Category: Society & Culture


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.

In Praise of the Bicycle Workday

By Todd J. Sukol
I recently found this piece of writing in my journal from 2010. At the time I had just started Do More Mission and was experimenting with working all over DC metro from my bicycle. Laptop and cell phone in tow, I worked my way around various parts of the city, Rock Creek Park, the burbs, etc., stopping for 30-90 minutes at a time to work in the woods, in urban parks, at coffee shops, on street corners, benches and grassy fields. It was surprisingly productive and utterly exhilarating. This approach went by the wayside as a team began to emerge around me and the gravitational pull of “the office” got stronger. While physical proximity is important, the sheer physicality and spontaneity of this approach was incredible. I think I’ll book a day of working from my bicycle again sometime this fall. Have a great weekend, all!



From Monday 9/13/2010: I so love riding my bicycle, a passport out of sedentary life. I hop on and within seconds my heart is pumping, my respiration on the rise and my leg muscles cranking. Even my upper body gets its share. I am rocked out of mental slumber and into conscious, alert attention. I am awake.

Before long I’m moving at a speed that makes for a certain safety risk. The cars, the curbs, the protruding roots, the potholes, the gravel, the rocks. All these wonderfully looming assailants give thrill! Be it a country or a city riding day, there are always dangerous things to be aware of. So many things at once popping up without notice. How glorious it is to finally have a productive use for this busy brain of mine! While cranking along in this dangerous domain, having attention everywhere all at once is decidedly an asset. What in other contexts would be called “attention deficit” is suddenly a valuable survival skill. With body and mind fully occupied, my soul can finally relax. I am clear.

I become aware that my movement forward is propelled by a unique partnership between my own physical exertion and this very specialized machine. The modern bicycle may be sophisticated in the design and engineering that guided its evolution, but it’s operation is so simpe that it seems almost primal in our microchip and genome moment in history. At a time when the world seems split between those who worship science at the expense of beauty and those who scorn progress at the expense of true soul, this bicycle is my refuge. It is both machine and nature, modern and authentic, powerful and simple. Today I am neither overly dependent on technology nor pretending to be self-reliant. Partnering with this simple, brilliant machine, I am participating.

Embrace the Uncomfortable. Move Forward in the Face of Mistakes. Allow Space.

By Todd J. Sukol
Facing a big birthday a couple of years ago, I resolved to live my personal and professional life with a new level of courage, integrity and productivity. As part of my quest I adopted a three-part philosophy, which I openly confess remains somewhat aspirational:

“Embrace the uncomfortable, move forward in the face of mistakes and allow space.”

Nearly two years into the experiment, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect here on Giving Way about why each of these three principles is important to me and to offer them to you, my fellow nonprofit leader, as tools for accomplishing your organization’s important work.

Embrace the uncomfortable
Most of us give in more than we would like to admit to the very human tendency to avoid conflict, dodge decisions and procrastinate from the distasteful or difficult. I have had the unique privilege of getting to know someone who seems to have been born without this gene. He is amazing! No matter what’s going on, he runs right into the fire… every time. Not coincidentally, he is also one of the most successful and productive people I know. His approach can be unsettling at times, but I’ve tried it on for size and let me tell you that it is immensely freeing. The positive results this practice creates are staggering.

M. Scott Peck opens his The Road Less Traveled, Timeless Edition: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth with a simple idea: “Life is difficult.” So much potential gets wasted by leaders who avoid the simple truth that life is difficult. Once we accept it, it no longer limits us. How many times have you avoided an uncomfortable reality and when you finally took care of it said to yourself “that wasn’t so bad, why was I making such a big deal out of it?” What are you avoiding right now?

Move forward in the face of mistakes
A dear friend from high school recently posted a beautiful picture of herself on Facebook, along with the gloriously honest comment: “Ever take a pic and for whatever reason the light in the room washes everything out and you look like you’re not aging? And your hair turned out right for once? Well, those are the only ones I post.” That made me smile from ear to ear! Putting our best face forward is only human. While I wholeheartedly endorse the practice when it comes to Facebook photos, this tendency can be damaging in our work and personal lives.

Here is a crazy experiment: For one week, keep a written list of every excuse for a mistake you hear. I mean really listen for and record every unnecessary rationalization you hear for a simple error. Jot down on your list every example of a co-worker, friend, family member, etc. conjuring an excuse, however plausible, when a simple “Oh shoot, I goofed” would have sufficed. Make sure you also log the rationalizations you hear yourself say, either out loud or in your head. If you listen and record diligently, I promise you’ll have a long list. Guess what? None of it matters.

Whatever image you project as a leader, we all know you make mistakes. It’s okay. No, really! Your flaws don’t invalidate your greatness. As long as you’re doing meaningful work, you’ll be making plenty of mistakes (I just learned this morning of an embarrassing one I made earlier in the week – whoops!). Admit to them, fix them, learn from them. Keep going. It means you’re in the game. It’s good.

Allow space
A few years back I was running an organization called Do More Mission to help philanthropists and small- to mid-sized nonprofit organizations increase their impact. I am proud of what we accomplished but I now see a fatal flaw in how I named the organization when I started it in 2009.

A close advisor had tried to warn me. Encouragement to “do more,” he explained, is the opposite of what many driven nonprofit leaders need to hear most. So many of them (us!) share the shortcoming of pushing harder and harder even when it may be time to back off and leave room for grace. I suspect he was mostly talking about me. I ignored him and pushed ahead as planned, launching “Do More,” as we used to call it for short. A couple of years later a close friend and colleague told me about a management book by J. Keith Murnighan that he said really helped him. A few days later the mailman delivered Do Nothing!: Discover the Power of Hands-Off Leadership. Strikingly, the color scheme and cover design of the book was very similar to our logo. There I was with a simple choice right up in my face Do More! Or Do Nothing!

Do Nothing, By J. Keith Murnighan

do more mission logo

Do More Mission logo



Of all the things you have to do – and learn to do well – one of them is, well, NOTHING (suddenly, I’m thinking of George Costanza). Productive doing of nothing is an important skill that doesn’t always come naturally to passionate social entrepreneurs. I advocate for working hard, to be sure, but working smart is equally important. We accomplish the most when we do our footwork passionately and diligently, and then back off and allow space for the Divine to step in and put all the pieces together.

Whether you serve in a staff or volunteer role, try modelling these three uncommon attributes. You may be surprised how much potential they free up, and how much they can contribute to your organization’s success.

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.