By Rabbi Mychal Copeland
Oh, how I complained. In my many years doing Jewish organizational work, I moaned about periodically tallying up my interactions, arguing that my time and our money would be better spent doing the work itself; connecting, programming, organizing, counseling, inspiring. Especially as a young professional, tracking and recording felt invasive to my constituents, seemed like wading through red tape for its own sake, and I worried that it would lead the staffs I supervised to feel like our principle goal was to count people like sheep for funders. I fought it tooth and nail; I was afraid I’d lose my soul as I painfully entered into a database as many interactions as I could stomach-and remember. Meanwhile, I preached to my staff and lay leadership the importance of the one-on-one connection above all else. I believed (and still do) that the greatest impact in a spiritual community is made by knowing people’s names and truly hearing their stories.
Over the years, I slowly started to come around. I saw how recording interactions could benefit my work (perhaps my memory couldn’t hold the information anymore). I became more sophisticated in my leadership, learned that I needed to be accountable for my work, and began to understand the link between funders, fundraising and reporting. But I still only sluggishly input names and dates when pushed.
It wasn’t until I started working for InterfaithFamily, an organization that meticulously records each and every interaction, that the teaching I had long recited became integrated into my work as a rabbi: Every person was created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of the Divine. I realized that whether someone is asking me for something small or immense, the encounter could be profound if I entered into the exchange with the mindset that each person is a universe. Each person must be counted, because each is worthy of individual attention and support. They need to be counted-because they count.
At InterfaithFamily, we strive to be the Jewish organization that says “yes” after people have heard too many “no’s.” That doesn’t mean we don’t have our own boundaries as individual professionals or as an organization. It means that we say “yes” to having a deep interaction regardless of what someone seeks.
We track counseling encounters, program attendees, couples seeking an officiant for an interfaith wedding, and Jewish professional meetings that help us create synergy and partnerships. Every two weeks we enter that information into a log along with significant breakthroughs and ways we are deepening and furthering our work. That information is reflected in a monthly report that shows whether we are spending our time in the right areas and meeting our goals. As I am recording this information, I remember that so-and-so probably had the baby; it’s a good time to reach out and see if I can be helpful with a welcoming celebration, connect them with a partner organization specializing in new parent groups, or introduce them on email to another new family in their neighborhood. Another couple is about to move cross-country; they might appreciate being connected with colleagues in the Jewish community in their new city. No one falls through the cracks.
What I experienced once I started bringing a “counting” mindset to my work was overwhelming gratitude. People are shocked that I give them time. They can’t believe I call them back. They are beside themselves when I follow through immediately, sending them materials and ideas after our interaction. I am pleased. And I am dismayed. Where have they been? Which front desks have they approached only to be looked at as if they don’t belong? Did no one notice or call when they quietly stopped paying dues after 25 years? Were they treated as a nuisance to be handed off so someone could get on with their “work?” For a community that cites Abraham and Sarah’s open tent ad nauseam, we rarely live up to our ancestors’ welcome. I am not even broaching the subject, here, of the assumptions we make about people based on appearance, Jewish knowledge or parentage, and our obsession with Jewish credentials.
Many of us profess a commitment to radical hospitality, but are we living it? When I am compiling my reports, I ask myself: Did I go above and beyond what I needed to do to make sure this individual I am “counting” feels embraced? If they were to reflect on our encounter, would they feel they had been respected and seen as a holy being? Did they leave the interaction feeling more connected to Judaism and our community? If they are outside the scope of my organization’s mandate, have I done all I can to connect them elsewhere? Did anyone fall off my radar?
Many of the out-of-the-box organizations meeting the needs of younger generations approach people with an “every person counts” mentality. It is a slow process, but it is the most deeply satisfying for both professionals and those whom we serve, and our best shot as a Jewish community to speak to younger generations yearning for connection and individual attention. In the end, everyone wants to feel like they matter.
In truth, I still squirm if I feel a recording system violates individual privacy, and I am careful not to aim numerical targets too high for us to reach without compromising the individual touch. I still sigh when I need to hold off on a meaningful interaction so I can compile a report. I do not purport to be a model “counter” and still complain, but I am fully onboard. Wherever my rabbinic path takes me, I will carry this dedication to the individuals with whom I interact, and the need to count them.
The psalmist tells us that we must number our days, to make every day count, in order to attain a heart of wisdom. I am grateful for my work as a Jewish professional. Every day counts, because each and every interaction counts.
Rabbi Mychal Copeland is the Director of InterfaithFamily Bay Area and editor of Struggling in Good Faith: LGBTQI Inclusion from 13 American Religious Perspectives.