Dear friends and colleagues,
When I started in my position just a month and a half ago, the world was a different place. My big ambition for my first year was to lead us through a strategic planning and business modeling process that would result in a rearticulated vision, mission, and strategy with a multi-year business plan. My assumption was that we would secure new funding for that project this spring, start the process in the summer, and complete it by a year from now.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the cessation of most normal activity, and what will be a major economic recession, I feel like we can plan about as far as lunchtime. If we needed any reminder of the limits of our power as human beings and the fragility of life on the planet we share, I think we can unequivocally say: Message received and understood.
IJS has all of the building blocks we need to weather the storm. Most important, have something of great value to offer: Our Torah and the people who teach it. Our Torah includes not only concepts and ideas but, crucially, 1) practices that respond to the challenges of the moment and reach the most innermost parts of our lives, and 2) community that can be experienced even in isolation. These differentiate us from many other organizations. Beyond that, we have great admiration, loyalty, and love among those who know us. We have a board and funders who are committed to us. And we have a staff team that knows how to work together and is proving agile and nimble, which we must be right now.
Yet the moment demands that we articulate who we are and what we do at this crucial moment, in this world that has been turned upside down. So here is our response to that challenge.
IJS’s mission right now is this: To empower Jews to live and lead with courage, resilience, and a sense of sacred purpose.
This frankly isn’t so different from what our mission has always been. But it is a rearticulation for this moment of crisis, with a few key points:
- We must continue to support leadership, including rabbis and cantors who are on the front lines of caring for their congregations—both those who are among our Hevraya and those who aren’t yet.
- We must also serve other leaders: Lay leaders, Jewish professionals, and Jews who lead schools, organizations, businesses, communities, and families—again, including those who are already part of the IJS community and those who are just finding us.
- We must serve Jews, whether or not they hold formal positions of leadership. As one of our great teachers Parker Palmer writes, “Leadership simply comes with the territory called being human… As long as I am here, doing whatever I am doing, I am leading, for better or for worse. And, if I may say so, so are you.” This is of a piece with our own IJS Torah: Simply by virtue of being humans who live in an interconnected relationship with others, we exercise leadership. Our work serves this large group, too.
- In addition to courage and resilience, which are so necessary right now, IJS is distinguished by grounding our work in the reality of our relationship with the divine, what I refer to here as helping Jews live and lead with a sense of sacred purpose. We teach this practice because we believe human beings were created in God’s image, breathed into being by a divine breath, and put here to serve and protect creation (l’ovdah u’lshomrah). While a mindfulness practice can help manage stress and anxiety, we are not only another mindfulness app we are an Institute that teaches a Jewish approach to spiritual living.
Beyond rearticulating our mission in what I hope is a succinct and powerful way, it is also important right now to state our strategic objectives. Given that we cannot know when we may be able to resume regular retreats, for the time being we have to assume that all of our work will take place through virtual means. The very encouraging news here is that we are in a better position than many others to do this. We have a functioning online platform, revenue-generating online courses, experience teaching via Zoom, and a rich archive of material we can share. We will leverage and build upon these resources in the coming days and weeks with the following key strategic aims in mind.
- We will offer valuable teachings and experiences in service of our mission. The key word here is offer. We must be generous and be perceived as such. This is not a time to be transactional. The Jewish people needs us right now and we must show up for them. If we demonstrate generosity in this moment, it will be reciprocated when we ask for the support we need to operate.
- We will be an ark in the sea. Over the last 20 years, IJS has been extraordinarily successful in seeding the ground of Jewish mindfulness. We are a tree that has sprouted an orchard. And yet in this moment of economic crisis, many of our saplings are struggling. To switch metaphors, our job in this moment is to be a Noah’s ark for the many Jewish meditation teachers and smaller Jewish mindfulness organizations who do not have the infrastructure we have. To that end, we should wisely and smartly engage the fellow-travelers in the Jewish mindfulness world, invite them to teach for us, and promote their events.
- We will grow our audience. Before this crisis, I frequently said that IJS is the most important organization that most people have never heard of. This moment is an opportunity for many more people to learn who we are and what we have to offer. People want and need what we have. We will energetically engage with partner organizations and market ourselves so that far more people know IJS’s name than before, have joined our email list, and are benefiting from our offerings.
It is crucial during this period that we stay true to our values. I believe the following can serve as our north star during this intense moment:
- פיקוח נפש דוחה את השבת – Pikuach Nefesh: Saving life is the greatest of Jewish values. In the current situation that means that everyone’s first priority must be to take care of themselves, their loved ones, and other human beings. We have adapted our sick leave policy to this effect, but more broadly this value translates into recognizing that all of us are profoundly affected by the crisis and will only become more so in the days and weeks ahead. We will be understanding, supportive, and caring for ourselves and one another.
- אדם בצלם אלהים נברא – Adam b’tzelem Elohim nivra: All people are created in God’s image. This is always a value for us, and we cannot lose sight of it. All humans are endowed with the dignities of infinite value, equality, and uniqueness. Even and especially at this acute moment, we must maintain a broad field of vision that includes the most vulnerable, those who are apt to be marginalized or forgotten, and to ensure that our teaching and our work includes the full range of human beings.
- עת לעשות לה׳ הפרו תורתך – Et la’asot laShem heferu toratecha: This is an exigent moment and it calls for extraordinary responses.
a. We will be flexible. In addition to the toll of illness and physical suffering, we must adjust to the profound changes to the rhythms of our lives. We will do our work as we are able, with creative schedules when we need them.
b. We will do less, better. We will be judicious and wise about what we take on and what we leave behind, prioritizing those things that can best advance our mission and strategic goals.
c. We will be responsive, not reactive. We will move quickly and skillfully to respond to the demands and invitations of reality as it shifts.
d. We will be disciplined. As much as we need to be entrepreneurial, we have to do it smartly and with respect for our colleagues and teammates. We will ensure that we work as an efficient and aligned team, following processes and procedures for committing organizational resources.
e. We will communicate. We will ensure transparency in communications for members of our team and keep our board and supporters regularly apprised of and engaged in our efforts.
f. We will have faith in each other. We will support and encourage one another. We will show gratitude. We will maintain an environment in which we can be passionate about our work, both because the world needs us and because we want to keep our business going.
- פותח את ידיך ומשביע לכל חי רצון – Poteach et yadecha umasbia l’chol chai ratzon: We will operate with a spirit of abundance. As our own individual worlds become confined to the walls of our homes, it will be beyond tempting to fall into a narrowness and constriction of spirit. Yet I return to what I wrote at the outset: We have what we need. We have a Torah and outstanding teachers for this moment. We have people who love and support us as an organization. We have an online platform. In short, we have the essential things to make it and even, with cautious optimism, to grow. So we will remind each other of that and continue to hold open our minds and hearts.
None of us have ever faced anything like this before. It is utterly new and unprecedented. We cannot anticipate all of the challenges to come. At the same time, IJS’s own Torah teach us that, on a certain level, this moment is an intensified version of much of life in general. The challenge of remaining open, grounded, wise, compassionate, courageous and resilient in the face of the reality of suffering is always with us. Right now we feel it even more acutely. So we must encourage each other, remain focused and disciplined, be forgiving, caring, and loving.
This is the moment we’ve been practicing for. We will rise to the occasion.
With blessings for health and courage, with gratitude and faith,
Rabbi Josh Feigelson, PhD
The phrase “community of practice” is one of those bandied-about terms that seems particularly suited to Jewish spiritual groups: Community and practice – how obvious and how obviously beneficial!
And yet, it’s also not so simple. Just because you happen to share a profession, a craft or a practice with a group of other people doesn’t mean that the group will in fact be supportive or a good learning environment. The stories to the contrary are many and we might even say that particularly in our individualistically oriented society, the difficulties of communities of practice sometimes seem to outweigh the benefits.
One way to address this is to think of creating communities of practice as a spiritual practice itself. We can start by setting explicit intentions. By setting an intention, we have an anchor that we can return to – again and again – when we notice that we have moved away from the intention.
Those of you who have participated in IJS retreats know that we begin each retreat with guidelines about creating intentions around safety. They include things like being aware of judgment arising and trying to hold it with curiosity instead of conviction; assuming and extending welcome; allowing people to listen to their own inner voice, even when we think we know what it should say; “double confidentiality” which gives people the space to say something vulnerable and not have to revisit it unless they so choose. These guidelines help create intentions for a community of practice that supports the participants in the community in doing their own deep work of truth telling and loving kindness.
In your communities of spiritual practice, what are your intentions? What kind of community are you intending to create? What kind of transformation are you hoping to cultivate? What are the conditions that will help facilitate that? How do you communicate them to the entire community?
It sounds easy – and it’s not, even in the relatively small and temporary context of a retreat. But, as those of you who have participated in IJS retreats also know, the effort is worth it. As our summer retreat season closed, we saw once again the true power of a community of seekers, coming together and finding a safe environment, the way the heart can open, bonds can form and deepen, awareness expand. And those experiences can give us inspiration and fortitude to take with us as we continue on our way.
Last week we offered a meditation retreat for activists from across the country, thanks to a grant from the Nathan Cummings Foundation in memory of Rabbi Rachel Cowan. At the end of a few days of cultivating a loving heart through meditation, prayer and silence, the participants shared their thoughts and experiences of connecting contemplative practice with their work as activists. Several of them expressed the tension between the rage they felt in response to their own experiences of oppression which then fuels their work and the healing power of reaching out – and in – in love. It was such a relief to immerse in love. But what about the justifiable anger at all that is hurtful and unjust in our world?
This question caused me to reflect in turn on an experience of conflict that arose in my own life. In the aftermath of my own anger and hurt, I struggled with my habitual response of withdrawing, of creating greater separation between myself and the other. I know that separation may initially feel comforting, but it also brings greater suffering. I often teach the midrash that says that when God separated the upper waters from the lower waters on the second day of creation, the lower waters wept over the separation. Out of compassion for their anger and hurt, God refrained from saying “It is good” and indeed the Torah does not include that blessing for the second day. Separation does deepen suffering; in fact, one of the aspects of the suffering is that when we are in its grip, it is more difficult to reach out in love.
And yet, as one of the participants commented, aren’t we all deeply yearning for more love?
Perhaps the answer is to hold it all, to make space for the anger and hurt, these difficult but important human experiences that both protect us and separate us from others. After all, separation was essential for creation to happen. The practice can be not to get stuck there. From the separation it is sometimes possible to reach out again in love which can lead to healing. In the case of the conflict I experienced, the conversations that took place afterwards created a new sense of closeness and understanding. That is not always possible. But even when it is not, to reach in with love and compassion for our own suffering can be a transformative intention. And that itself is a blessing.
We Jews are known for being big talkers. We are stereotypically a people of a lot of words, of arguments, of big ideas, of strong opinions. I remember once speaking to a Catholic boys’ school in Missouri. The first kid raised his hand and said, to his teacher’s mortification, “Our science teacher is Jewish and she talks fast, too. Do all Jews talk fast?” (I quickly said, “Yes!”) It’s not surprising that people frequently raise their eyebrows when they hear what IJS does and ask, “How do you get Jews to be quiet?”
We are coming up to the end of our “kayak trip through the Omer,” as our colleague Marc Margolius has been guiding us, weaving our way through the middot, or ethical traits, that prepare us for the splendor and awe of revelation at Mt. Sinai on Shavuot. On Shavuot, we are told, we get to re-experience the moment of great mythic meeting between the Divine and ourselves, a direct experience of communication with the Source of Life itself, lovingly distilled into Torah, the wisdom for a good life that has been handed down – and yes, discussed and argued over – for generations.
There are all kinds of midrashim about what actually happened at Mt. Sinai. What is striking is how many of them veer away from the Biblical narrative that describes a noisy, thundering encounter and suggest instead that the surprising thing about Sinai was how quiet it was. In fact, it was so quiet that people for once could hear that kol dmama daka, that subtle quiet Voice that is speaking all the time.
I have been reflecting recently on all the unexpected places we might hear that same voice if only we would stop talking and listen instead. I have participated in a number of diversity trainings over the past few months and am appreciating the transformational power of really listening to unique voices of queer Jews and Jews of Color. Through my family I am connecting more with people from other countries and other religions and the more I listen, the more I sense how the life force that flows through them all takes on different garments in sometimes difficult but always marvelous diversity. (That is like Torah itself – sometimes difficult and always marvelous, because Torah too is a garment for Divinity.)
Our teacher Sheila Pelz Weinberg sometimes says that the word “wait” can be considered an acronym for Why Am I Talking? As we are dedicating ourselves to better communication – with each other and with God – perhaps a good first step is simply to listen.
In our people’s mythic calendar, this is the time of year that we are journeying from the Red Sea to Sinai, from Passover to Shavuot. For me the annual pilgrimage started, as it does most years, when I made the journey to my parents’ home for Passover. And as usual, each time I boarded the plane, coming and going, I whispered the traveler’s prayer to myself.
I love tefillat haderekh, the traveler’s prayer. I love how it asks that we arrive at our desired destination alive, in joy and in peace. I love how it names a list of crazy uncontrollable things that happen in the world and asks God to protect us from them. I love how it asks that we might be seen with loving eyes by all who meet us and that our endeavors be blessed. I love how it makes a claim that our prayers are heard.
I must confess that it felt particularly poignant to be saying this prayer in the aftermath of the shooting that happened at the Chabad synagogue in Poway this week. I heard all the piercing questions arise: How can we reconcile the reality of our violent world with the claims that God is listening to our prayers, that there can be such a thing as safety, such that we can actually trust strangers? The traveler’s prayer seems suddenly unspeakably naïve.
And yet, I know that the traveler’s prayer comes from a time when traveling itself was a terribly dangerous thing to do. Instead of traffic jams and flight delays, the list of possible obstacles on the road includes ambushes, bandits and wild animals. It is precisely when we are feeling most vulnerable that we can open our hearts in prayer.
The truth is I don’t say the prayer because I believe it will actually keep the plane in the sky. I say it in order to mark the fact that I am on a journey that is out of my ordinary routine. It is a way of setting an intention for new experiences, to remind myself that the destination is always life, joy and peace. It’s a way of taking sober stock of the precarious state of the world, of the common fragility of life and all the things that make me – and all of us – so terribly vulnerable. And it’s a way of reminding myself that it is a practice to trust that others will in fact deal kindly and generously with me, even when I am a stranger on the road. (And most of the time, they really do.)
May our journeys this season, both physical and spiritual, be blessed along with all of our endeavors!
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