Monday, November 29, 2010

Instilling Jewish Pride in the Next Generation

Last week, as my son and I were doing some last minute Hanukkah shopping, we found ourselves staring face to face with an aisle devoted to Christmas. You can imagine how appealing these items were to a five year old, and I have to admit that I found myself staring at them quite a bit as well, as they were a remarkable display of the holiday season. When he asked me what they were, I told him that they were for Christmas and we moved on to the next aisle. A few aisles later, we found the Hanukkah section, and it included a pretty small selection of items compared to all that we had seen just a few aisles back.

Unlike the merchandising selection at this department store, we can't let Hanukkah, or any Jewish holiday for that matter, be seen as the smaller or less significant stepchild of a more popularly held holiday. It's critical that we not compare Christmas and Hanukkah as if they are in competition. Each holiday stands on its own merits, and in their true celebration express very different theological messages. Hanukkah's central theme is the courage to maintain one's religious convictions in the face of persecution. When we light our hanukiah and place it conspicuously in our windowsill, we are actively engaged in publicizing the miracle of Jewish survival and are linking ourselves to thousands of generations of Jews who have fought for the right to practice the faith of their ancestors.

Often, Jewish professionals use the term "December Dilemma" to refer to the struggle that interfaith families have in navigating the challenge of satisfying the needs of both partners during the holiday season. However, Julie Hilton Danan, a Rabbi and Professor of Religious Studies at California State University, Chico suggests in her book The Jewish Parent's Almanac, that the term might also apply to "the range of uncomfortable feelings that many Jews, in particular Jewish parents, experience while most of the rest of the country is celebrating Christmas. It’s as if the year’s biggest party is going on, and we’ve decided not to be invited…"

Indeed, although my family leads a very active Jewish life, my children occasionally feel that they have been left out of the mainstream, and want to "taste" what they are seeing on television and at shopping malls throughout Houston. What might be the solution to this "December Dilemma?" In my opinion it is making Judaism compelling year round. The more our children feel a sense of pride in being Jewish, the less they will look longingly at other traditions to fill a need their Judaism isn't providing.

On this issue Rabbi Danan continues: "I think that the people who experience the most problems with children and Christmas are those for whom December is practically the only time of year in which their children feel distinctively Jewish…When family observances revolve around the Jewish calendar, we know who we are, not just who we aren’t."

Hanukkah is just about to begin and Christmas is right around the corner. With four opportunities to celebrate Shabbat in addition to celebrating the Festival of Lights before Santa makes his yearly visit, consider ways to make your kids feel so happy to be Jewish that Christmas is just another day of the year.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


It’s hard to believe that it was only 13 months ago that the 14 of us Jim Joseph Fellows met in Los Angeles for the first time. We knew the name of our fellowship, Leading Educators On-line, and we knew that each of us would be responsible for starting and leading an on-line Community of Practice (CoP). But other than a few preparatory articles and internet-based asynchronous discussions about them, we were pretty clueless what they really meant.

And so, not surprisingly, we spent much of our first retreat together learning with CoP experts like Nava Frank and Nancy White. A great deal of our discussion centered around what initially seemed like a very elementary concept: Exactly what is a community? Lots of ideas and definitions were put forth. Most of them had to do with the people within a community having something in common: a common purpose, a common goal, a common heritage. We never really came to a conclusion, and the discussion continued at our Israel treat last December. I remember one of our teachers suggesting that perhaps everyone who pays taxes belongs to the community of taxpayers. As you can imagine, that garnered a great deal of lively discussion.

Now here we are, over a year into our fellowship, and each of us has already launched or is preparing to launch a CoP. My particular CoP is extremely outcome driven: We are planning the upcoming Jewish Educators Assembly annual conference (the theme is technology) using the CoP model. On paper, we look pretty perfect. We have several teams working and have been using google groups as our asynchronous platform. We have dozens of discussion threads, share documents and videos, and have worked out speakers and a schedule through web 2.0 collaborative tools. Every few weeks since July we have had team web conferences, using DimDim as our synchronous platform. By most standards we have been extremely successful and productive, and the conference is pretty much planned and the registration materials have gone out.

But something doesn’t quite feel right. Yes, we are clearly meeting our common and goal and purpose – the JEA conference will be a great one. And there have been many benefits of doing the planning as an on-line CoP, including fresh ideas and getting many more “average” members involved. But most of the time, it feels like we are just a committee that happens to be “meeting” on the web. It doesn’t feel like a “community” to me.

Contrast this to the fellowship itself. Nowhere in the description of this fellowship did it ever talk about the fellowship itself becoming a CoP, merely that we would learn how to start our own. And yet, somewhere along the line, without even really trying, we all realized we were, in fact, a CoP.

So what makes a group a community rather than just a bunch of people with some commonality or another? I have come to the rather obvious conclusion that in order to be a community, the members have to care about and feel obligated to one another. Once the 14 of us started to care about each other, we couldn’t help become a community. Similarly, although I don’t necessarily like everyone who goes to my shul, I feel obligated to make shiva calls, or go to a Bat Mitzvah, etc… That’s why a shul is a community, and not just a gathering of people.

Somehow, whatever the issue, the weekly Parsha always manages to convey an answer, and this issue of community is no exception. This week, we begin the story of Jacob’s family. While clearly a family, Jacob’s 12 sons do not start out as B’nei Yisrael, a community. Rather, there is sibling rivalry, hatred, jealousy, and all sorts of divisive issues. The brothers don’t really care about each other, and certainly feel no obligation to one another. By the end of the story, the brothers put aside all their issues and began to care about each other. Certainly, they begin to feel obligated to each other. Only then, in Egypt ironically enough, do they truly become the community of B’nai Yisrael.

We spend a great deal of time worrying about how to facilitate a CoP, how to be the technology steward, how to draw in the outliers, which platforms to choose. Yet to me, these are not the real challenges. For me, creating this vitally important sense of community is the real challenge of a CoP that exists only virtually.

Any ideas, anyone?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Tag Team from the GA

I recently attended the Jewish Federation of North America General Assembly in New Orleans (JFNA GA NOLA, because we like acronyms!).

This blog is a piece I wrote for the Challah Back Blog which is sponsored by the JFNA National Young Leadership (JFNANYL). I am curious to hear from Davar Acher readers their take on changes JFNA may need to take to reach younger leaders, and also to reach more of the Jewish education constituency.

Ten days ago, a former student of mine asked me what advice I had to give as she prepared to attend her first GA. I responded:

@edenrachael advice for the #nolaga. First thing - bring snacks. Second - most business is conducted in the hallway/lobby. Third - business cards.

This exchange embodies my GA experience.

First of all, it happened on Twitter. According to JFNA leadership, there were about 4,000 tweets that came through the #nolaga hashtag. This in and of itself represents a new feeling about the GA. The use of technology and social media to build community, transmit ideas, and disseminate information was profound at this year’s General Assembly.

By running an archive application on the #nolaga hashtag, I was able to ascertain the top words which appeared in the tweets.

NOLAGA, Jewish, Thanks, Israel, Netanyahu, Speech, Jews, New Orleans, Young, GA, Community, Best, Students, Hero, Amazing, Plenary, Twitter, 2010

In thinking about these as words that represented the GA, what I find as fascinating is that words I would typically associate with the Federation (i.e. fundraising, campaigns, leadership, boards, etc) are not the words that were highlighted in the list. This either indicates an overall shift in what took place at the GA, or it represents what those drawn to a tool like Twitter feel is important. This is an important lesson for JFNA as it continues to struggle with how to engage “the next generation.” (More on that later!) The archive tool also generates a list of the top-tweeter. Hillel came in first and pulling into the second slot is William Daroff, Vice President for Public Policy and Director of the Washington office of The Jewish Federations of North America. There’s a commentary in that juxtaposition as well. Note: I did make the top 10.

Continuing on the note of technology, in one session I attended (and was asked by organizers to live-tweet), The Jewish Futures Conference, the organizers invested in equipment where participants could vote from their seats in a poll and live results were displayed on large screens. There was a clear sense of enjoyment from the over 300 attendees. The presence of “Bloggers Alley” (sponsored by Jewlicious) in the Exhibit Hall is another sign of the infiltration of technology and social media into the GA.

Lastly, while not an actual display of technology itself, the Nolaism Schmoozeup, attracted a few hundred people who use social media regularly. It gave me a chance to meet people whom I have been conversing with for a while on Twitter or in the blogosphere but have never met. The introductions are unique: Hi, I’m Robyn Faintich…Silence. JewishGPS…Oh, wow, so great to meet you, I’m [insert Twitter name here]. But as unique as the introductions are, the foundation for a collegial relationship, and often times a friendship, are already laid and the conversations pick up where they left off in cyberspace. (BTW, only to be picked back up in cyberspace the second we departed for the airport.)

But, back to my advice to @edenrachael. First, bring snacks. As a frequent attendee at a large variety of Jewish conferences, the GA stands out to me to be a unique entity unto itself. At no other conference do the sessions run all the way through the day without any meal breaks. At no other conference, are meals not a general part of the conference culture itself. This is a downside to the GA in my opinion. Meal times allow for de-briefing, re-energizing, and community building. As a result of the lack of meal breaks, people who need to meet and network are forced to do so outside of the sessions. Which brings me to my second piece of advice.

Most business is conducted in the hallway/lobby. In my experience, the GA is less about the sessions themselves then they are about the conversations that are feverishly scheduled to take place in the lobby, in the Kosher Café, in the chairs under the staircase, on the front steps of the hotel, or standing up in a hallway. I am pretty sure that this is not what the JFNA organizers intended when they GA was first thought into being, but it is certainly now a primary focus of what the conference has become for many participants. As a new start-up Jewish education consultant, the time in the hallway was priceless. I was able to create several dozen face-to-face connections with people, who are all phenomenal Jewish leaders, within a two-day period of time. In addition to the formal meet-ups, the quick passing in the hallway, elevators or security lines of old colleagues and dear friends, added value and rounded out my GA experience.

My last piece of advice to her was to bring business cards. In a fast-paced environment like the GA, sometimes the exchange of a business card is the only thing two people have time for before moving on to the next conversation. The business card exchange is actually more about what happens after the GA than what happens during. The follow-up, post-conference conversations are often stewarded by the business cards you end up with by the end of the GA.

The Twitter exchange with @edenrachael highlights another part of the GA experience. Mentioned briefly earlier in this article, it is the goal of JFNA to engage more “next generation” Jews. I heard and read on twitter about this through the entire GA (and in fact, last year’s GA as well). A few items come to mind when I begin to contemplate this. First, I am not thrilled with the term “next generation.” There was a resounding pushback from those between the ages of 21 and 40 saying, “We are not the next generation of leaders, we are leaders now.” I challenge JFNA to come up with another term to describe this age cohort and for readers to offer suggestions. Perhaps JFNA can use the upcoming TribeFest ( as a forum for the actual end-users to come up with and vote on a name. It seems the liveliness and edge of the TribeFest messaging and marketing is exactly what JFNA should try and replicate throughout its work with this age cohort.

Second, the formality of the GA – both in physical space and in dress code is often a turn-off for this group. Frontal panels and speakers, in theater-style seating, is far from the intimate environments that young Jews are building for themselves in Hillels, Moishe Houses, independent minyanim, and entrepreneurial startups. I suggest thinking about how some sessions could be conducted more parlor-style, including couches, coffee tables, in the round, breakout spaces, etc. I know when trying to arrange logistics for 4,000 people, this kind of specialty setting may seem over-the-top, however, it goes back to the goal of JFNA try and engage this population. Another formality of the GA is the suits and ties. The formal dress code of the GA demonstrates a disconnect between the conference culture and the current dominant professional culture of business casual and in many cases, casual, dress. One question that has to be asked is if the leadership of the GA wants to encourage a huge cultural shift at the conference and blatantly persuade attendees to dress down. If the answer is no, there may be a real challenge to be debated here because while the staff/leadership may give “permission” to the crowd to dress down, if it’s not an entire conference culture-shift, then those who choose to will still stand out, be set apart and possibly be judged as un-professional. This tension already exists: I had a discussion with a woman who was in-town attending the International Lion of Judah Conference. They had participated in a volunteer project in the morning, and therefore had attended morning plenary in casual clothing. She was lamenting why it was important to get “all dolled up and dressy” to attend the next day’s sessions, when she was just as committed, confident and content in her jeans and sweater. I overheard a similar conversation at the GA when participants were attending Monday’s Plenary dressed for the Day of Service that commenced as soon as the Plenary ended. It would be interesting to ask in a survey how the culture of the GA impacts the overall experience. Informally, I encourage discussion about this here.

Overall, I noticed a significant difference in the overall energy of the GA due to the make-up of the conference as result of the influx of young participants, the increased representation of independent non-Federation organizations, the introduction of text study and service-learning opportunities, and the embracing of technology and social media. Next year, as we all descend on Denver (hashtag still being widely debated!), I will be curious to reflect on how far I have come in my new venture in Jewish education consulting (what will the meetings at this GA turn into?) and how far the GA has come in making space in the schedule for meetings, in the further embrace of a younger, more independent participant, and in “providing snacks.”

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Technology in Temple: Spirituality in 140 Characters or Fewer

Rabbi Laura GellerThis was published recently in the Huffington Post. Rabbi Laura Geller serves Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. There are some interesting questions, and I think she has found some interesting answers in bringing the Jewish analog and digital lenses together. Obviously this exercise does not fit every setting at every time. - Ira Wise

I am with my congregants on a Jewish study tour of Morocco following "the footsteps of Maimonides." There in the old city of Fes is the Kairaouine Mosque, constructed in 857 C.E. and connected to what might be the oldest ongoing university in the world. Maimonides was a student there. In some ways, the city hasn't changed since his time. Donkeys still carry heavy loads of fabric on their backs through the narrow ancient streets just the way they did when he lived here.

But when you peer into the mosque, you can see the same poster that you see as you enter our synagogue: a picture of a cell phone with a line drawn through it. In the mosque, the Arabic words on the sign can be roughly translated as: "Please turn off your cell phones. Talk to God instead."

Some things never seem to change and are common the world over. People still gather for prayer. Imams, priests and rabbis give sermons. We want people to pay attention. How do we help people pay attention?

Sometimes we take risks, do something that might even be slightly transgressive. Consider for example these recent High Holy Days in our congregation, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, a large, almost 75-year-old Reform congregation in the middle of Beverly Hills. The opening words of my Rosh Hashana sermon, as I took my cell phone out of the pocket of my white robe, were: "Please do not turn off your cell phone."

There was stunned silence, then nervous laughter. "Yes, you heard me. Please do not turn off your cell phones. In fact, please take them out now. And if you have a Facebook or Twitter account, please log on."

The theme of all of our High Holy Day messages related to the existential question posed by God to the prophet Elijah in the Book of Judges: "What are you doing here?" "What are you doing here," we asked our congregants. "What are you doing here in the synagogue and here at this very moment in your life?"

So I gave the congregation an assignment right there in synagogue: "Please post your answer to the question 'What are you doing here?' in 140 characters or less."

In 140 characters. Characters, not words.

Many of them did, and the answers, because they were so short perhaps, were especially moving.

"I am in Temple Emanuel for Rosh Hashanah services sitting next to my adult children thinking about my own parents." (111 characters.)

"I am letting beautiful music wash over me and feeling a connection with Jews around the world." (91 characters)

"I am thinking about last year... not an easy year... financial challenges, health scares...I'm hoping this year will be better." (117 characters)

"I am looking for balance in my life. ( 36 characters.)

"I am trying to connect my soul to something deeper than just myself." (68 characters.)

Existential questions probably don't change. But the ways we challenge people to think about them do change over time. And new technology gives us new tools.

My colleague Rabbi Jonathan Aaron also took risks with technology for one of his sermons. He used a PowerPoint presentation to encourage people to think about what it means to be "here." It opened with an image of the chairs in our sanctuary, and then of the sanctuary building. Then the picture expanded to the city of Beverly Hills, then to the state of California. In each subsequent image the camera zoomed further and further away until eventually we saw the picture of the universe from the Hubble space craft.

It was as though we were seeing the universe through God's eyes, as it were. Suddenly everything looked different, including our own personal dramas that often keep us stuck in constricted places and keep us from seeing the bigger picture.

The Biblical story describes how Elijah discovered that bigger perspective not in an earthquake and not in a fire, but rather in a still small voice. Our congregation got a glimpse of it through PowerPoint, Facebook and Twitter.

The important questions never change. But new technology can help us pay attention -- and respond -- in different ways.

Crossposted to Welcome to the Next Level