Making Everyone Count

 

Part of a yearlong Torah series on building and builders in Jewish spiritual life.

 

The book of Bamidbar (“In the Wilderness”) begins with instruction to take a census. Literally, the Hebrew instructs Moses to “Lift up the heads” of the whole community. (Well, sort of: the original instruction was to lift up the heads of men capable of bearing arms. Today we have different understandings of gender and who counts.)

“Lift up the heads” colloquially means to count people numerically, and also implies uplifting heart and spirit so that everyone counts and knows that they count. This twin meaning has profound implications for building the Jewish future.

In a physical building context, a general contractor must know how many people are on the build team. Even more, she needs to know each individual builder’s talents, and how to uplift each person to best deploy the skills most needed for each building task. It’s a simple pair of instructions that asks heart, care, and curiosity.  Who are our potential collaborators? What are their skills and gifts, their passions, the unique contributions to the work that each of these people is uniquely well-suited to make? How can we, in our build teams, “lift up each head?”

We have to really know each other to know what work will most inspire. Is my fellow builder someone who wants a discrete task, or will they best thrive with flexibility and latitude? How do they best communicate? What kinds of things do they like to do, and what kinds of tasks are likely to enervate them — or to energize?

One of Bayit’s grand experiments is a rotating leadership model, in which everyone takes turns serving as chair. This model was inspired by the story of Reb Zalman and the rebbe chair. Reb Zalman z”l used to teach from the head of the Shabbes or festival table — and then invite everyone to rise, move over one seat, and let the next person serve as the “rebbe.” In inviting everyone at the table to sit in the “rebbe chair,” Reb Zalman taught that leadership comes through us, not from us, and that leadership is temporary, not permanent.

We evolved our leadership model to uplift values of collective engagement and collective responsibility, balancing collaborative decision-making with clear channels of communication and responsibility. Each of us has the opportunity to step up and then step back. We also built into our system the assumption that folks can “pass” on serving as Board chair if their name comes up in the rotation at a time that doesn’t work well for them.

As we move into our second year of this leadership model, we’re discovering that it doesn’t work exactly as we anticipated. Some folks opted to “pass” on serving as chair for reasons we didn’t anticipate – not only for busy times in work or life, but also because not all of us have the spaciousness to develop the skills and passions to hold responsibility for the whole and help “lift up the heads” of others. Collectively, we recognized that sometimes our passions and talents aim in different ways.

Good leadership asks the person who is leading to really see the people she’s leading. It asks the person who is leading to hold leadership lightly enough that roles and responsibilities can be shared, and to hold leadership strongly enough to give others confidence that there’s a hand at the helm. It asks the flexibility to shift leadership plans and models in response to realities at hand. It asks inner flexibility to step forward decisively and gracefully, then step back decisively and gracefully.

Bayit isn’t alone in this leadership development journey. Every Jewish organization should ask itself hard questions about who should lead, how they should lead, and how best to lift others into leadership. And of course, leadership takes many forms. In a synagogue, for instance, there’s likely to be any number of roles – whether rabbi, cantor, education director, executive director, board chair, board treasurer, fundraiser, etc. — plus other roles that don’t necessarily have titles: community elders and sages, “den mothers,” angel donors, cleaning crews and more.

In Jewish mystical tradition, God is One and is manifest in the world through ten sefirot, qualities such as lovingkindness, boundaried-strength, and balance. Each of those qualities is different, and each one is necessary. What would happen if every Jewish organization approached organizational development through that lens — ensuring that every leadership structure has and balances a diversity of skill sets and qualities, each integral to the whole?

Moses knew that community leadership is also community service. He knew that community leadership requires really seeing the people whom one is privileged to serve. It’s easy to imagine leadership vertically — the leader is at the “top,” and everyone else is at the “bottom” — but the servant-leadership model inverts that hierarchy.

God’s first instruction to Moses this week is to take an accounting of who’s in the community, to uplift each soul for who they are and what they bring to the table. In the Jewish community and in the world, we need to recognize who each of us truly is and how each of us is best called to serve. That’s the only way to build a Jewish future stronger and more whole than the sum of its parts.

 

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

 

First Build

With gratitude to our many collaborators, partners, friends, colleagues, teachers, advisors, and fellow builders:

First Build

First Build: Bayit Impact Report 2019 [pdf]

Our mission, and vision, and animating principles. Our inspirations, and our advisors. Our partners, and our funders. What we’ve done during our first year, and what we aim to do in year two. Where we’ve been, and blueprints for where we’re going.

Comments / questions welcome. We look forward to building with you in 2019.

(Download the PDF file above, or go to the Annual Reports page on the Bayit website.)

Why We Wanted A Sounding Board

 

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From the beginning, we’ve wanted to have an advisory board for Bayit — a diverse group of thoughtful, creative, smart people to help us steer our work. It’s good to have brainstorming partners. It’s good to be able to seek advice. And most of all, we want to avoid groupthink.

Bayit’s builders are diverse in certain ways (different denominational and spiritual backgrounds, for instance) but we have a lot in common. We see the world in shared ways. That’s a good and valuable thing in a group of partners and collaborators, but it also means we’re likely to miss things. We wanted an advisory group in part to help us think outside our own box.

We took a few months to think about what we would want from such a group. We took another few months to ponder who we would invite to join such a group. A couple of us spent a while batting around possible titles for such a group, because we agreed that “advisory council” sounded too formal. The name we settled on was Sounding Board. To us, that connotes a group who will listen, offer suggestions, and help us refine our thinking and our plans.

The folks on our Sounding Board aren’t responsible for what Bayit does or doesn’t do. They’re not setting Bayit policies or attending our Board meetings. Rather, they’re our thinking partners, invited to give us honest opinions and diverse viewpoints when we reach out with questions both theoretical and practical. They’ll help us think outside our own box. Sometimes they’ll disagree with us (or with each other), and that too will be for the sake of heaven.

We’re starting with a group of eleven extraordinary individuals, anticipating that our Sounding Board will grow over time. Members of our Sounding Board teach at or lead multiple seminaries and institutions of higher education, among them Yeshivat Maharat, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Academy for Jewish Religion (NY), Vancouver Theological Seminary, the ALEPH Ordination Programs, and Washingon University at St. Louis.

One member of our Sounding Board is a co-founder of the National Havurah Committee, an organization that for decades has been revitalizing Jewish living and learning. Some are spiritual entrepreneurs who have founded new communities, paradigms, and institutions, from The Well to Hevria to to Hineni: the Mindful Heart Community. Some are leaders in congregational contexts. Some are mystics, contemplatives, teachers, writers. All are builders.

We’re honored that this group of amazing individuals is willing to think with us, brainstorm with us, argue with us, and expand our perspectives as we build. Welcome, Sounding Board.

Building a Gingerbread Bayit

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“Mom, let’s build a gingerbread house!” Maybe my nine year old got the idea because he was building a LEGO set while watching The Great British Bake-Off. He’s been on winter break from his elementary school, and for us that means lots of playdates, LEGO creations, and bake-off on Netflix. It also turned out to mean an opportunity to notice three lessons about building the Jewish future through baking a gingerbread bayit with my kid.

  1. The importance of good plans

I’d never built a gingerbread house from scratch. Fortunately the internet is full of advice on how to make a gingerbread house that has a reasonable chance of staying up. Step one was research. Learn what my forebears have done: what’s worked, what hasn’t worked, and what principles undergird the successful attempts so I could do my best to replicate them.

Rabbi Google suggested that in order for a gingerbread build to be successful, one needs templates (like these, provided by the New York Times) — and one needs to plan ahead. The most reliable recipes call for mixing a fairly stiff dough, baking house components, and then letting them rest for a few days to grow solid enough to be used as building materials.

Fortunately my son got the gingerbread building bug early enough in his winter break that we had plenty of time to research building techniques, shop for ingredients, make our dough, and let the cookies cure. If you want to build a sukkah or host a seder or celebrate Shabbat, you too can draw on the wisdom of received tradition… and if you get the idea a few days in advance, mah tov (how good that is!), because it gives you time to question, learn, and lay in supplies.

  1. Balance structure with spontaneity

A gingerbread bayit’s pieces need to be planned, measured, baked, cured, and assembled — that part takes readiness to follow a plan and accept the wisdom of received tradition. And then it needs to be decorated — that part takes creativity. In the collaborative duo of my son and me, one of us was more interested in planning and the other was more interested in decoration. (I’ll let you guess which one of us is which.) Meta-message: in assembling any building team, make a point of balancing skills, competencies, and interests.

Our sages had a lot to say about the appropriate balance of keva (structure or form: think the structure of a service, which is always the same) and kavanah (intention or heart: the emotion that we bring to the pre-established words, or the creative / interpretive versions of those words we can offer alongside or instead of the traditional ones.) In all of our building — whether we’re assembling a morning service, a Tu BiShvat seder, or a gingerbread home — that balance is how we enliven the forms of received tradition. Just don’t smear royal icing on your siddur.

  1. Make it beautiful, make it your own

Jewish tradition includes the concept of hiddur mitzvah, “beautifying a mitzvah.” This is the reason for elaborately decorated ritual items (candlesticks, kiddush cup), sacred spaces (sanctuaries, sukkot), and other meaningful objects (tzedakah boxes, mezuzot.) In making our ritual items and sacred spaces beautiful, we show extra love and care for the tradition, for our Creator, and for ourselves.

If you’re building a gingerbread bayit, this is a principle you’ve got to apply, along with gumdrops, rainbow sprinkles, and powdered sugar “snow.” No two gingerbread houses are the same, and that’s the whole point: the walls may be cookie-cutter, but their decorations shouldn’t be. And my son’s taste in gingerbread house décor may shift as he grows.

Just so with all of our building, edible or not. As a kid I loved the Passover seder because I got to belt out the Four Questions and then I got to hunt for the afikoman and get a prize. As an adult, I’ve loved building my own haggadah, and I thrill to the question of how to work toward freedom from constriction not only on an individual level but on a communal / national one. Making the seder “my own” means something different in my forties than it did in my twenties or in my childhood. And that’s as it should be. Responsiveness to our own change is baked in to the tradition.

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Authentic spiritual life asks us to take all three of these seriously. To plan and learn and question and research and build. To honor wise structures and solid foundations even as we let our spiritual creativity soar. And to bring beauty, and our own growing and changing hearts, to everything we build.

Gingerbread sukkah next fall, anyone?

 

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By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.

Denominational and spiritual diversity

Many_Hands_(16859686419)Bayit’s core group of founding Builders is denominationally and spiritually diverse — and that was a conscious choice on our part. Spiritual diversity matters to us. Jewish life is made out of many different priorities and practices and ways of “doing Jewish.” From the beginning, we knew we wanted Bayit to reflect that diversity too. 

The organization’s founders have roots in, and a track record serving in, every major branch of Judaism from Reform to Orthodoxy.  Some of us are proud denominational Jews. Some of us self-identify as post-denominational or trans-denominational Jews. Some of us are both / and Jews, identifying as denominational Jews and as part of the transdenominational Jewish renewal movement. We grew up secular, religious, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox. Those of us who are rabbis attended both denominational seminaries and transdenominational seminaries. Those of us who are laypeople come from backgrounds that span the denominational spectrum too.

Beyond our denominational diversity, we’re also spiritually diverse. Some of us are mystics who write love poetry to the divine, and some of us are rationalists who find most mysticism uncomfortable. Some of us experience God through music, some through liturgy, some through philosophy, some through poetry, and some aren’t sure we experience God at all.

Some of us have spent years immersed in non-Jewish spiritual practice, including Zen and transcendental meditation. Some of us have spent years immersed in Yeshivish (a.k.a. “ultra-Orthodox”) learning. Some of us use feminine God(dess)-language, some of us use masculine-God language, some of us use gender-neutral language for the divine, and some of us do all of the above depending on situation, audience, mood, or the phase of the moon. (Just kidding about the moon. Mostly.)

Some of us daven (pray), given the choice, entirely in Hebrew. Some of us daven, given the choice, entirely in English. Some of us would prefer diving into a daf (page) of Gemara to davening at all. Some of us hold a second ordination as mashpi’im (spiritual directors) and are trained to companion others on the journey of ongoing spiritual formation. Some of us write poetry, some of us write music, some of us write blog posts, some of us write quarterly reports and nonprofit documents. Most of us fit into at least two of the categories listed above.

These various diversities aren’t accidental. As our dreams of this organization began to coalesce, we agreed that spiritual diversity was not only a strength but a necessity. 

We’re also aware that while our spiritual diversity spans a wide spectrum, we’re not yet a sufficiently diverse group on other axes (especially race, sexual orientation, and gender identity). The next post in this series will explore other diversities, including the ones where we’re still laying the foundations for future growth.

It’s fun to work with colleagues who aren’t all coming from the same place, spiritually speaking. Because we come from different denominational backgrounds, and favor different modes of spiritual practice, we’re able to recognize and meet the needs of a broad cross-section of the community. Because of our differences, we know in our bones that there’s not one “right way” to do Jewish or to do spiritual life. Because we learn so much from each other, we know in our bones that we will be enriched as we learn from all of those whom we serve.

 

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Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

All of us, taking up our tools together

BuildersThe founding Builders at Bayit include both laypeople and clergy. We are rabbis and laypeople, lawyers and educators, fundraisers and administrators, rooted both inside and outside the denominations.  I am a layperson working with a group that also includes talented and enthusiastic clergy, and together we aim to help define and redefine our collective Jewish story. Why would I want to even consider doing such a thing?

My answer to that question is rooted in my own spiritual journey. For many years I had nothing to do with my Jewish roots. I was so far removed from Judaism that the only way I knew it was time for a major holiday would be to read about it in the newspaper or see it covered on the local TV news. The Judaism I had known was vacuous. I believed it had nothing to offer.  

I wandered in the proverbial wilderness for decades, looking for a spirituality that was meaningful, that was urgent, that was “modern,” that felt real. I was looking for a practice that didn’t feel stuck in the past, but could incorporate the best of history with the modernity of today. I was seeking a way to more fully understand, to more deeply experience, and to know the awe of creation.

I found a path back in to Judaism through the trans-denominational phenomenon known as Jewish renewal, and that path led me to collaborating with the other builders at Bayit.

What excites me about we who are building Bayit is that we are all deeply committed to a Judaism that seeks to be be personally transformative, wonderfully rich, and deliciously communal. We aim to connect seekers with spiritual technologies that can meet their needs. We aim to build both with and for those who want more, and need more, than may have been offered by the Judaism they inherited.

To those who have found Judaism empty, we say: stay and experience how much more Judaism can be. For those who are already deeply practicing your Judaism, we say: join us in going deeper still. Bayit can assist all who want to take a deep dive into their Jewish life and into spiritual life writ large.

As we build together, we intend not to be bound by convention. We intend not to be bound by what was done before or what worked or didn’t work before. Ours is a boundary-crossing approach, a post-denominational approach: an approach that intentionally brings together clergy and laypeople, congregations and solo practitioners, traditional pulpit contexts and “pop-ups,” people and communities rooted across the denominations and also people and communities rooted outside of the denominations.

To whet your appetite: one of our initial keystone projects is an Innovation Pilot program, a spiritual lab where a variety of congregations both across and beyond the denominational spectrum will try out new ideas and practices, and will report back on what worked and did not work and what might be done differently next time.

What ideas do you have for what Bayit might do and be?  There are no “should” or “musts.” We are open. We are excited to partner with individuals and organizations. We will be there with and for one another as we explore new ideas/tools/approaches that help to continually renew our Judaism and make that Judaism every bit as relevant today as it was for our ancestors.

My hope, my aspiration, my prayer, is that we at Bayit can provide tools and spiritual technologies to enable people to fully and deeply experience all that spiritual practice can offer. Core to our philosophy is the idea that all of us can be (indeed: must be) builders of the Judaism that the future needs us to co-create. Building a renewed Judaism is not the task of clergy alone. It needs all of us, taking up our tools together.

 

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Steven Green

Keystone Values for Building the Jewish Future

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בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים
כָּל־הָאֶזְרָח בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל יֵשְׁבוּ בַּסֻּכֹּת.

“For seven days, you will dwell in booths:
All the citizens of Israel will dwell in booths.”

(Leviticus 23:42)

Master Builders who preceded us refined principles for building the Jewish future in their own days and ways.  Bayit’s keystone values evolve from theirs, much as their values evolved from their teachers, up through Jewish history’s centuries of architects, builders and decorators.

Here are some values by which we aim to align all that we’ll build together.  Fittingly for builders, we anchor these keystone values in Torah’s call to build booths and dwell in them for the Jewish festival of Sukkot.

  1. We’re All Builders and Dwellers: Democratize Experience

All … will dwell in booths” (Lev. 23:42).  The upshot is clear: an authentic Jewish future worth building must be for “all.”

“All” invites everybody and excludes nobody.  “All” refuses qualifiers and disqualifiers. “All” is radically inclusive: whoever you are, you’re welcome.

“All” shouldn’t be a radical idea.  If inclusivity seems radical, it’s because inclusivity hasn’t always been so, well, inclusive.  Consider what you believe Jewish life most asks to be built.  Whatever your ideas about who isn’t part of it, or can’t or won’t be part of it, those ideas point to what’s most important to build.  The Jewish call is to include the excluded.

“All” also means that we’re “all” builders, not just dwellers.  A desert-wandering tribe (then), and a globally dispersed Jewry (now), are too large and diverse for any centralized team of sukkah builders to do the building for everyone.  Thus, the only way for “all” to heed this call to dwell is for “all” to pitch in and build – and to expand the very idea of building to include “all.”

It’s not only “do it yourself” (DIY) Judaism, but that there’s no other Judaism except DIY.  The Jewish call is the call to do.  “All” are called to “make” Shabbat (Ex. 31:16); same for tzitzit (Num. 15:38); same for a sukkah.  To Rabbi David Ingber, “We need a Judaism with calluses on its hands and dirt under its fingers.”  Essentially, we need a Judaism with builders’ hands.

That’s our first principle: we’re all builders.  In Talmud’s words, “and all Your children will be … builders” (B.T. Berakhot 64a).  Everything we do must inspire and support the universal call to build, the experience that is the foundation of Jewish life. Read more

Master Builders: Shaping the Call to Build

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Today’s Judaism is a dwelling with many rooms, built over centuries by framers who adapted, remodeled and occasionally rebuilt anew what came before.

Among today’s builders of Judaism, we – meaning us founding builders at Bayit: Your Jewish Home, and you reading this blog – all inherit a very ancient and very modern call to build.  In building terms, we all stand on a foundation that a diverse group of master builders audaciously helped frame in their own ways and in their own days.

Here are 12 of those visionary framers – in a sense, a tribe of builders.  Some are working today in real time, while others project their continuing influence from foundations laid in past decades or even centuries.  We draw inspiration from all of their examples, with gratitude to all the creative build teams hard at work.

Clay Christensen.  As modern prophet of the economics and political sociology of “disruptive innovation,” Clay offers vital leadership around design thinking and the life cycle of building itself.  By its nature, the process of innovation challenges and sometimes disrupts old structures, in a continuous flow that itself will be disrupted in time. Clay’s teachings inspire our sense of why and how it’s worth taking risks to build, and not merely tolerate but rather warmly invite tomorrow’s builders and the builders that will follow them – knowing that what’s fit to build today might or might not best serve tomorrow.  Clay thus also teaches about the potency (and even the necessity) of sometimes un-building.

Marcia Falk.  Liturgical, poetic, scholarly, expansive and subversive, Marcia inspires our intuition that texts can be alive, grounded with deep and ancient roots while also yearning to be shaped into new structures for today and tomorrow.  Marcia’s groundbreaking The Book of Blessings is a beacon for soulful re-mixing – one part living artwork, one part blueprint, one part muse – and a model for some of the best of blueprint creativity.

Rabbi Art Green.  Art combines the towering insight of a world-renowned scholar with the soft and overflowing heart of a loving grandfather.  As leading academician, Art’s strategic vision has shaped countless clergy building the future of Judaism – first at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and then at Hebrew College, helping pioneer a fiercely trans-denominational ethic in spiritual formation and Jewish expression.  Art’s scholarship adapts ancient tools of Jewish mysticism to modern users, bringing neo-Hasidism’s riches to thousands.  Art also rolls up his sleeves and generously offers thought partnership on designing new pathways for Jewish life. Read more

You’re Building the Jewish Future – Yeah, You!

unnamed-2It’s an audacious idea – that a Jewish future needs to be built, or that we (or anyone) can claim the inner wisdom, the know-how, the tools, the chutzpah and even the right to do the building.

But if you’re reading this post, you’re part of that team – a growing circle of builders taking the Jewish future into your own hands.  Because let’s face it: the Jewish future is in your hands.

This call to build isn’t a risk-averse negative – like shrill sirens wailing alarmist warnings of the “ever-disappearing Jew” – but rather a welcoming and realistic positive.  The Jewish future will be exactly what people make it – nothing more and nothing less – so why not focus on the realities of building and builders?

That’s exactly what we aim to do.  Welcome to Bayit: Your Jewish Home.

Bayit is a start-up committed to helping build a soulful, inclusive and meaningful Jewish life for all ages and stages.  Partnering broadly with individuals and communities, Bayit will develop, test, refine and distribute tools for a Jewish future always under construction.

In the coming weeks, we’ll introduce Bayit and the various “rooms” of the Bayit “house.”  We’ll share some “Big Thinker” design influences and big-hearted inspirations.  We’ll introduce the diverse Bayit folks building behind the scenes – across generations, denominations, service contexts and skill sets.  We’ll float big questions about what “works” and how we know (and whether we know!), what real design thinking is about, how wise building tools can best connect heart and head, and some initial projects that will be the foundation of Bayit.

For now, we begin with The Builders Blog. Read more