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