Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Monks, Dogs and Leadership

In spite of the many channels of television programming that Cablevision offers, there are times at which I've already seen every Law and Order (and their spin-offs), can't convince anyone in my house that The Big Lebowski is worth seeing for the 300th time, am bored with American Idol, and find A Shot At Love With Tila Tequila to be just, well, annoying. At those times, I have discovered Animal Planet. A favorite is Divine Canine, a show that features the Monks of New Skete.

For the uninitiated, the Monks of New Skete are THE go-to guys when it comes to living with a dog ( Their books, tapes and television program boil down to one big idea: To raise and train a dog means exerting leadership.
Leadership is also where the action is when we talk about education (including Jewish education). It is through leadership that we develop our profession and unite to build communities of Jewish living and learning.

So, since leadership is in fact, the key to raising dogs and to improving education, we should be able to transfer our learning from one to the other. To test this out, I've been working with Dixie, a native of West Virginia, whose ancestors appear to have been of Shih-tzu and Terrier backgrounds. Since she was rescued from a shelter and brought to our Long Island home, we've used some of what we know about leadership to see what works and what we can apply from our learning.

And so, here is my list of Educational Leadership Lessons Learned from Working with Dixie:
  • The true test of leadership is not what someone does when they're on a short leash, but how they function when they are off leash.

  • Work hard, play hard.
  • Whether learning or working, food is important. It's a great motivator, a welcome reward, and provides an opportunity to bond.

  • Go for the premium food and for decent accomodations. As a leader, it's important to let others know that they're valued.

  • Part of leadership is appreciating that others have skills that you don't. I can't make it to the front door in 2.8 seconds to attack the mailman [not that I'd want to attack the mailman!]. My job is to know that those skills exist in my pack and to maximize how those abilities are shared and utilized.

  • Opportunities (as well as threats) are often perceived more quickly by those who are closest to the ground than by those who are higher in the pecking order. E.g., I sure can't spot a tasty looking squirrel from 100 yards away!
  • There will be those "I-Thou" moments ( at which you, as leader, and others (canine or human) are truly in synch and aiming towards a common goal or vision. Those are the times at which real progress and work get done.
  • As a leader, you will be required to pick up poop. Doing so doesn't make you a special person; it's part of the responsibilities that leaders accept. So, get over yourself!

  • Leaders may have graduate education (or not), but they need to learn from what all others bring to the table (or to the dog bowl, as the case may be). Dixie continues to teach me the simple joys of sitting and watching the world.
Happy Leadership!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Get Outta Town! - A Proposal for New Yorkers Entering Jewish Communal Service

When I spent a semester as a college and yeshiva student in New York, I was advised to "never marry a New York girl; they are so used to buying take out that they don't know how to cook."

It was not until decades later that I moved to Long Island and found that the advice was incorrect. In the eleven years here, we've been invited to many homes as guests and have found the cooking to be just fine. Having said that, it is, in fact, incredibly easy to keep Kosher and not cook in New York.

Matter of fact, it's easy to not have to work hard to do anything Jewish if you live in greater New York. Whether you're in Montauk [the eastern tip of Long Island] or Parsippany, New Jersey [the western edge of many New Yorker's definition of "civilization"], or pretty much anywhere in between, you're less than 30 minutes from a weekday morning minyan or a decent Kosher knish. This is a wonderful thing for those who live here, and bad news for those rabbis, Jewish educators, and other Jewish communal workers who often were raised and trained here.

A story to illustrate my point. Once, my family was vacationing in Savannah, GA. We happened to wander into a local synagogue, and, as is my style, decided to do some rabbi-to-rabbi networking. The conversation went like this:

Rabbi Schmendrick [not his real name, but a good description]: Shalom Aleichem

Notorious R.A.V. [not my real name either, but a good description]: Aleichem Shalom. Nice to meet you. How long have you been rabbi here?

Schmendrick: About a year now.

Notorious: Oh, still new here? Where were you before?

Schmendrick: Brooklyn.

Notorious: Oh, and where did you get semicha [ordination]?

Schmendrick: Brooklyn.

Notorious: Oh, and where are you originally from?

Schmendrick: Brooklyn.

Notorious: Uh-oh.

So here's the thing. It is true that the greater New York area has more Jews than the rest of the solar system. And less real understanding of what Jewish America or the Jewish world looks like. There is an unfortunate assumption that Jewish life is easy all over and that if everyone modeled their Jewish community after New York [or just moved here] all would be well.

My experience tells me that this is not the real situation. We spent a number of years enjoying the Atlanta Jewish community back in the day when the closest Kosher restaurant was in Miami, about a ten hour drive. I led high holiday services in Laredo, TX, where some families drove 3 hours to Corpus Christi for Kosher meat. And during a vacation trip to Vermont, I had two communities ready to scour the entire southern portion of the state to help me make a minyan for Kaddish, as they would for their own congregants, even though all they knew about me was my e mail address and that my father had died a few months earlier.

Many of our friends here in New York do not understand how (or why) anyone can be Jewish under those circumstances. They also fail to grasp the deep commitment to Jewish life that exists in the "fly-over states."

And now to the rabbis, Jewish educators and Jewish communal workers part...

It was a surprise to me to learn that few Long Island rabbis thought it worthwhile to join the NY Board of Rabbis, or even the Long Island Board of Rabbis. One rabbi noted that "I don't have enough time to spend with the rabbis in my own town, how am I going to find time to spend it with rabbis from all over the area?"

And as a Jewish educator, I know that it is impossible to make an impact on the New York community; it's just too big. Maybe a person can make a difference in one town or one county, if they're lucky.

So, New York born and trained Jewish communal professionals don't know how powerful it is to live in a place in which you know every single other Jewish communal professional in the community by name; communities in which all rabbis sit together and address real issues: responding to Jewish community needs, taking a stand on social action issues, interfacing with clergy from other faith communities with an aim of improving the total community.

And if you don't know that these things are possible, then your training in woefully deficient.

My modest proposal: Institutions that train Jewish professionals should require that all students spend at least six months working in "real America" (for my purpose, I'll include Canada. Hell, I'll even through in Mexico!). During that time, they can better learn to appreciate what it means to have to stretch in order to be Jewish, but also the power of uniting for the issues that really matter.

Lenny Bruce ( said that "If you live in New York or any other big city, you are Jewish. It doesn't matter even if you're Catholic; if you live in New York, you're Jewish." What our Jewish professional leaders need to better understand is just how wonderful Jewish life can be, and often is, in communities all around North America.