27 December 2012

Working to Also Develop Employees' Jewish Identities

Since last summer, my approach to working with employees or others working with me was affected by reading a post on eJewish Philanthropy, which has changed my perspective on this matter greatly.  Previously, I thought that the staff/employees of an organization, such as a Hillel (as I work with) were there to serve, work with, and focus on developing & ameliorating the Jewish lives/journeys of the students.  (Of course, this can work in a variety of contexts, I'm just going with the example of a Hillel, since that is what I frequently see.)  However, after reading the piece, I realized that one can strive to help the employees in not only helping them along in their professional journeys (which directors and executive directors (and any other supervisors) should be doing anyways to not only be seeking to professionally ameliorate their employees while in their organization, but also since they want to help develop talent, which ultimately helps everybody in having more developed and aware employees), but also in their Jewish journeys.  
     Although this immediately manifested to me in working with our programming associate at Beach Hillel, I realized that this is true in other contexts, such as when I worked at a BBYO summer leadership program this summer, that the college students who were working there with us were not only fellow staff, but still very much on their own Jewish journeys who could use some shepherding in their own growth.  This is, by the way, totally not obvious.  In the way that the operations work there, all of the staff is focused on the participants. That's not a bad thing - it churns out great results!  However, why not take it a step further and develop those working in the Jewish organization?
      Okay, with all of the above, one thing that has struck me is that I wanted to simply link to the post in question.  However, I realized that my reading of the article (as I wrote above) was my take-away (my דרשה, if you will) of it (thus, why I'm writing this post, so I can explicate it).  The post was written by Jaime Walman, in the aftermath of the [shocking] closing of JDub (as part of a slew of posts on eJewish Philanthropy bemoaning its surprising demise (just search for JDub there)), describing some of her takeaways along the way working for JDub.  The piece, "Former JDub Professional Addresses Real Issues in Closing", includes her very important line, "JDub is an integral part of my own Jewish journey".  That line is important not only for Ms. Walman, but also in considering anybody's working with Jewish organizations, particularly for young adults (I know she brings up other issues, but I'm not getting into them [here]).  It comes at an important time in one's life for young adults, which is all the more true for emerging adults, many of whom - the Hillel world - work as engagement or even programming associates.  
     In sum, it is important for those working in Jewish organizations, especially those focusing on serving particular young people as their target audience/end-users to not lose sight of the bigger picture: developing and ameliorating the talents of the Jewish people.  If one has already hired someone (especially a young/emerging adult), then one is already committed to this person and believes in their talents, skills, and passion, not to mention investing the efforts of their organization in having this person work for them.  Moreover, the director/executive director (or whomever) are hopefully also endeavoring in seeking professional development and training them to be better professionals in their line of work. However, it is also important to invest in seeking to ameliorate that [young] person's Jewish identity in that process, since this person (it is fair to presume) chose to work in a Jewish organization because they appreciate what the Jewish communal world has to offer in ameliorating and helping them and other Jews along in their lives.

---- - On JDub's demise, see the pieces of Tamar Snyder in the Jewish Week, Jacob Berkman in the Forward, and Dan Brown in eJewish Philanthropy.
- Ms. Walman also brings up other issues at the end of her piece which are very important for Jewish communal organizations and Jewish communal professionals to consider.   She brings up "the question of sustainability of this type of work, and the aging-out that seems to inevitably be happening", continuing: "the salary, the hours, the lack of stability and the inability to have any separation between my personal and professional life … was not sustainable for me in the long run. The cost of Jewish living, if one chooses to do so, is astronomical and, at some point, the balance between my love and passion for my job was outweighed by the reality that I wouldn’t be able to support my family or have any time for them."  She pertinently queries: "How do we ensure that professionals working within these innovative organizations can continue to pursue their passions, inspiring other young Jews like themselves while also having sustainable careers?", concluding that "it’s an important point to consider as more and more founders move on from the organizations they started and staff changeover continues to increase."  I do not have the answers, but she raises deeply significant issues for the Jewish community to consider.

26 December 2012

Tribefest 2012

With other rabbis at Tribefest
With 2012 almost over, I realized I hadn’t yet written about one of the most memorable events I experienced this year. Nine months ago, I attended the second ever Tribefest in Las Vegas and it was a great time. I remember thinking on the drive back, that it was sad to think that the event was already over, seemingly almost as soon as it had begun (especially since I had been looking forward to it for a while). However, another person in the car pointed out that there was so much going on that it seemed like it had lasted a whole week and not just the few days it took place. 
A.J. Jacobs speaking hilariously in the opening "main event"
      TribeFest 2012 was the second such event produced by the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), with TribeFest 2011 preceding it, and, as much as it would be great for it to occur next year, it was announced recently that the next one will take place in 2014. But even though it was only the second such event, anyone there could tell it was well done, thought-out, and it had a sizable budget to match.  
     According to Jackie Menter, who wrote an article describing the first such Tribefest,
TribeFest is part of a profound shift in philosophy at JFNA toward engaging young adults in their 20s and 30s. Now, more than ever, a top priority at JFNA is outreach and engagement to maintain a steady flow of vibrant young Jews into the Federation movement. “JFNA has moved away from leadership development as a single agenda item,” Katz explains. Rather than jumping into leadership development, the new approach focuses on first attracting and engaging potential young leaders—a step in the process that Federations didn’t really have to work hard at in the past.
She continued: "JFNA realized that without the steady flow of new young adults being inspired to become Jewishly involved, the future of Cabinet, and Federation itself, would be bleak."  Basically, in order to have committed donors to the Jewish Federations, Jews need to not only understand what the Jewish Federations are and do, but also to understand the need and importance of giving to them and supporting them.  But, in order to do that, they need to appreciate the work of the Federations, which results from the appreciation and understanding of Jewish life and helping out one's fellow Jews.  However, before even that is reached, one needs to want to be involved in Jewish life and like being Jewish.  Thus, the work in reaching out to young adults: if these young adult Jews aren't connecting with Jewish life and/or Jewish Federations, it does not spell out a great future for Jewish Federations.  Thus, Tribefest is one such manifestation of this effort: exciting young adult Jews about Jewish life. 
With some other Long Beach folks
     The venue for Tribefest 2012 was the Venetian Conference Center, which was a very nice place and most of the attendees stayed in the attached Palazzo, which was also quite nice (and for all the people who had never stayed there before, were sure to look into staying there again and telling their friends about it). We've stayed there before, so we knew what to expect, but for those who hadn't been there before, were pleasantly surprised (it's amusing just to think about all the Jews who show up at a Jewish convention and are stifled in their complaining about the accommodations(!)).
Moshav Band performing one night during dinner
     Most of the elements of TribeFest were three: plenary sessions (which they called "main event" sessions), break-out sessions, and meals. There were also receptions and a service project, where attendees could read to young elementary school students. Of course, at nighttime, there were some parties, etc.   
      In the lunches, they had food, etc.; during dinners, they had musical performances on-stage along with booths of sponsoring organizations while dinner was served with open bars with quality spirits (vodka: Grey Goose, gin: Bombay Sapphire, tequila: Patron, Scotch: Glenlivet, Bourbon: Maker's Mark, etc.), which made for a great evening atmosphere.  What was really nice about the dinner schmoozing time was that it was a nice way to end the evening's activities as part of Tribefest, while allowing people plenty of time to go out and experience Las Vegas for the night.  Well done!
     In the break-out sessions, there were four time slots that offered ten different options as part of individual tracks. One of the tracks that was new was the clergy track, which was designed for rabbis and cantors. Although I initially was going to attend all four clergy track sessions (being a rabbi), I decided that the first couple ("Federations and Clergy: An Important Relationship" and "The Clergy's Voice") seemed lame, so I went to "Generation Change: How to Occupy Your (Jewish) Community Now!" and "NextGen in the Shark Tank" instead.  
David Cygielman, Miryam Rosenzweig and Stephen Hazan Arnoff
Shark Tank presentation with Sarah Lefton
      The first of these was really interesting, in which we got to hear from Stephen Hazan Arnoff of the 14th Street Y, David Cygielman of Moishe House, and Miryam Rosenzweig of NextGen Detroit speak about their respective organizations, which was great.  For me, Rosenzweig was really enthralling and I was shocked at how vibrant Detroit's Jewish Federation was for young people - that was inspiring to know that Jewish Federations can be relevant, exciting, and vibrant for young Jews!  The "NextGen in the Shark Tank" was okay: it featured organizations that were doing neat stuff, but I think it was mainly for people who hadn't heard of what they were doing, so it wasn't that fascinating for me.  I think the highlight for me of that session was seeing William Daroff tweet while being up on the panel.
     When I did attend the clergy track sessions, the first was  "Engaging those in their 20s and 30s" - no doubt, the perfect place to discuss this topic: amongst rabbis at a conference for 20s, 30s, and young 40s.  While I was expecting a discussion where mostly rabbis could get together and discuss challenges and opportunities with engaging Jews in their 20s and 30s, instead, the rabbis were a minority in the room, with a fair amount of engagement professionals there.  That was a shame - what I tremendously enjoy from rabbi-only conversations is that there is a higher level of discourse and a certain perspective that one seldom gets with non-rabbis. Moreover, the presentation was very synagogue-centric (by someone from Synagogue 3000, which makes sense) and there really wasn't much of a conversation about best practices for rabbis engaging with Jews in their 20s and 30s. So, I came away disappointed from that session, especially since part of the presentation was about how there was a young adults social group that got together and had some interaction with a rabbi and, on occasion, met at a synagogue.  One of the problems of making it synagogue-centric was that 20s and 30s are not only reticent to go to synagogues (unless they are married and/or have children), but that it didn't offer models for rabbis to go out and engage 20s and 30s nor did it offer some suggestions as to content to be discussed with them.  I was greatly frustrated with that session.
With Rabbi Jason Miller, who led "How To Get Our Message Out" session
      The other clergy track session I attended was "How To Get Our Message Out", which was primarily about social media: primarily Twitter, Facebook, and blogging.  It had primarily two groups of people in the room: people who were curious and/or newcomers to social media and those who used it a lot.  The conversation ended up taking place in two spheres: those who were curious asked questions, while those who used it a lot had a separate conversation on Twitter.  I think I was disappointed from the session, because I was hoping it could be about writing op-eds or other ways of really getting our message out there in the public sphere, rather than just social media posting.
      There really weren't many Orthodox/observant Jews there; I mostly saw them gather at davening, but most of those in attendance at the minyanim were the YU presidential fellows (which, by the way, was a good thing on the part of YU to send them, so congratulations to YU for having the vision to expose their fellows to a broader swath of young North American Jewry), which isn't a bad thing, but greatly reflects the lack of Orthodox attendance.  Obviously, one shouldn't expect Haredi, Yeshivish, or Hasidic Jews to be in attendance, but I would have expected more Modern Orthodox to be there.  I wonder what the factors are for the lack of my fellow Modern Orthodox Jews at Tribefest were, but I'm sure it makes for some great conversation....
A bunch of Long Beach folks at Tribefest
     My wife made a great observation: she noted that there was a noticeable lack of fellow Hillel staff.  This is particularly striking since not only are most Hillel staff members are perfectly situated in this age demographic, but they are also interested in the Jewish community.  Moreover, they could network with other young people serving in the Jewish communal world and the energy would have been perfect for them.  What serves to make this lack of Hillel staff attendance even more stark is that Hillel has made a big push for college students to be in attendance at recent JFNA General Assemblies (examples: 2010, 2009, etc.), but somehow the ball was dropped with regard to encouraging Hillel staff to attend JFNA's Tribefest, which would have been really tremendously helpful in recharging one's personal and professional batteries.  Moreover, why restrict it to encouraging Hillel staff?  We actually brought along two of our students to attend and they had an incredibly amazing time!  For future Tribefests, Hillels should be thinking about encouraging their older students and graduate students to attend.
Meeting a fellow tweeter in real life!
    I thought it was great having all of that Jewish energy there, albeit the tribal type, but one knew what one was signing up for.  It was entirely devoid of anything "Jewish" per se, content-wise, but I think that was to be expected.  Sometimes, it's nice to celebrate one's people.  Perhaps that's what also made it more enjoyable: it was certainly a lot less contentious than would it have involved discussions around Jewish content!    Also, there was some great weather – best that I’ve ever been there for, too bad we were mostly inside.  I am not usually given over to complaining about fabulous weather, but since we were inside for the most part, we could have had it any time of the year and, for that matter, it could’ve been anywhere in the country/continent.  Well, except that it wouldn't have had the Vegas excitement.  To be honest, Vegas is THE PLACE to have Tribefest - there's such a wonderful energy and there's always booze (which is great).  However, in speaking with someone else, she actually pointed out that having it in Vegas is strange with the gambling for two reasons: what does it mean that a Jewish organization is having an event take place where a lot of gambling takes place?  And, two, a fair amount of people leave the convention to take part in gambling or go there when not in the convention.  To be honest, I hadn't thought of these considerations (I don't care about gambling; I enjoy Vegas for other reasons).
     Lastly, it was also cool meeting other tweeters, some for the first time in real life and some to catch up with. It was good having parallel twitter conversations with the others there and beyond.  And, apparently, I enjoyed it so much that I ended up being one of the top tweeters there!
     I really enjoyed Tribefest and hope the next one is also another great experience!  It really fulfilled my high expectations :)

25 December 2012

What I Enjoy Most About Visiting Las Vegas

In Las Vegas with Eiffel Tower replica behind us
Before moving out to Southern California, my wife and I had never been to Las Vegas. After spending the majority of our first year here, we finally ventured out to Vegas. Although the temperatures were 100 degrees and above, it was still a great time. It wasn't the gambling though: we did play the penny slots, but we actually broke even (or came out ahead (ended up $2 ahead from the penny slots, but used each of those dollars for tips for drinks from the waitresses who came around to the penny slots)). 
        We've been there several times since then, including four visits within the first eight months of this year (but none since).  Since neither my wife nor me are interested in gambling, the question comes up in conversation: what do we enjoy about visiting Las Vegas? 
       I can pinpoint three primary reasons: 1) The energy, 2) The aesthetics, and 3) The alcohol. There is such a great energy in Las Vegas and one can feel it just walking around. Perhaps some of it is carried with someone as they think back to the movies and television shows they've seen, and perhaps some of it is "in the air".  The aesthetics need very little description except to say that there are so many wonderful looking hotels and malls around - it's a great place just to look at the architecture.  Needless to say, these buildings add a great deal of energy to being there.  
Holding a really excellent bourbon-based cocktail
     Lastly, since I am not into gambling, nor do we go to the clubs (I've only ever been there as a married man (and a father) and have always gone to Vegas with my wife), nor do we go to shows much there (which cost a pretty penny), I enjoy Las Vegas for the alcohol.  While the alcohol there is no different than anywhere else, there are three primary things I look for: 1) I play a game called 'Find the Cheapest Booze' - I am not into finding just any alcohol, so let's look to see what competition does and see how it can benefit me, the customer.  2) It's nice to look for fun alcohol containers, such as the half-yards, yards, etc.  3) Lastly, Las Vegas is the place to go for new and exciting cocktails.  On our last trip to Vegas, I discovered a really excellent cocktail.
      Although I am missing going to Las Vegas, my wife says she is tiring of it, but there will be a time when I get to return :)

13 December 2012

Philanthropic Considerations #4: Ruth Messinger Believes We Should Discuss Our Giving

Last week, I had the opportunity to hear Ruth Messinger speak at a conference, where she spoke initially about the new direction of American Jewish World Service.  In the question and answer session that followed her speech, there was a point when she shared her observations about the lack of discussion amongst people about where they give philanthropically, even bemoaning the lack of discourse about this important topic.  I was glad she brought it up, since I had previously brought up the topic of the lack of conversation about it and was glad someone with the stature such as Ruth Messinger discussed it.  Here are her remarks:

10 December 2012

Pirsumei Nisa in the Babylonian Talmud: Who Uses פרסומי ניסא?

With today being the second day of Hanukah, one of the terms tossed around at this time of year is "פרסומי ניסא" (pirsumei nisa), "publicization of the miracle".  Last year before Hanukah, I was befuddled, when looking at the section in the Babylonian Talmud and discovered that none of the Tannaitic texts discussed the purpose of candle-lighting for the holiday!  And I looked at the amoraic texts that followed and still didn't uncover a reason.  When I mentioned this befuddlement to some other rabbis, they said that it was brought up on Shabbat 23b.  I realized I had missed the statement of Rava there querying about a halakhic matter, wherein he mentioned that miracle publicization seemed to be the function of candle-lighting.  I thought (and still) thought it was a bit strange that only in a by-the-way mention in the Talmud is the purpose of candle-lighting brought up for Hanukah.  Nevertheless, it's there and by one of the most significant Talmudic rabbis.  
It is still worthy of consideration to see how frequently and who uses the term in the Babylonian Talmud.
The first time פרסומי ניסא is brought up is by Ahi, a tanna at Rabbi Hiyya's school, inquiring of Rabbi Hiyya with regards to interrupting either reciting Hallel or reading the megillah (Berakhot 14a).  
However, after that, Rava is the primary mentioner of פרסומי ניסא.  He, too, uses the term with regards to reading of the megillah (Megillah 3b).*  He also is the only person in the Talmud to use the term with reference to Hanukah.  He uses it in regard to lighting the Hanukah lamp  (Shabbat 23b), which is particularly remarkable since there is no other mention of this principle in the Babylonian Talmud with regard to lighting the Hanukah lamp.  There were people in his generation who inquired whether or not to make mention of Hanukah in the Grace After Meals and Rava was able to respond to them, quoting Rav Sehora, in turn quoting Rav Huna (Shabbat 24a).
The one other time the term is used in the Babylonian Talmud is by the one of the stammaim in reference to the four cups of the Passover seder (Pesahim 112b)

* In this reference, Rava asks a מהו question, weighing up two different possibilities, eventually deciding on one of the possibilities.  In this vein, the Talmud uses the term הדר פשטה.  This term is used in reference to a question (בעי usually) eighteen times throughout the Babylonian Talmud.  Of these eighteen times, the Talmud uses it twelve times in reference to Rava (BB 175a, BK 53b, BK 105a (2x), BK 110b, BK 96a, Gittin 29b-30a, Gittin 83b-84a, Zevahim 98a-98b, Megillah 3b, Menahot 7b, & Sanhedrin 10a).  So, it would seem that, for whatever reason, Rava is found commonly to be asking a question and going back over it and making a decision.  The other six mentions are used with Rabbah (BK 27a), Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish (Kiddushin 9a-9b & Kiddushin 48a), Rabbi Elazar (Zevahim 105a), Rav Oshia (Hullin 126b), and Rabbi Abba (Gittin 82b).

02 December 2012

Reflections from My Experience at the 2nd AJWS RSD Alumni Institute

Today, I am heading up to Brandeis-Bardin Institute for the third ever American Jewish World Service's Rabbinical Students Delegation Alumni Institute.  Having attended the second ever Rabbinical Students Delegation (RSD) in January 2005 to El Salvador, I am eligible to attend the Alumni Institute (AI).  I have also attended the previous one, which was held in February 2011 at the Pearlstone Retreat Center.  I realized that I had not yet posted about my experience at that RSD AI (unless you consider writing a piece about it in my work newsletter), so even though it took place 21 months ago, this is a good time to finally do so.
Ruth Messinger speaking
     Let me start off with the facilities: it was my second time at Pearlstone and, once again, I enjoyed it and the food.  As I mentioned after having attended the 2010 IRF conference, it "was a very lovely facility - I would definitely like to return there for any conference, it was just that pleasant."  And, thanks to the folks of AJWS of selecting the location and the financial enabling by the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust which sponsored the institute (including our travel (I was, however, frustrated that our travel was provided for, but not our luggage)), we were able to enjoy Pearlstone.
     For me, it had been six years since I had gone on the trip when I attended the institute and it had seemed like a long time had passed (many things in my life had changed).  And even though I had remembered some elements of the trip, it seemed like it was fresher in-mind for most of the attendees, who had attended in the previous few years.  
     I found some of the demographics to be interesting:
           - Obviously, the Orthodox attendees were in the minority, but that's more of a given at AJWS events, so it really wasn't noteworthy, per se
           - Most of the attendees were women
           - Many were not only married, but parents, as well (I wonder if that's because we're rabbis)
           - For many, social justice was an assumed value (it might have been thoughtful to have a discussion on its importance – unless that was too basic)
Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda speaking
     I mentioned earlier my giving props to the AJWS staff for selecting the location; I also have to add that they were great, as usual.  I must say that AJWS hires not only great people, but also very enthusiastic and spirited folks.  Now multiple that: you've got a cadre of some cool people with great energy and that's always a great asset to any conference!
     Okay, now on to more substance!  There were a several speakers on multiple topics, which were helpful, such as AJWS' development* fundraising officer, Leah Weinstein, speaking on fundraising, which were tremendously helpful to me (and my work).  My primary take-away that people give very seldom for an ideological connection, but rather give mostly for emotional connection and personal connection to the recipient.  Another speaker that was particularly excellent was Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, of the Rozaria Memorial Trust, which was great from whom to hear, since we got to hear first-hand from an AJWS grantee.  Being from Zimbabwe, we (or at least I) found it fascinating to hear about the changes in Zimbabwe since Robert Mugabe took power (especially that he did good things for the country for years, before it went downhill).
Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky speaking
     But the headliners of the AI were the two scholars-in-residence and they were excellent!  The first of the two was Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky and it was great to hear from him.  For me, I particularly enjoyed hearing another liberal Modern Orthodox rabbi speak and have around as I am seldom around people of similar ideological bents, let alone someone who is so knowledgeable, not to mention passionate.  Beyond that, his talks were good and a highlight was hearing from him how his synagogue got involved helping out in the nearby area – it could’ve just been an obvious thing that that was something he just did, but it took work.
     But it was the other headliner that stole the show for me.  
     By far, the highlight of the conference was hearing from Dr. Erica Brown, who I had never heard speak before, but I found that she had such amazing wisdom to teach that I found myself hanging on every word of hers!  I, however, am not the first person to be amazed by her: she was written up about in the New York Times only two months previously!
Dr. Erica Brown speaking
     She spoke on "Difficult Conversations", "Creating Board Effectiveness", and "Tikkun Olam: Creating A Language of Change", all of which were utterly fantastically amazing.  Needless to say, I took copious notes, running over multiple pages!  What was so impressive wasn't just Dr. Brown's speaking on the topics themselves, but that she could’ve spoken on anything tremendously well – she was well-read on the topics under discussion, even offering a few books to read for each topic.  She was such an engaging speaker – I remember even trying to listen specifically for any filler words she used and couldn't detect one!
      Furthermore, on the topics of which she spoke, she had not only concrete information to teach us, but great explanations of them.  It was totally helpful.  In fact, as one student who thanked her at the end (not me) said, this stuff is not only important and helpful now, but it will probably be material we will find helpful twenty years now down the road.  I now wonder when I will be able to hear her speak again!
      In conclusion, I enjoyed my time at the second AJWS RSD AI and am looking forward to the third one starting today!
*I'm not a fan of calling it "development"