2021, you will receive a set of activities, prompts, and inspiration to guide you through a three-day gratitude journey. The experience is designed to help you find hope and build resilience in the face of the pandemic and current challenges. Developed in partnership with dozens of organizations, Days of Gratitude is framed around the Jewish tradition of blessings. In May 2021, Days of Gratitude will culminate with a seven-day worldwide celebration of gratitude, leading up to the festival of Shavuot.Join the Kenissa community, hundreds of organizations, and thousands of individuals to enjoy the Days of Gratitude—and forward to others as well.

Wishing all of you a light-filled Chanukah!


Build and Raise

Building relationships to help raise more money

Ephraim Gopin

What role does gratitude play in building relationships with your donors? Are your donation thank you notes just a perfunctory, stale letter so that the donor can grab their tax deduction? Or is it a heartfelt, personalized, impactful, emotional outpouring of gratitude so that supporters feel appreciated?

According to fundraising researcher Dr. Adrian Sargeant, the thank you is the single most important piece of communication that your donors get. They have a higher recall of it than the appeal that generated the gift. 

We spend a LOT of time putting together our appeals. But it’s the thank you letter that’s going to help you strengthen the bond, retain your donors and see a higher lifetime value of donations.

Some ideas for saying ‘toda’ in a manner that’s remarkable and memorable:

  • Let them know how their gift has solved a problem for your beneficiaries.
  • Tell them how kind and compassionate they are. How generous they are. Then tell them again.
  • As fundraising expert Beth Ann Locke says: Remember that it’s not the size of the gift they gave (generousness); it’s the act of giving (generosity) that matters. Change up your thank you letters: Don’t lead with the amount they gave. Lead with gratitude.
  • Pick up the phone! Phone calls made to donors within 90 days of a gift improve both retention AND subsequent gift amount.

Gratitude is often discussed around Thanksgiving and year-end. But it should be a year-round endeavor. The more gratitude shown, the more you and the donor will get out of the relationship. Which is why it’s important to say thank you before your next ask. Show donor love and appreciation. They’ll be happy to reciprocate.

P.S. If you’re looking for ideas of how to say a heartfelt thank you via email, check out these 6 examples.

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Ephraim Gopin is the founder of 1832 Communications, an agency which helps nonprofits build relationships and raise more money by connecting their fundraising and marketing strategies. You can subscribe to Ephraim’s free daily enewsletter which includes relevant content for any NPO role you fill. 


Braver Leadership

Gain Insight. Lead Braver.

Arinne Braverman

In a Harvard Business Review article by Andy Molinsky, “Everyone Suffers from Impostor Syndrome, Here’s How to Handle It”, we learn about the common fear “that you’re a poser, that you’re not worthy, that you couldn’t possibly be qualified to do whatever you’re aiming to do.” Even experienced leaders likely asked themselves at some point in 2020 whether they were really qualified to lead their organizations through a global pandemic. Impostor Syndrome may initially present as a personal problem, suggesting a lack of self-confidence or low self-esteem. However, if “everyone” suffers from a version of it, as Molinsky’s title suggests, Impostor Syndrome actually seems more likely to be rooted in feelings of anxiety that many people experience.

As Molinsky notes, maintaining a learning mindset is one way to ease the anxiety associated with feeling like an impostor. Instead of focusing on the mistakes you make along your way, as though collecting evidence for a case against your current skillset, focus your energy on learning from your mistakes and improving your skillset for your organization’s benefit. The learning mindset contextualizes mistakes as a normal part of the learning process, while the alternative can lead to a paralyzing fear of failure, compromising outcomes.

Management issues in organizations, as in our school systems, are too often addressed through rewards and incentives or punishments and discipline, aimed at conditioning desired behavioral responses. However, a fundamental principle of Dr. Ross Greene’s problem-solving based Collaborative and Proactive Solutions (CPS) programis that behavioral problems are best addressed by understanding that the presenting issue is primarily a matter of “skill, not will.” That is, the person presenting with the problematic behavior would benefit from gaining additional skills, enabling them to respond better in the future.  

When a colleague or supervisee confides that they fear that they will fail at a new challenge, a common response is to dismiss their worries with an encouraging, “You’ve got this!”…as though a “can-do” attitude will fix it. It may be more constructive to follow a modified CPS approach by sitting with them in their uncertainty, asking them to surface specific concerns, and collaborating to identify a plan of action. To begin with, you could ask the colleague about previous times in their lives when they overcame some self-doubt and were able to “rise to the occasion”. You could also explore with the staffperson what resources might help to build their skillset, and offer to make the relevant professional introductions or professional development investment to make the training possible.

________

Arinne Braverman is a Kenissa Network member, Jewish Organizing Initiative alumna, and currently serves as the Executive Director of Returning the Sparks and President of From Strength to Strength.

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