Israel, Living in Jerusalem

This is About as Amateur Anthropology as you can Possibly Get

One of the highlights of this year living in Israel has been the Israel Seminar that takes place all day every Wednesday. In this class, we are engaged in the continual process of peeling back the layers of Israeli society, politics, history, and culture. As part of this class, I was recently sent with a team of fellow students out into the field to interview Israelis about their thoughts on local and national issues of importance.

Early in the morning a couple weeks ago, we boarded the train, taking the same route that the Ottomans used over a century ago to get to Jerusalem. We travelled to Beit Shemesh – a city about 30 km from Jerusalem – which over the past decade has been the focal point of tensions surrounding gender issues, immigrant rights, political corruption, and the relationship between Haredim and secular Jews.

Our goal was simple – speak with a diversity of people, ask them questions about their thoughts on the pressing issues of the day, and get it all on film. As our instructor slyly put it, “this is about as amateur anthropology as you can possibly get.”

You can watch our sheepish attempt at amateur anthropology (in Hebrew) up top. I’m working on getting English subtitles soon.

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Ideas, Judaism - General

Rabbi Google & Emergent Jewish Leadership

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“In an age when innovation is increasingly a group endeavor, [Google] also cares about a lot of soft skills — leadership, humility, collaboration, adaptability and loving to learn and re-learn. This will be true no matter where you go to work.”

Thomas Friedman, How to Get a Job at Google

Many of my fellow rabbinical students will often jokingly quip that we are training to enter an already redundant field, given how easy it is to google the answers to many Jewish questions, without the need to learn with or consult a rabbi in person.

Yes, Google has changed my job, making it more challenging in some ways. But Google is a visionary organization, and I’m not going to rant about how the internet has destroyed Jewish community life. Truth be told, the Jewish world could learn many lessons from Google’s forward-thinking perspective.

So here’s just one (or a few, really…)

The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman has a great piece outlining how Google goes about interviewing and selecting prospective employees [see: How to Get a Job at Google]. These are the things Google looks for:

  1. General Cognitive Abilitythe ability to process on the fly
  2. Emergent Leadershipthe ability to step in and out of leadership
  3. Humility & Ownership – the ability to embrace boldness, responsibility, and others’ ideas
  4. Intellectual Humilitythe ability to embrace failure

The number-one thing that Google doesn’t look for? Expertise.

Surprise! While much of the North American professional world is otherwise obsessed with stacking up institutional leadership experiences and traditional resume-building, Google’s model upends this notion. It is one from which the Jewish world could learn much. Here’s what I think we can borrow from them:

When Google speaks of General Cognitive Ability, they don’t mean how smart one is in terms of I.Q.; they’re looking for “the ability to process on the fly… to pull together disparate bits of information.” This is a great perspective on the power of liberal, progressive Judaism. There is value and power in learning from our texts, but Jewish leadership should not be solely concerned with amassing as much knowledge as possible; we must also be able to find meaning in all of the “bits” of modern existence, and quickly respond to the needs of our constituents. More on this, and the tension with accumulating knowledge, later…

Google presents Emergent Leadership in opposition to traditional models of leadership, which valued answering questions such as “Were you the president of the chess club? Were you the vice president of sales? How quickly did you get there?” Google doesn’t care about these things; they care about how one is able to face problems with the ability to step in and out of leadership roles appropriately. In this light, we should be less concerned with how quickly one rises to become Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, and more concerned with how quickly said Executive Director is able to make room for others to lead within the organization. We should be less concerned with filling traditional institutional roles just for the sake of maintaining continuity, and instead concern ourselves with the divine Jewish concept of tzimtzum – the ability to step back and make room for others to lead.

Moshe Rabbeinu – the Jewish leader exemplar – is our prime model of Humility and Ownership. Perhaps Google turned to him for inspiration, when they wrote about their valuing “the sense of responsibility [and] ownership to step in… and the humility to step back and embrace the better ideas of others.” Anavut (humility) goes hand-in-hand with the previous value of tzimtzum. We should be bold in our leadership, fostering personal and communal ownership of the role of Judaism in our lives. But we must also be humble, acknowledging that we do not have all the answers, and that there is a vast ocean of good Jewish ideas being brought to the world. Liberal Judaism doesn’t have all the answers to how to live life Jewishly; there is much we can learn from the ownership models of Orthodox Judaism and organizations outside the bounds of our own religion.

It seems to me that humility really drives much of Google’s model of leadership. Friedman’s article notes that Google isn’t just looking for humility in how people make room for others, they are looking for Intellectual Humility. Laszlo Bock, the Senior Vice President of People Operations for Google, aptly quotes that “Without humility, you are unable to learn.” Bock points to the fundamental error that many successful people are prone to: “If something good happens, it’s because I’m a genius. If something bad happens, it’s because someone’s an idiot or I didn’t get the resources or the market moved…”

How often do we rush to blame others for our own failures? As a result of his own greatest failure, Moshe Rabbeinu doesn’t get the greatest reward – the ability to enter into the Promised Land. But he ultimately embraces his failure and doesn’t try to blame others. Bock teaches us Google’s model of intellectual humility:

“What we’ve seen is that the people who are the most successful here, who we want to hire, will have a fierce position. They’ll argue like hell. They’ll be zealots about their point of view. But then you say, ‘here’s a new fact,’ and they’ll go, ‘Oh, well, that changes things; you’re right.’ ” You need a big ego and small ego in the same person at the same time.”

This embraces the same dichotomy of ownership and humility – we need Jewish leaders with big egos to present radical ideas on behalf of their communities. At the same time, we need these  leaders to be balanced with small egos so that when they fail, they can be open to failure, change their mind, and keep going.

How about Google’s least important value – expertise? In this respect, Google’s model sits in tension with Judaism, where we place great emphasis on learning and amassing untold amounts of textual knowledge. Google says:

“The expert will go: ‘I’ve seen this 100 times before; here’s what you do.’ Most of the time the nonexpert will come up with the same answer… because most of the time it’s not that hard.”

This doesn’t square well with Judaism’s focus on specific textual and ritual knowledge. As Jewish leaders, it is our responsibility to teach others how to become experts in their Jewish lives; how to maintain ownership of their Jewish lives. This most certainly involves encouraging expertise and excellence.

But we can take Google’s understanding of traditional expertise, and reframe it in a model of Jewish leadership that shows us how to approach those who are not yet experts. We can and should value Jewish expertise and hold it up as an aspirational value. It’s just that how we encourage others to get there is not via the traditional way; it is through Google’s four-pronged approach to hiring.

We should not merely encourage Jews to amass a resume full of textual knowledge. The old trope of “this is what Jews do” is increasingly meaningless to most Jews. We need more Jewish leaders who understand this, and who embrace a model of leadership that speaks to the ways in which Jews search for answers today.

Jewish spiritual leaders should embrace the concepts of a holistic, progressive paradigm (General Cognitive Ability),  tzimtzum (Emergent Leadership), anavut (Humility and Ownership), and the character of Moshe Rabbeinu (Intellectual Humility). 

In this way, we will encourage visionary ways of living Jewishly that can’t simply be found from Rabbi Google.

Judaism - Prayer

Where’s the Awe?

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From the moment I was first exposed to organizational Jewish life when my family joined a shul in 1991, I was immediately attracted to the phenomenon of Jewish prayer. Even at the age of eight, I found great delight and curiosity in our liturgy – in the meaning of the (at the time) strange Hebrew, the engaging melodies that my rabbi taught with her guitar and voice, and the power of a group of people sitting together and speaking (praying) as one voice.

From that point on, liturgy and the act of praying – both individually and communally – have been key foci of how I experience Jewish life. Whether through religious, spiritual, musical, or academic paradigms, I have continually been engaged in learning more about how Jews pray, and particularly with how Jews lead prayer.

Since that first spark at the age of eight, and now for close to two decades, I have explored many different types of Jewish prayer – Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Sephardi, French, English, Hebrew, egalitarian, non-egalitarian, partnership minyans, musical, silent, creative, and so-on… I love discovering new things about my relationship with prayers and praying, and I know how important it is for me to push myself to be open to new experiences and not be locked into a specific idea of what works for me. To be sure, that first prayer experience at the age of eight was a radically new phenomenon for me. At the same time, I also believe it important to be aware of what forms of prayer are personally meaningful, and for me to be able to pray in a way which is spiritually and religiously fulfilling.

This being the first time I have been in Israel throughout the chagim, I was anticipating with great excitement my being here for the pinnacle events of the Jewish calendar.

Because of this particular building up of anticipation, I am surprised with how I look back upon my experiences during the yamim noraim here in Israel. In retrospect, I didn’t experience much of my anticipated excitement. They just weren’t that awesome. Somewhat ironically, the pinnacle point for me was actually had in a basement classroom (more on that shortly).

Many of the services I was involved with throughout the chagim were ones that didn’t speak to me in a way that addressed my religious, spiritual, and liturgical needs. From my singing in the school’s choir on Rosh Hashana, to leading Yom Kippur services at the new Reform/Progressive community in Be’er Sheva, to attending Progressive services at Kehilat Birkat Shalom at Kibbutz Gezer on Simchat Torah, I had ample new opportunities, yet was often left feeling somewhat empty and unfulfilled by each of them. These just weren’t the serious and moving experiences I was looking for and expecting.

At HUC, the melodies and liturgy we prayed with were mostly in the same vein as those we had already been exposed to. In Be’er Sheva, I compromised my own desires for a longer, loftier Yom Kippur service for the sake of reaching out to an un-served community and being a part of a nascent progressive religious experience there. And at Gezer, I was disturbed by the community’s lack of reverence for the Torah during reading and hakafot, and the generally uninspiring rabbinic leadership; what was supposed to be z’man simchateinu seemed to me to be little more than stuff that needed to be said and things that needed to be done.

The most impacting worship experience I had was at Sod Siach – a traditional egalitarian minyan in Katamon. Worshipping in the rented space of a crowded, sweltering, basement classroom; praying with words from an Orthodox Union-embossed machzor, in a service led by tallit-enrobed women; praying entirely in Hebrew that was at times often challenging to me in content and syntax; I felt one of the most profound connections to God and prayer that I have yet had this year.

The Sod Siach experience satisfied me spiritually through the use of engaging and accessible music (yet without the guitar that I myself most often lead services with). It satisfied me intellectually in experiencing a uniquely organic Israeli community worshiping in a style that one often doesn’t associate with traditional Israeli Jewish prayer. And through the reverence of the community and willingness to engage with the machzor’s text, it satisfied me religiously in acknowledging the awesomeness and height of the holy day in a way I didn’t feel elsewhere.

And yet… as much as I was searching for a familiar prayer experience, Sod Siach probably couldn’t have been any further from my communities in New York and Toronto. To be sure, most other members of communities would likely have been utterly lost.

I do believe it’s important to state that I don’t view one style of prayer experience as more authentically Jewish than another style. But I do believe that a sophisticated and complex approach to Jewish liturgy and prayer is more authentic than a simplistic and more basic approach. Just as my relationship with Israel is nuanced and doesn’t avoid grappling with tougher issues facing Israeli society, I want to have an approach to Jewish prayer that is nuanced and doesn’t shy away from the more complex, challenging or difficult aspects of our liturgy.

In that light, I wrestle with finding the balance between having new prayer experiences that are less meaningful to me, and having meaningful prayer that are just more of the same week after week. I don’t want to fall into a comfortable, rote “this is how I pray” approach to worship, but I also can’t just treat prayer as an intellectual exercise. Something this important to me and to God needs to be held to a high standard that – ironically – I don’t always feel I am able to do while in rabbinical school!

This is one of my fears about becoming a rabbi. I know that I have a found an approach to prayer that is meaningful to me, even as I look forward to it growing throughout my schooling and indeed throughout my career. But how will I reconcile my own preferences with the regular need to lead and participate in differing styles of prayer? How do I square my progressive, open approach to Judaism with a particularist approach to prayer? How will I balance the needs of my future congregants with my own spiritual and religious needs? To be sure, this has been a significant factor in my general reluctance towards a congregation-based career.

These are questions and challenges that will most certainly remain unanswered for the foreseeable future. Perhaps that’s not such a terrible thing; I can  look forward to continuing to wrestle with them throughout my schooling.