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Between the Forest and the Tree: Undertaking the Major Task of Culture Change

At the end of 2018, Foundation for Jewish Camp concluded the first cohort of the Hiddur Initiative. Funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation, Maimonides Fund, and The AVI CHAI Foundation, the Hiddur Initiative was a pilot experiment to help eight Jewish overnight summer camps become more effective at delivering Jewish educational experiences to their campers and staff, in ways that align with each camp’s unique Jewish mission. In reflecting on this demonstration project, I realize that Peter Senge, the change management guru, was right when he said, “People don’t resist change. They resist being changed!” Two stories from camps about the challenges and opportunities change provides offer insights into the experience of the Hiddur Initiative. Interestingly, both stories are about trees, which model the delicate balance of permanence and growth.

The first story goes that there was a new camp director at his first summer at camp. When he got there he was disturbed to discover a “gum tree” – a tree where all of the campers and staff would put their gum before Shabbat prayer. Feeling that this was gross and unsightly, he had the groundskeeper cut down the tree before the second Shabbat of the summer. Often, when people tell this story, they claim that the director was fired before the tree hit the ground. The tree was a part of their camp culture, and the camp director had broken their trust by cutting it down without consulting anyone from the community who could have helped him understand its significance. While there is a time and place for quick, responsive adjustments or shifts in policies and procedures, we do it at our own peril if we are not conscious and conscientious of the cultural context. In order to bring about change we need to have reverence for tradition.

The second story comes from Helene Drobenare, the longtime director of Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake. Once, when asked about the secret to her success in leadership, she told a story about a trip up to URJ Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) in the winter early in her career. As she tells it, she and Jerry Kaye, the legendary director, were driving around camp and he stopped and made them get out of the car. It was freezing cold and all she could see was a thick forest of trees. Not understanding the significance of this moment, Helene asked Jerry what they were doing. He pulled out an old large map. Jerry said, “Look at this. It is the map of OSRUI from when I took over as the director.” Pointing out where they were standing, he continued, “See right here, this was an open field, but I wanted it to be a forest.” When Jerry retired last year he had been the director at OSRUI for close to half a century, and he’d left a thick forest as part of his legacy.

Between the two stories of two trees we can understand a profound lesson of change management. Camp maintains a depth of culture founded on a utopian sense of tradition. While short term wins are important, there are no shortcuts to changing culture. We can do almost anything we can imagine in a community or an organization as long as we have respect for the tradition we have inherited, have a clear vision for the future, and have the grit, gumption, and patience to see that field become a lush forest.

Laying the Groundwork for Meaningful Change
Each of the eight camps was asked to set goals for change with their Hiddur coaches, who were expert Jewish camp educators, so that, critically, the process was internally motivated. To help create this motivation, Hiddur coaches introduced camp leaders to a deeper use of data so they could see and understand the impact and outcomes their actions were having. As Brian Schreiber, President & CEO of JCC of Greater Pittsburgh, which owns Emma Kaufmann Camp (EKC) said:

You can’t build a great Jewish camp without building a great camp and we had to take data seriously to do that. The CSI (Camper Satisfaction Insights) and SSI (Staff Satisfaction Insights) data led to a lot of soul-searching, change and a detailed intense three-year strategic plan for EKC. Hiddur helped us uncover some areas we needed to focus on and pilot programs often are at the edge of the R & D that this field needs. If Hiddur was designed as a catalyst to do more, the pilot achieved its goal at EKC 100%.

By approaching this process with a coach in a strategic, data-informed way, camp leaders felt empowered to make decisions about what should—and should not—be changed.  Creating change, as the evaluation on Hiddur affirms, often is a sensitive and difficult endeavor. But if people see that change is necessary to fulfill the mission, people are more likely to support it. Hiddur gave space for camp leaders to map out where they wanted to keep the fields as they were, what needed to be chopped down, and where they wanted to seed forests.

Camp leaders, for example, whose camps had a stated set of Jewish educational tenets or objectives began Hiddur by reviewing that list to see what was and was not aligned in practice.  How could those stated principles be refreshed and better expressed in action? Returning to those initial intentions created that essential internal motivation among the camp’s stakeholders and cemented the commitment to the process. No one was cutting down any “gum trees”; they were restoring their camp to their core values.  B’nai B’rith (BB) Camp, for example, worked with its Hiddur coach to articulate goals based on their B’nai B’rith brand and culture. Much of the “culture” in this case was already defined; they had a sense of what they wanted to preserve. But they also wanted to increase camp-wide participation in Jewish life. To this end, they created a pre-camp Shabbaton for staff and teen leaders aimed at getting a core group of camp influencers on board and inspired by the Jewish life enhancements. Now, BB Camp Shabbat is led for the first time by a team of home grown song leaders and community educators who have developed tunes, dances and rituals that are unique to their camp.

Independent camps not affiliated with a denomination or movement face a particular challenge—a lack of a built-in framework—when trying to define their “camp culture” of Jewish education. Asking any organization to start with reflection instead of “doing” can be a challenge, but this is what Hiddur asked of its cohort. Only then could coaches and camp leaders together create a path for the camp to identify their brand as a Jewish camp. One independent camp in the initiative reflected:

In 2016 we did not have a framing for Judaism at camp. Hiddur helped us lay out who we are as a Jewish camp, what does it mean to be a Jewish camp, how do we identify to Jewish community as a Jewish camp. Creating our core Jewish values was helpful in how we framed Jewish life at camp. Before, we were making it up as we went along.

Outside Help Moves the Change Process Forward—Slowly
Creating change is an easier process with outside facilitation and help. Since the pull to “do what we have always done” competes with vision and aspirations for improvement, having a coach to provide gentle reminders and a guide back to camps’ own stated goals is a difference-maker. The Hiddur coaches facilitated reflection on and evaluation of the process intermittently, talking through the change, addressing some of the camp leaders’ discomfort, and providing camps a way to “consult the map” along the way. The coaches were able to help these communities define and refine for themselves their own Jewish brand, programming, and messaging.

At the same time, a paramount learning here is that real change takes time. An initiative meant to facilitate change must provide a framework that accounts for this. Rather than ask camps to commit to an unrealistic measurable change over one camp season, Hiddur was a three year program (and even that amount of time proved to be too short to execute and see all of the changes that these camps envisioned). By setting a longer time-horizon, camps could dream big and work slowly at change. While we are confident that we could make the process shorter than three years, there are no shortcuts to culture change. Now, after a year since Hiddur concluded, FJC is eager to bring a tighter version of this model of coaching to more camps.

John F. Kennedy said, “Change is the law of life and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” Brian Schreiber from Pittsburgh articulated the unique role of the Hiddur team in this challenging change process: “Three years ago we knew we were good, but not great. We wanted to up the game on Jewish life, but didn’t have the right people or focus to make it happen. Hiddur gave us direction, justification for making change and made us intentional about everything we do when it comes to Jewish life at camp and this entire agency.” With Hiddur, we at FJC are thrilled to see the emergence of wonderful forests of Jewish life at each of these camps. From where we sit, in all of our work we know that we cannot lose sight of the majestic forests for a “gum tree.”

– Read the full evaluation conducted by Rosov Consulting, Beautification and Exploration: Evaluating Three Years of the Hiddur Initiative.

– Reposted from Jim Joseph Foundation 

 

Big Bird z”l: A Little Torah in Memory of Caroll Spinney

Caroll Spinney, the legendary actor and puppeteer who portrayed Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street over five decades, died Sunday at age 85. Originally designed by a drawing from Jim Henson and built by Kermit Love in 1969 Big Bird was the iconic central character from Sesame Street. This huge yellow bird was bigger than life and at the same time a surrogate through which the children watching the show could understand the world being introduced to them through the television. Here is a fitting tribute to Spinney.

 

His passing gives me pause to reflect on the impact of Big Bird and Sesame Street has had on the world.

I also pause to reflect on another legendary bird, this one comes from Jewish mythology. Bar-Yokhani was a colossal bird which was believed to have a wingspan large enough to block out the sun. In the Talmud we learn:

Rabbi Yishmael ben Satriel also testified before Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi: Once an egg of the bird called bar yokhani fell, and the contents of the egg drowned sixty cities and broke three hundred cedar trees. The Gemara asks: And does the bar yokhani bird throw its eggs to the ground? But isn’t it written: “The kenaf renanim bird rejoices, but are her wings and feathers those of the stork? For she leaves her eggs on the earth, and warms them in dust” (Job 39:13–14)? The Sages understood that kenaf renanim is another name for the bar yokhani bird. If so, how could its egg fall if it lays its eggs on the ground? Rav Ashi said in explanation: That egg was unfertilized, and since it would never hatch the bird threw it to the ground. ( Bekhorot 57b)

Now that is another big bird. It is a powerful image of the impact that a simple but big idea could have on people.

Caroll Spinney’s passing is the end of an era. It is a sad day. It is a bad day. As Big Bird taught us:

Bad days happen to everyone, but when one happens to you, just keep doing your best and never let a bad day make you feel bad about yourself.

Big Big made us feel good about ourselves without ignoring these bad days. May Caroll Spinney’s memory be for a blessing. 

The Sound of Deep Empathy: Thoughts on the Rise of Antisemitism and the Sound of the Shofar

In getting ready for Rosh HaShanah I have been giving some thought to the strange year which was 5779. From the shouting in synagogues to demagoguery in the White House is has been a tough year. One thing that stands out this year is a rise is antisemitism domestically and abroad. From political antisemitism like Corbyn’s Labour Party and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to the physical violence we saw in Pittsburgh and Poway as Jewish people we find ourselves being hated by the left, the right, all over the world. From Cohen to Kushner and Adam Schiff to Volodymyr Zelensky we are in the thick of much of our current crisis. While no one knows how this will all go, it does not take the Vilna Gaon to realize that this will not ends well for us. Given the current context it is hard to imagine the scenario in which we will not be blamed.

Since the advent of Elul I have been thinking about this resurgence of antisemitism in the context of the daily blowing of the shofar? All of these blasts are leading us to Rosh HaShanah which is filled with the blowing the Shofar. And why do we blow Shofar on Rosh HaShanah? On one level we could see that Rosh HaShanah is the trumpets announcing God’s coronation. Is Rosh HaShanah just another expression of nationalism? How is our celebration of our King with shofar blasts categorically different from any other jingoism? Is it so different from China’s celebration of 70 years of communism with all of the tanks and missiles on display?

In fact there are a number of different reasons given for blowing shofar on Rosh HaShanah. One of the more interesting reasons comes from a discussion in Gemara of Rosh HaShanah where the Rabbis were trying to determine the length of time a shofar blast should last. The Mishnah suggest  that a terua should be equal to the length of three whimpers. There we learn:

Isn’t it taught in a baraita that the length of a terua is equal to the length of three shevarim, i.e., broken blasts, which presumably are longer than whimpers? Abaye said: In this matter, the tanna’im certainly disagree. Although the first baraita can be reconciled with the mishna, this second baraita clearly reflects a dispute. As it is written: “It is a day of sounding [terua] the shofar to you”(Numbers 29:1), and we translate this verse in Aramaic as: It is a day of yevava to you. And to define a yevava, the Gemara quotes a verse that is written about the mother of Sisera: “Through the window she looked forth and wailed [vateyabev], the mother of Sisera” (Judges 5:28). One Sage, the tanna of the baraita, holds that this means moanings, broken sighs, as in the blasts called shevarim. And one Sage, the tanna of the mishna, holds that it means whimpers, as in the short blasts called teruot. (Rosh HaShanah 33b)

Simply to quote Numbers and say we blow shofar on Rosh HaShanah because it is the day of blowing shofar is tautology and does not add much insight. In comparison it is interesting to make the connection to the wailing of  Sisera’s mother. As we learn in the book of Judges, Sisera commanded nine hundred iron chariots and oppressed the Israelites for twenty years. After the prophetess Deborah persuaded Barak to face Sisera in battle, they, with an Israelite force of ten thousand, defeated him at the Battle of Mount Tabor. After losing the battle, Sisera fled to a settlement where he was received by Yael. She brought him into her tent with apparent hospitality and gave him milk. Yael promised to hide Sisera and covered him with a rug; but after he fell asleep, she drove a tent-peg through his temple with a mallet, her blow being so forceful that the peg pinned his head to the ground. After this we read:

Through the window peered Sisera’s mother, Behind the lattice she whined: “Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why so late the clatter of his wheels?”  (Judge 5:28)

It is strange enough that the Bible depicts this general’s mother there at the window watching her son die, but it seems even more peculiar that we evoke the sound of the mother of our enemy on Rosh HaShanah. Why?

Image result for empathy

While it is easy to relate with our family, community memberd, or those who are like us, it can hard to empathize with those that are different from us. Hearing to the voice of the mother of an antisemite in the sound of the shofar can help us build a profound foundation of empathy. We can never forget that every child regardless of what they turn into or do started life with a parent who loved them. So yes we need to call our and confront antisemitism in any form and from any source, but even with this vigilance we cannot forget that even Sisera had a mother who deserves our empathy. If we can hear that voice we can build on that love. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” We will not uproot antisemitism with more hedonistic hatred or nihilistic nationalism. The sound of the shofar is an invitation for us to cut through the darkness and build on the light of empathy. On Rosh HaShanah, the Day of Judgement, we must work hard and unearth ahavat chinam, a love without cause.  We need to construct a foundation of universal and deep empathy upon which we can build a better world. If we can do this we will be judged favorably in 5780.

Shanah Tova. Maybe all be blessed to do our part to build a foundation of universal and deep empathy.

Yahrzeit for 9/11

The 23rd of Elul is the 18th Yahrzeit of 9/11. Where were you when you heard about the Twin Towers being hit? Where were you when you realized we were under attack? These are moments we will never forget. This series of four coordinated terrorist attacks killed 2,977 people and changed the world as we  knew it. For many of us, 9/11 is formative to the people we are today.

We are two professionals, partners, and parents jointly committed to strengthening institutions of Jewish Life. Adina has spent much of her career working in Jewish Federations on behalf of synagogues and more recently day schools and strengthening the pipeline of professionals in Jewish communal organizations, Avi has spent his career working at a national umbrella on behalf of camps and on a college campus. As we recall that inauspicious day, each of us found ourselves taking solace in institutions. When the plane hit the first tower, Avi was in the basement of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Adina had just come out of the subway on her way to HUC cantorial school after the second tower was hit, catching a horrifying glimpse of the first tower crumbling. While both of us had already chosen paths of  Jewish communal life to make an impact, in the days that followed 9/11 we were inspired by the heroes who were driven to fix this broken world and we recommitted ourselves to doing our part through our sacred communal service. 

We pause today to take stock of who we are as individuals, the blessings of our family and our community, and what we have become as a nation. Looking back 18 years we shutter to realize that this year the 9/11 babies born after this fateful day will go to college. The junior counselors in our camps who will be looking after our children were born into this new reality. Like our own kids, this generation will only know a post 9/11 world. 

As we think about what will become of the legacy of the institutions of Jewish life that we inherited, we must note the poignancy that to this next generation, 9/11 is their legacy. On a visceral level this generation will have a radically different orientation to brick and mortar buildings, to the value of community, and to the causes that matter.  We must recognize that 9/11 represents a radical paradigm shift, especially for a generation for whom active shooter drills are the norm and the daily effects of global warming remind them of the fragility of their future. They are a generation living with existential and physical angst; where will they seek comfort? As we learn in Psalms 121:1, “I lift my eyes to the mountains, from whence shall my help come?” Our daily work is informed by the need to radically rethink our institutions, so that the next generation continues to find comfort, be motivated and inspired by Jewish life. 

 

Cantor Adina H. Frydman is the Executive Director of Community Resources at UJA-Federation of New York. Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow is the Vice President of Innovation and Education at the Foundation for Jewish Camp. Together, they are the proud parents of four children born after 9/11.

* reposted from ejewishphilanthropy.com

Little Birdy: Emunah and Protecting Our Children

Today in the 13th of Elul. It is the Hebrew birthday of our daughter Emunah. Today she is 10 years old. I marvel to see the young woman that is growing up in front of our eyes. We were particularly moved to see how much she changed after a month at camp this summer. Emunah is becoming a better little sister to her two brothers and a nurturing big sister to Libi. She is curious, caring, loving,and resilient.  Here is a picture of her from when our little angel was just one:

Her birthday marks my writing this blog for 10 years. I take pause today to think ahead to what the next stage of parenting Emunah will look like for us.

In thinking about this I think about Ki Tetzei , this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life. When you build a new house, make a fence around your roof so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof. (Deuteronomy 22:6-8

First there is a law about sending away the mother bird from her nest before taking her eggs. Then we are mandated to build a fence around the roof of our houses. This juxtaposition brings interesting things to light. We see the mother bird defending her nest and then we are instructed to be like the bird and make a safer nest on our roofs to defend our young.

Once we make that connection and empathize with the mother bird, we are left asking ourselves a number of questions. How could we ever take the egg or young from the mother bird in the first place? What does it mean for us as parents toward our children?  Are we the problem or the solution to the child’s development? Are we the aggressor who is taking the eggs or the builder of fences there to protect our child? If we externalized the aggressor and focus on the risks in the world, how do we best prepare the child for this dangerous world? Are we victims to the whim of men our children might meet on the path or are we builder of fences to keep them locked up and safe? Of is there another model? One thing is clear that parenting is filled with many questions and not that many answers.

Happy Birthday Emunah. Thank you Adina for bringing this miracle into the world and partnering in parenting her. We will do what we can to raise our little birdy.  And here is to another 10 years of writing.

Worthy Reward: The Trading of Mitzvot

At the start of Parshat Eikev, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the benefits of keeping the commandments. There we read:

וְהָיָ֣ה עֵ֣קֶב-And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, the Lord your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that God made on oath with your fathers (Deuteronomy 7:12)

The simple reading of this is that obedience will be rewarded by God. But, what is the reward?

On this passage from our Torah portion Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev comments:

It is an accepted principle that the “so-‎called” reward that God grants us for performing the ‎commandments of the Torah is the least of all the pleasures that ‎we will experience. The major pleasure is the satisfaction we ‎derive from having been able to give the Creator a feeling of ‎satisfaction that God created mankind, and that at least part of ‎mankind, Israel, has seen fit to acknowledge this. This is what the ‎‎Mishna in Avot 4:2 meant when the author states that ‎שֶׁשְּׂכַר מִצְוָה, מִצְוָה the true reward for performing the commandments is the ‎commandment itself. When we reflect on the significance of the ‎performance of the commandment we will realize that having ‎performed it was an unparalleled pleasure. Even the reward that ‎God has “saved up” for us in the hereafter pales into insignificance ‎when compared to the satisfaction of having been able to provide ‎‎God with pleasure.‎ This is what Moshe had in mind when he described the ‎‎mitzvah performance with the word ‎עקב‎ in our verse above. ‎This word, meaning “heel,” when used elsewhere in Scripture, is ‎used by Moshe to describe the minute part of the pleasure that ‎God’s “reward” provides for us when we compare it with the ‎pleasure we provided for ourselves by having been the ‎instrument to please the Creator.‎ (Kedushat Levi, Deuteronomy, Eikev 1)

In this sense the Kedushat Levi  is saying that the reward for our obedience is that God gets the reward . He also offers this idea that the essence of this “heel” of עקב is that the true reward for performing the commandments is the ‎commandment itself. Neither seems to be accessible rewards to me.

These words שֶׁשְּׂכַר מִצְוָה, מִצְוָה are featured in this amazing music video by Mordechai Shapiro:

Besides being a crazy catchy song and having the video be filmed at camp ( Morasha), I love this video because it takes the notion of שֶׁשְּׂכַר מִצְוָה, מִצְוָה in a little different direction. It is not just that your doing a mitzvah is its own reward, or as the Mishna in Avot says, Mitzah Goreret Mitzvah, that it will lead to your doing more mitzvot. Rather, the video explores a paying-it-forward notion. In this sense the reward of your doing a mitzvah is that it will lead to someone else’s doing a mitzvah.

I was thinking about this idea of Mitzah Goreret Mitzvah being a notion of paying-it-forward recently when talking with my colleague Jonah Wagan. He showed up to work complaining about Chabad Shaliach asking him again to put on Tfilin. I asked him if he objected to this practice. Jonah replied that he did not mind it, it was just that the interaction felt yucky. In conversation we explored the idea of what might change if he could enter into the interaction as an equal. So the next time he was asked to do this mitzvah with a Chabad Shaliach he resolved to offer the Shaliach the opportunity to do a Mitvah that was meaningful to him with him. Now Jonah is thrilled to do this mitzvah of putting on Tfilin as he does the mitzvah of raising money from the Shaliach for EschelMitzah Goreret Mitzvah; they trade mitvot. In so doing they enjoin each other to do more for the world.

I would encourage each of us to explore putting on Tfilin, supporting the holy work of  Eschel, or what ever might be your signature mitzvah. And then I think we should think about trading them with each other. If you join me in doing my mitzvah I will gladly join you in doing your mitzvah. In this trading mitzvot framework the “heel” of עקב  it the first step in a collaborative journey of equals to create a common path ( read here the literal meaning of the word Halachah) and fix the world. Now that seems like is a worthy reward.

 

Taking Liberty with Lady Liberty

Today’s Cartoon from the New York Times Magazine by Peter Kuper reminds me of this post I wrote a month ago: 

Seen This One Before: The Border Crisis, the Three Weeks, and My Father with a cartoon from October 1946. Here is from today:

This is from 73 years ago:

Sadly the more things change the more they stay the same. Enough already with the effort to Make America Great Again, first we need to work for a society that is profoundly good. Let’s learn to walk before we try to run.


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