By Rabbi Aaron Bisno
I first called for a Courageous Conversation in these pages in the Spring of 2011. Then, my call was a cri de coeur for collaboration; this is not that. That was then; this is now.
A decade ago, mine was an invitation to the Jewish community – and specifically to our congregations and the Jews who love and lead them – to engage in a conversation that addressed shared goals in a time of changing demographics amidst a most competitive landscape. The courageous conversation for which I called nearly ten years ago was an invitation for us to speak courageously to the then-most important matters on the horizon, all the while remaining mindful of the neighborly relationships we sought to preserve with one another.
Today … given the new reality which hit us all only a few short months ago, thereby upending of all the assumptions upon which every congregation & religious movement in North America has relied for more than a century …
Today, far more than simple courage is required of us.
So it is, I renew my call for a Courageous Conversation; however, now I am calling for a Fiercely Courageous Conversation!
Fiercely Courageous Conversations go beyond discussing “serious matters among friends” to embrace collectively the ever-present challenge that is change. As current realities reveal, change is not a one-time event; change and our adaptation to change is always and forever. Thus, the quality of the conversations we share must change, as well; and our willingness to fiercely engage with one another to realize mutually beneficial outcomes must also be without end.
Fiercely Courageous Conversations begin with caring and curiosity; they require that we bring our full selves to our dialogue – bringing both our thoughts and our hearts.
In this way, Fiercely Courageous Conversations are, by design, at once evocative and impactful. In this way, they reveal participants’ commonalities and unite partners in shared purpose.
In the words of Susan Scott, who first coined the term “fierce conversation,” in such an exchange “we come out from behind ourselves, enter the conversation and make it real.”
So let’s get real.
For all the purported high-level talk between leaders of our national Jewish movements, and for all the reports of historic congregations in a particular borough of New York talking with one another, in the vast majority of North America’s multi-congregational Jewish communities, there is all too little talk, a dearth of actual dialogue, to say nothing of their being far too few Fiercely Courageous Conversations taking place between our congregations’ leaders, volunteers, professionals and clergy, all.
This seeming lack of interest in dialogue and the absence of any meaningful discussion about our shared future among congregational leaders – national and local, and the fear our silence belies …
This current state-of-affairs is to our individual congregations’ and our collective community’s detriment.
Ten years ago, the congregation I serve added a phrase to our then-visionary strategic plan that spoke of our recognition that systemic change was needed. As a result, we began to champion synergies and to embrace new models of community. Over the last decade, our efforts at creating shared outcomes with our Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist neighbors have impacted many more Jews than any of us could have ever reached had we continued to work solo.
Surely, there are many communities that can boast similar (pre-pandemic) results. But not enough. And today? Given how much has shifted and changed and how much more will be lost in days ahead, we cannot be satisfied with past or present efforts. They are, as yet, insufficient, for even more conversation, collaboration and courage is required of us now! More than ever!
So it is that I insist, with even greater urgency than I marshaled in May 2011.
Within our multi-congregational communities – and specifically within the board rooms and rabbinic offices and the parking lots of our congregational buildings…
We can no longer abide the polite fiction that asserts how distinct our congregations are one from another; and our communities can certainly no longer afford the fear of working for shared outcomes – nor the inaction – this polite fiction abets.
L’havdil. I believe that within every community blessed with more than a single Jewish congregation, we share far too much in common and we stand to achieve far too much in partnership, for any of our congregations to remain committed to self-informed strategic plans or to independent courses of action that were ratified pre-pandemic or bear any resemblance to our congregations’ go-it-alone mindsets of yesteryear …
So it is, with renewed vigor, I reaffirm my call for leaders and lovers of congregations to open not only a “Courageous Conversation 2.011,” but here and now to commit to entering into a truly Fiercely Courageous Conversation with our neighbors about what it means to “do Congregation” in the 21st Century.”
So it is, I implore us all to take up an altogether new conversation, wherein we share honestly, listen compassionately and seek with both humility and curiosity to find common ground with our co-religionist neighbors. And to do it now! There is no time to waste! For, I believe, it will only be in this way, that our congregations are able to successfully conceive of and together create the outsized outcomes we so desperately need and desire!
It is for these reasons that I call for a Fiercely Courageous Conversation that finally abandons what Sigmund Freud referred to as the “narcissism of our small differences,” opting instead to think about, discuss & realize our shared future in wholly new ways.
Warning: Imagining a new future is more difficult than at first appears.
Why? Because we find safety in the familiar and we are protective of what we know. Over millennia (and in each of our own lifetimes, to be sure) this penchant for the predictable has caused us to grow adept at creating mental maps that help us to organize our thinking. We rely on these maps and they inform our imaginations.
Changing our thinking is, therefore, a challenge, because our relationship to these schemata are embedded far below the conscious level. Further, within these patterns, we have embedded assumptions and narratives upon which we rely to know where and who we are.
How then can amcha move past its maps? How can a congregation begin to reimagine the otherwise idiosyncratic patterns in which its members have invested so much?
Even more, how does an entire community prepare to pivot to achieve new outcomes?
There are three immediate actions we must take if our community is to successfully engage in a Fiercely Courageous Conversation that will allow us to become that which we would hope to bequeath to the generations to follow.
First, we must rigorously diagnose our own circumstance; we must challenge our own assumptions; and most painful of all, we must reconsider how our long-cherished, most-desired outcomes will be best achieved going forward.
Easier said than done, of course. Change itself is never easy and thinking our way into new ways of accomplishing a goal is even harder. After all, as Einstein taught: “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” What’s more, if Albert Einstein was correct and the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result, we would be crazy to double down on what got us here.
Therefore (and this is the second thing to be done), in order to arrive at new answers, we must ask new questions. We must stop repeatedly diagnosing our condition with the same sets of assumptions & expectations we have always employed to see “reality.”
The late brothers Kennedy, speaking with one voice, might have encouraged us thusly: Ask not, about others, Why? Get together with others and ask with curiosity, Why not?’”
Or, if you will, ask not (of self and others): “What keeps you up at night?”
Get really curious, instead, and ask: “What gets you out of bed in the morning?”
Finally, we must stipulate that no longer can any single one of our congregation solve its own challenges successfully if it insists on working solo; we need one another, for we are not in business for ourselves. And it is for this reason that we must work in concert and tirelessly for shared outcomes in the interest of the greatest common good.
Just imagine how much more we could accomplish for the widest number of Jews, if we focused on making the greatest possible impact on the widest number of Jews, rather than staking our identities on who gets the credit!
In crises, leaders have the luxury, the license and the latitude to ask questions, to take risks and to experiment on new outcomes with far less resistance than systems at stasis otherwise allow. We are in such a time now. We can do this together, so long as we are willing to be fiercely courageous and to be ever united in shared and greater purpose.
It is in a spirit of Clal Yisrael, that I urge and challenge every member and every leader of every congregation in North America to take up a Fiercely Courageous Conversation, wherein we are humble, honest & curious; wherein we ask better questions, and affirm, by our actions that: (1) we are all in this together and (2) it shall be through our sharing fiercely courageous conversations that our entire community shall best meet the future.
Chazak, chazak, V’nitchazeik …
Let us be Strong & of Fierce Good Courage … lest we allow this crisis to go to waste!
Rabbi Aaron Benjamin Bisno holds the Frances F & David R Levin Senior Rabbinic Pulpit at Rodef Shalom Congregation, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.