By Zachary Lasker, Ed.D.
“Get out of your own way.” The day I sat down to write this article at my favorite L.A. coffee house I ran into my buddy Harold, an honest and hard working guy with a playful and blunt manner. Harold asked what I was working on and I told him an article on how leaders could effect change. Harold’s response: “Get out of your own way.” (statement censored for purposes of publication) Bingo! Since Harold politely turned down my offer to swap seats and laptops so that he could espouse his wisdom to the Jews, I’m left to plow forward. Here it goes…
Sometimes you have step back in order to step forward. Jewish leaders stand in an exciting time of societal change and innovation that carries an opportunity to steward organized forms of Jewish life and learning in directions that will impact the next wave of generations. Shifts in technology, commerce, science, and education promote the vital importance of critical and creative thought and also open up new ways of relating to others through redefined conceptions of teamwork and partnerships. Passionate activists are mobilizing an inspiring number of communities and institutions to work towards social acceptance and equality, and while there is still great progress to be made, more individuals feel a sense of belonging and respect. Within the Jewish community, there is a cadre of emerging and seasoned leaders who are at the forefront of experimentation to engage members of our tribe in meaningful experiences rooted in Jewish thought and practice. Exciting – indeed! Easy – not at all.
A good portion of my career is devoted to the cultivation and support of professional and lay leaders in Jewish education. Many are in the midst of noble attempts to position their organizations at the forefront of the emerging Jewish future and try hard to reflect on their work with an objective set of lenses. The ability to “see clearly” is excruciatingly difficult, especially for those of us who are rooted so deeply in our work – physically, socially, emotionally, and – dare I say – spiritually. Wouldn’t it be nice if your local Target sold a pair of special x-ray/night vision/problem-solving goggles that allowed you to assess your work, aim an arrow, and shoot a bullseye of change with mighty confidence? Patent pending. In the meantime…
Imagine that you are standing at the edge of a lake. You peer down and see a reflection of yourself on the surface of the water. Below that reflection, anchored at the bottom of the lake, is an image of change. If you could just peer down to the bottom of the lake the idea would crystalize and you could move towards action. The challenge is to see through the elemental factors that distort the image at the bottom – your reflection, ripples, floating objects, and an engulfing amount of darkness in the depths of the lake. Without the aforementioned goggles, how can you calm the water in order to see clearly?
I’ve experienced the pangs of standing at the lake and straining to see clearly many times as a Jewish educator. One prominent example is the bittersweet success of the counselor-training program for rising 12th graders at the camp I directed. The blessing was that the program attracted up to 90 applicants each year. Imagine – 90 teens approaching the end of high school vying to return to their Jewish home in the outdoors for a summer of intense leadership development and friends! The curse was the limited number of spaces and high demands of the program ultimately led to about 20-25 rejections each year. That’s 20-25 teens whose camp journey ended with a note that read “There is no longer a space for you in your Jewish community.” For years I struggled to see a viable solution at the bottom of the lake (and by “lake” I mean the bottom of the swimming pool in Southern California). I see now that I was in my own way. Let me explain…
Get Out of Your Own Way: Five Obstacles to Seeing Clearly
One source of inspiration for my Jewish leadership is yoga, a practice through which individuals create space for self-reflection and growth. Similar to the dilemma described above, the ability to stretch, twist, bend, invert, and breathe is a challenge as is the opportunity to be self-reflective about how your disposition on the yoga mat relates to how you approach issues of tension and stability off the mat. The postures are often more accessible than they seem if the yogi could get out of her own way. Sound familiar?
Sages of yoga point to five particular obstacles that restrict our ability to see clearly, but which can be overcome when the practitioner operates with intention. Jewish leaders and yogis share much in common and each can sharpen their vision through a mindful attempt to overcome these obstacles.
We all get caught up in a lot of guesswork and assumptions and do not allocate enough time to being observant (no, not that kind of “observant”). We can heighten our awareness by tapping into our inner anthropologist and observing human behavior before affixing a caption to it. I must be present, acknowledge that I arrive to my work with biases, ask questions, listen, and open up to changing my opinions. To overcome ignorance I push out of myself and investigate alternate ideas in both expected and unexpected places.
The second obstacle is our sense of pride and self-importance. I am not the object of my leadership; my purpose is to do right by the people I lead. While it is certainly important that I conduct myself with self-respect and keep my own soul nourished, I must be willing to take risks, embrace constructive feedback, and let go of those ideas which speak more to my interests and pride than to the interests and needs of others. This points to the value of collaborative work, asking for help, and pursuing the best idea regardless of whether it is your idea.
I believe it was Tevye who proclaims, “Here in our village of Anatevke we have a tradition for everything – how to eat, how to sleep, even how to wear our clothes.” Traditions can be a source of inspiration, a positive bridge between generations, and a sensible way to avoid reinventing the wheel. At the same time, most of us latch on to programs, models, and ways of working out of nostalgia, fear of rocking the boat, or because “that’s how we do it.” I must routinely ask myself what elements of my work reflect a sense of unhealthy attachment and are counterproductive to my goals.
If attachment lies on one end of the spectrum, aversion is at the other end. It is important to be honest with myself about the territory of my work that I avoid because it doesn’t interest me, it opens doors I prefer remain shut, and/or it forces me to confront discomfort that is more likely a temporary growing pain than chronic and ongoing. My guess is most of us can name our aversions quite easily, which is the first step towards a healthy and positive confrontation. It can be quite telling to consider the new tunes I avoid because they are not the ones I’m used to using in prayer, the person I hide from in the hallway because we just don’t see eye to eye, or the item I eliminate from a meeting agenda because I don’t want to go there.
The final obstacle that clouds our ability to see clearly is fear, a force that can be a thread that weaves together the previous obstacles. I am worried about what I might hear when I ask certain questions (ignorance), scared of putting myself on the line (ego), nervous of stepping out of my comfort zone (attachment), and frightened of what lies inside the Pandora’s box I’ve sealed shut (aversion). The truth is that leaders face greater risk in stagnation than in experimentation. Fear can be notably reduced when leaders mobilize their stakeholders to be partners in transformation and share the joy and burden of effecting change.
Looking back at the problem of the counselor-training program I see in hindsight how these obstacles were my stumbling blocks. The future of the program needed distance from my memories as an alumnus and I needed to confront the issue head on to push past my fear of experimentation. How might I have better served my camp community if I listened more closely to the experiences of acceptance and rejection that my teens reported and their hopes for the next leg of their camp journey, put aside my attachment to the tradition of the program, and formed a team committed to identifying no fewer than five solutions. Incidentally I’m pleased to share that the next leadership team of the camp took these very steps and is en route to trying a new model. Bravo!
Seeing Clearly for a New Future of Congregational Learning
(or any organized form of Jewish life and learning)
There are many creative thinkers who are giving thought to how they might retool Hebrew school to be more engaging and impactful. Whether the model had ever been successful is a question with a range of answers. I know some Hebrew school graduates who attribute their Jewish literacy and positive identity to their school experience and others who feel differently. Regardless of the past, we stand now among a national movement to reframe congregational learning.
In the forward thinking podcast, Judaism Unbound, Dan Libenson relays a story of a person who sets out to create a new hammer because the one he is using is uncomfortable. As Libenson points out, the goal here is somewhat misguided. The design of the hammer is secondary to the objective of getting a nail in the wall in a safe and efficient manner. Perhaps the solution is to put down the hammer and engineer an entirely new system for getting nails into the wall. We are limited in our perspective when we confuse the vehicle for the goal.
Hebrew school is one type of vehicle, but not the goal? What is the purpose of congregational learning for our kids? Take a huge step back. Is the current school model the right tool? Perhaps it is and perhaps it is not. I encourage our leaders to work with intention to overcome the obstacles of imagination – ignorance, ego, attachment, aversion, and fear. The solution might become clearer through honest self-reflection and conversations with your clergy, lay leadership, faculty, and learners.
Dr. Zachary Lasker is director of Melton & Davidson Education Projects at William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary and a certified yoga instructor. Previously he served as camp director for Camp Ramah in California and as a teacher in day and congregational schools.