Category: Living Judaism


A Yom Kippur Message for the Whole Year: Easy Does It

I’m sharing a slightly modified version of a Yom Kippur thought sent out to Koby Mandell Foundation board members by my dear friend and mentor of many years, Rabbi Seth Mandell. The humility and practicality of it made me smile, and made me feel a little better. Although Yom Kippur is a distant memory at this point, I heard back from numerous people I emailed it to that the message resonated with them big time, not only for Yom Kippur, but as a reminder year round that when it comes to spiritual growth, steady but gentle effort is best. So keep working on yourselves folks, but easy does it….

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By Rabbi Seth Mandell
I have to admit that I am not prepared for Yom Kippur. I have not read inspiring commentaries nor reviewed the prayer book. Nor, sad to say, have I spent time in self examination or enumerated the things I could have done better this year.

Worse perhaps, is that I am singularly untroubled by this. Maybe because I have been occupied with my sons wedding, my toddler grandson’s almost daily progress and my daughters impending birth.

I’m reminded though of my friend who blew the shofar in one of the synagogues in Tekoa this year. I had heard that he was unable to finish even the first round of blasts. The sounds apparently just would not come out. Finally, frustrated, he asked someone else to take over.

Later he told me something interesting. “When I went home and blew the shofar for someone else (who was unable to get to shul) I did it perfectly. Every sound came out smoothly and easily. Must have been the pressure.” he said, referring to his difficulty during the service itself.

I have decided to take heart from this story. Maybe the lack of focus I feel, the lack of serious preparation, is not all bad. Maybe going into this awesome day without feeling the pressure to make it deep and meaningful, without feeling the awe, is not such a bad thing. Perhaps we can go into the day relaxed, taking it as it comes, and simply pray the words of the siddur and let our intention and focus take care of themselves.

My hope is that those of us who are going into Yom Kippur feeling unprepared can let go of our expectations, our critical self-judgement and accept ourselves, our family and friends – and our world – as it is. And maybe that lack of pressure will allow us to pray with a stronger intent, relate to our Creator in a more natural and meaningful way, and – as we accept and forgive our failings and those of others – be accepted and forgiven by the Almighty.

I wish you all a G’mar Chatima Tova – A successful and healthy year

L’Shalom, Seth

Listening for a phrase: Rosh Hashanah 5778

By Todd J. Sukol
As the sun sets on 5777 and final preparations for Rosh Hashanah 5778 are tended to, our attention turns in earnest to the inner work of the coming days and the outlook for the coming year. It is so tempting to use this time of reflection to make a new laundry list of things to work on, new years resolutions as it were. But we know that tiny bits of progress in a multitude of pursuits leaves us feeling empty and accomplishing little. How can we do less and accomplish more in the coming year? What should we be most focused on? What does the world need most from you right now? What is the single biggest contribution you can make to humanity? To the Jewish people? To your community? To your family? To yourself? To your body? Your mind? Your soul? What does G_d want from you above all?

These are questions worth asking over the coming two days of Rosh Hashanah.

For me there is a certain tension between my choice to observe the halachic prohibition against writing during the holidays and my commitment to use the time for personal introspection in service of repentance, renewal and growth. My own approach to the kind of introspective work called for during this season of renewal and repentance almost always includes lots of journal writing as well as prayer and meditation. How can I do the introspective work of Rosh Hashanah without pen and paper in hand? Is the holiday one thing and personal growth another or can traditional Judaism play an integral role in personal growth in an integrated way?

In an age where halacha, Jewish law, is often viewed as anachronistic or irrelevant, I choose to follow it to the best of my ability because I believe in my heart that it matters. Sadly, halacha can at times be observed by rote and become separated from its meaning and deepest value. But uninspired practice is not an indictment of the wisdom of the practice itself. I find that despite my internal resistance, the specific disciplines of halacha, when observed with deliberate intention, often help channel my exertion of effort toward personal and communal growth. Perhaps this Rosh Hashanah can be such an occasion.

My plan for the coming two day holiday is use my time in synagogue to engage in prayer (formal and informal), reading of inspiring material and personal reflection and meditation. Since I won’t be journaling, I’ll have to listen carefully for a common, overarching themes rather than a long list of fixes and resolutions. As I review mentally the past year and rethink my values and priorities, I’ll be opening my ears to G_d, listening for a phrase rather than an essay. Maybe just maybe, I’ll emerge from the process with a singular, simple principle that I can concentrate on in all areas of my life in the coming year.

May it be a year of growth, depth and truth for us all.

“Innovation”: What to make of a word that just won’t go away

By Todd J. Sukol
In the nearly 10 years since bestselling author and popular speaker Scott Berkun famously implored the world to “stop saying innovation,” we in the Jewish philanthropic and nonprofit world show no sign of heeding his sage advice.

Scott, whose credits include the bestseller The Myths of Innovation, makes a nearly irrefutable case that the word innovation has lost meaning and become noise pollution. Instead, he encourages focusing on developing ideas for solving significant problems rather than finding exciting adjectives to describe those ideas.

So why is it that some of the most passionate, sincere and talented people I know in Jewish nonprofits keep returning to the innovation trope? Are we a bunch of gushy romantics, repeatedly working ourselves into a frenzied lather of naïveté at each “next big idea” that comes our way? Or have we become allergic to hard work, victims of our parents and grandparents successes and good fortunes, in search of one shiny new quick-fix after another? Or could there be something deeper and more substantive at play that causes us to hang on so stubbornly to “innovation” as an ideal.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I am far from immune to the Jewish innovation addiction. I was an active participant in the birth of the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge (JEIC), along with Mrs. Manette Mayberg, trustee of the Mayberg Foundation and our cherished colleague and friend Rabbi Shmuel Feld. I was in the middle of plowing my way through a daunting pile of books on social entrepreneurship at the time* and I stridently insisted that the word innovation MUST be in the name of the organization we were creating. I was an architect of JEIC’s subsequent partnership with Joshua Venture Group, which later merged with UpStart, whose mission is “inspire and advance innovative ideas that contribute to the continued growth and vitality of Jewish life.” If the Jewish world’s addiction to the word innovation is a pathology, I am surely among the diseased.

But is there a healthy way to be obsessed with innovation? Could it be, in fact, that innovation lies at the very core of what it means to be a Jew, a uniquely Jewish way of relating to the world, to each other, to ourselves and to the Divine?

In Judaism’s morning prayers, we praise G_d “who forms light and creates darkness.” This is stated in the present tense, explains Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, because G_d is perpetually creating the world. Judaism, in other words, sees G_d not as a being who created the world many years ago, but as the active, engaged Spirit who continually creates and renews everything in this world at all times. If we hope to align with this Spirit that guides the world and fulfill our highest potentials as humans and Jews, we too need to constantly refresh our relationship with this ever renewing G_d.

Jewish teachings repeatedly encourage us to “sing a new song” to G_d**. This suggests that while great value is placed on ritual in Judaism, there is also great value placed on bringing a renewed, sincere desire to connect afresh with G_d each time we engage in ritual.

Innovation as a state of heart and mind
I had the pleasure this week of sitting in a noisy Starbucks in New York City for nearly two hours with Stefanie Rhodes, executive director of Slingshot. Listening to Stefanie’s ideas about next generation philanthropy’s potential for the Jewish future, one gets the impression that Slingshot, known to date primarily for its annual Resource Guide to Jewish Innovation, just may have its brightest days ahead.

As Stefanie and I were talking, it occurred to me that innovation in the Jewish corner of the philanthropic and nonprofit sector may be a sign that the Jewish ideal of renewal and rejuvenation is yet alive. Perhaps innovation in the Jewish nonprofit world is more than a utilitarian response to declining communal organizations that seem out of step with contemporary Jews. Could it be that creation of new avenues for Jewish engagement is an imperative for every generation, part of renewing our relationship to ourselves and each other as Jews, and ultimately to the Divine?

To be clear, I’m not excusing continued over-use of an annoyingly hackneyed word, nor am I advocating change for its own sake. The philanthropic and nonprofit sector has seen billions wasted that way, by decades of initiatives that lack well defined aims and strategies. But when the newness is intentionally directed to create “significant positive change,” as Scott Berkun would have us say, innovation – the concept if not the word — can become a powerful, positive engine, both for responding to contemporary problems and to renewing our very souls.



*Among them Bishop & Green’s Philanthrocapitalism, Bornstein’s profiles of early Ashoka fellows, Christensen’s testament to the power of disruptive technological innovation for reforming education, and Paul Light’s “Driving Social Change: How to Solve the World’s Toughest Social Problems.

**No less than five times in the book of Tehillim, Psalms, alone.

Big-P Pluralism

By Todd J. Sukol
I often get asked where I stand on Jewish pluralism. In both my work and personal life, people sometimes perceive what they believe to be a disconnect between my deep commitment to Jewish tradition and my equally rigorous commitment to inclusivity and diversity of practice and belief.

I’d like to see if I can set the record straight.

I’ve seen the words “pluralism” and “pluralistic” used to describe at least three very different approaches to Judaism and Jewish practice. One of those works beautifully for me. The other two do not.

The first pluralism posits that diversity in Judaism is one of our greatest strengths. Minority opinions on legal matters, for example, are documented throughout the ancient discussions of the Talmud. In fact, they are given a place of honor even when rejected. The sharp eyed student of the Rishonim (medieval scholars and philosophers through whom ancient Judaism passed on its way to contemporary hearts and minds) can discern radically divergent theologies in their writings. Even the Shemonah Esrei (or Amidah), the central prayer of Jewish liturgy for 2,000 years, hints in its opening section that communal belief in one G-d coexists with individuals relating to G-d in radically different ways.

I like to call this notion “Big-P Pluralism,” the idea that Judaism is and always was system of diverse ideas, beliefs and practices that interact with each other within a communal, living framework. It gives us a way to engage with authentic Jewish ideas in ways that work for us as individuals, while simultaneously supporting each other and learning from each other’s vastly diverse, and equally rich, personal journeys. It is also, I think, consistent with the value of “inclusivity” that I have come to embrace in my work at the Mayberg Foundation. As an excerpt from the Foundation’s statement of core values affirms, “We believe in building a vibrant and meaningful Judaism for all Jews—regardless of how one identifies or practices—that provides both inspiration and wisdom.” This is a Pluralism I can embrace. At its base is tolerance and coexistence. When nurtured, it can grow into something much more profound: loving, supportive, value-based community. I am, in that sense, an unabashed “Big-P Pluralist.”

Unfortunately, a second pluralism is much more common than the first. This “little-p pluralism” is rooted in convenience and presumed efficacy rather than principle. Out of step with contemporary Jews, many Jewish organizations “slap a J” in front of a myriad of programs in efforts to “Judaify” activities they think will bring people through their doors. This effort to “give the people what they want” in a Jewish context is not necessarily a bad thing, but it smacks of desperation and lack of substance. By all means, let’s do fun and trendy things. But let’s simultaneously find ways to expose people to the vast reservoir of Jewish wisdom and give them tools to extract relevant and useful elements for meaningful contemporary life. Too many organizations look to kitsch in order to combat declining membership and financial viability. Substance would serve them better.

Finally, a third pluralism has emerged, one that I call “Alt-P Pluralism.” All too often “pluralistic” has become a code word for “anti-orthodox.” I have seen Jews denigrate fellow Jews for traditional beliefs and practices they don’t share. “Freedom of religion for all but the Orthodox Jew,” as I heard one person put it. I once watched in disbelief as a member of my own family was accused of being aggressive, simply for quietly living according to her own principles. I have personally been taunted at Jewish events for the food I choose to eat and not eat. When liberalism morphs into an orthodoxy all its own, I call that fundamentalism, not progressivism. Alt-P Pluralism promotes prejudice and division not unity and diversity.

Big-P Pluralism, on the other hand, gives each of us room to engage with Judaism on our own terms while drawing strength from — and giving strength to — our collective Jewish wisdom and community. For my part, I have wrestled for decades to integrate rigorous principles, discipline and religious structure, on the one hand, with openness, spontaneity and sheer joy, on the other. To be sure, I have seen the strictures of religion crowd out substance at times. And I have also seen remarkable talent and powerful spiritual urges squandered because they lacked a structure through which they could be expressed and actualized. I believe I am a better person for having engaged in that journey of balancing and synergizing these apparent polar opposites. That has been my personal journey so far, and people with radically different views from my own have played a major role along the way.

We all have the right, and maybe even the responsibility to pursue our own individual journeys. Big-P Pluralism gives us a way to embark on those journeys for ourselves, but not by ourselves.